Thursday, October 20, 2011

King Copper -- Prelude

There are any number of fine scenic drives around the Superior Basin: the Covered Road in Houghton County MI, Brockway Mountain Drive out on the Keweenaw, the ride up the Nipigon Palisades in Ontario and (while we’re there) the entirety of Trans-Canadian Highway 17 across the north shore of Superior all the way from Sault St. Marie to Thunder Bay, which is bordered by wonders on every side pretty much its entire length. We’ll not be taking those last two until next spring, as winter is bearing down and Mrs. Hutton didn’t raise any fools.

My favorite drive is the 24 miles or so of two lane blacktop named South Boundary Road that runs up and down and all around through splendid woods from the Park Headquarters of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness to the Presque Isle unit on the western edge of the park. It’s what you call “Seasonal”. That is it’s not plowed so in winter you travel it at your own risk. Like every other day I suppose, but more so.

To get there off the Gogebic Range, head out of Wakefield onto the slender ribbon running all the way to Marquette but instead hook a quick left onto County Road 519 to leave all that behind. In Thomaston -- which lost its post office in 1926 but was once a happenin’ place -- take a second left and you’re headed straight north into mostly nothing but a waving ocean of trees until the Presque Isle River falls out from the southeast to greet you. Then north becomes relative and after a bit you meet up with the aforementioned South Boundary Road. Along County 519 lies today’s story.

We’ve dug copper in the region for better than 5,000 years and times being tough, we’ve returned to take some more. A company named Orvana intends to dig a mine between the Black and the Presque Isle River, out in the woods near the shore of Superior. They call it “Copperwood”, designed to sound like a bucolic subdivision but reachable only via County Road 519. Fourteen years the job creators say, they’ll pound copper from hard rock and make the region worth something again. Sell the treasure on the open market so American firms can bid for our copper against the Chinese or whomever. Create jobs. Make some money. Fourteen good years maybe more, to help reinvigorate our community. Win win.

On the last day of September, a group of people got together at the Wakefield Twp. Hall. The mood was celebratory, the way it is when folk gather to slap themselves on the back for a job well done. Turns out, Orvana will contribute something less than a quarter of the $3.5 million it’ll cost to convert 519 into an industrial service road, which meager percentage was sufficient for all involved to tout the virtues of public/private cooperation, even despite 75% of the tab being left to you and me. Giddy with enthusiasm and as reported by the Ironwood Daily Globe the next day, State Senator Tom Casperson took the opportunity to exclaim: “Let’s put our people to work and let’s not accept people telling us that we’re ruining the environment. We won’t accept that.

…Together, they can’t stop us.”

They? Who the Hell is they?

The legacy of mining litters the Superior Basin like fallen leaves in autumn. From ancient copper pits on Isle Royale east to Sault Ste. Marie, which canal was dug so we could haul riches away from the place, northwest from there to the copper, gold and platinum around Marathon Ontario, southwest to the famous Wasabi Iron Range in Minnesota, across to my home turf of the Gogebic Range and finally back to the proposed Copperwood on the western edge of the Keweenaw Fault where famous mines once sprung up atop ancient pits. We’ll not escape the legacy of mining along our scenic drive and will have ample opportunity to decide for ourselves what that’s meant to the region and how it continues to inform the culture. At any rate, County Road 519 isn’t where we’ll make the case either way, as it’ a done deal.

I just wanted you to know that even before final permits for the mine have been let, work on the road has begun and is scheduled for completion in 2013.

So if you'd prefer to drive Michigan County 519 before heavy equipment rules the road and see this:

which will bring you to this,

which after a short distance ends here,

then you’d best take the opportunity sooner rather than later, ‘cause all the way from Wakefield right up to the South Boundary Road, County 519 is about to be remade into something altogether different and “they” won’t stop it.

King Copper is accepting no less.


  1. That river looks like it contains some fun natural whirlpools. Is it safe for swimming?

    It is sad that large companies are exploiting people's hunger for work to extort cash from the local governments. I'd almost rather see the mine run directly by the USG, profits going directly back to the treasury rather than an account in the Caymans. That'll never happen though.

    Looking forward to see where this journey goes!

  2. Anything but safe. The video was captured with the water about as low as it gets and still that cauldron hole just below the falls on the right is eighteen feet deep or more (I’ve tight lined it). The run down from there to Superior contains deep cuts. I’ve known two folk who’ve gone into the river in good water and managed to survive. I shouldn’t want to try it myself.

    If not a publicly owned mine then at least an enterprise in authentic public/private partnership, where we retain control of our own resources instead of just selling them off for a few jobs in trade. The entire Superior Basin is informed by what mining’s left behind since the 1850’s or so, which is boom & bust followed by mostly poverty and isolation once the money guys up & leave. And they always up & leave.

    You’d think we’d be willing to try something different…