Surveying abandoned gold-mining camps in the Alaskan wilderness

Stanford students Annalisa and Madelyn Boslough, experienced backcountry backpackers, followed the course of mountain creeks to hike to four camps where prospectors once mined the streambeds for placer gold.

By the time Annalisa Boslough won a research grant to survey abandoned gold-mining camps in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska during the summer of 2012, her field research team had two members – Annalisa and her younger sister, Madelyn.

The camps, built near creeks where prospectors mined streambeds for placer gold, are located in the rugged Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in the south central part of the state.

Their research focused primarily on the state of disrepair of four camps built in the early 1900s in the Chititu mining district, a wilderness area so remote that it takes a bush plane flight, followed by several days of hiking, to get there.

“We knew how to get there because we’d been there several times as kids,” said Annalisa Boslough, who grew up on the family’s homestead in the Wrangell Mountains, where she hiked and camped alone and with her family.

Dennis Bird, a professor of geological and environmental sciences who served as Annalisa’s faculty adviser on the project, said he was impressed by her intellect, her enthusiasm and her ability to follow through with his suggestions as she developed her research proposal.

Bird, who has been actively involved in mineral exploration/prospecting in the Arctic Greenland for the past 25 years, described Boslough’s project as a unique proposal that involved a variety of research techniques, including remote fieldwork.

The excitement of exploring an archeological site that is completely undisturbed is unlike any other historical experience.

Annalisa and Madelyn Boslough

“She did an outstanding job on a project that was of her own design, and it was my pleasure to be her academic research adviser,” Bird said.

Annalisa Boslough is a senior majoring in sustainable design engineering and manufacturing, an individually designed major. Madelyn Boslough, who was a high school senior when she set off with her sister on the field research trip, is a Stanford freshman whose prospective major is civil and environmental engineering. Madelyn helped write the proposal, conduct background research and co-write the report.

Their trek began at the family’s cabin. They traveled on all-terrain vehicles and then hiked to their first survey site, a mining camp on Rex Creek about 15 miles away. Then they set off on foot again, following the course of Rex Creek, then White Creek – carefully making their way around several scree junctions – to three more camps.

Students Annalisa and Madelyn Boslough.

Students Annalisa and Madelyn Boslough. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Among the questions they explored were: How do the remains of mining history – dilapidated cabins in groves of spruce and pine, and rusting flume pipes at nearly every bend of pristine creeks – affect the visitor experience? Should the National Park Service take steps to preserve, restore or remediate the sites?

In streambeds, they found huge piles of tailings – the boulders, cobbles and finer sediments miners left behind after combing them for gold.

Inside cabins, they found the remnants of a more recent mining era, including bedsprings, a cast-iron stove and Prohibition-era glass bottles. Outside, they found empty wood crates marked “explosives,” horseshoes, shovels and a porcelain bathtub lying askew.

In their report, they concluded that the rusting flume stock and tailing piles – which divert the streams’ natural courses and natural patterns of erosion and sedimentation – present environmental hazards that could be addressed.

“Perhaps the best use of federal funding at Chititu would be a reclamation project wholly restoring the streambed to its natural condition,” they wrote in their report, “Prospecting History and Archaeology: Remote Site Preservation and Restoration.”

They concluded that camp cabins and artifacts that do not present environmental hazards should be left in their current condition. Safety is not a significant liability, they wrote, because so few people visit or are even aware of the sites. And the dilapidated cabins – bleached by the sun, and battered by wind and snowstorms – present a unique visual history of the natural power of the wilderness.

“The excitement of exploring an archaeological site that is completely undisturbed is unlike any other historical experience,” they wrote in their report.

While few people will visit the remote Chititu mining district each year, “its isolation is part of the beauty of its history and its present state,” they wrote.

“The Chititu mining camp remains are incredibly unique and powerful archaeological sites because they are a testimony to the transience of human activities in the harsh wilderness,” they concluded. “In a world where wild places are becoming increasingly more scarce, such reminders are necessary to promote historical and cultural awareness of human presence in nature, as well as their future environmental consequences.”