I was lucky in the late spring of 1991 when I got a call from Bob Jackson in Seattle,Washington asking if I would like to go to the garnet locality in Wrangell, Alaska. I had to move fast though as he needed me in Seattle to catch the flight in four days and I was sitting in Dayton, Ohio at the time.
I packed my bags and bought a new backpack for carrying the garnets from the locality to the pick up point. Off I went driving to the Pacific Northwest to rendezvous with Bob. After three days on the road I pulled into Seattle with a day to spare and proceeded to hook up with Bob and finish off those last minute things we needed to take on the trip to help in the extraction of the garnets. Bob and I caught the flight to Wrangell the next morning from Seattle and spent the next couple of hours cruising along. Bob warned me that the runway was very short on Wrangell and to be ready when the plane landed as the pilots would be jamming full on with the brakes! Sure as Bob said, we touched down and instantly the engines went into full reverse and the brakes were locked and as we turned at the end of the runway all I saw was water underneath out my window.
The arrival area consisted of a small wood shed about eight feet by twenty feet and resembled some small shed you would keep your garden tools in. You could see the start of town across the road immediately in front of us.
We made our way to a storage lot were Bob had a friend with a vehicle we could use and a sea freight container to store miscellaneous equipment in. We puttered around town in the borrowed vehicle gathering up food supplies and meeting with the various people who would be instrumental in helping us out to the garnet locality, which sat up the Stikine River a few miles on.
The person to see was Keene Kohrt the head Forest Ranger at the time who was in charge of the locality in the absence of a Boy Scouts of America troop. The claim was originally patented by Fred Hanford, but in his passing left the claim to the Boy Scouts of America. Keene Kohrt was the reason Bob was allowed to drill and blast for the garnets at the locality, due to the fact that Keene wanted material left loose for the locals to pick up and sell to the tourists who arrived in Wrangell by ship. The number two person to see was a man by the name of Buness who ran a boat service for supplies and he would be the one to take us up river with all the supplies for a weeks worth of digging. After all the trudging around we finally grabbed a late lunch and then checked out the downtown area for a bit of tourism before the launch of the trip in the morning.
Morning broke early for this twenty three year old and while I was trying to wake up Bob was scurrying about packing the truck with the supplies we needed and then hurried me into the broken front seat and off we went toward the dock to catch the high tide. Everything on the water in and around Wrangell seems to revolve around the tide table, which is carried by everyone in the form of a small book and relentlessly consulted to determine everything from when to shove off from shore or as it seemed to start dinner or use the restroom! Down at the dock Bob and I unloaded all the gear and waited for Buness to arrive and shore up. When the big man arrived in his skiff I just stared at how small the boat was and how big the two Johnson outboard motors were. Bob caught my stare and just laughed and said to hang on when we took off, due to the fact that Buness had a penchant for going fast. No sooner had we unloaded and parked the truck than we were shuffled into the front of the skiff with the supplies in the middle and the big man Buness rounding out the back at the wheel. What happens next to this greenhorn boating person was the stuff of probably many jokes around the campfire as we eased away from the dock and Buness started to slowly move forward. In the wink of an eye I felt the whole front end of the boat lift up to what I thought was damn near vertical. Buness had opened up the twin Johnsons to what I thought was Mach 1 to a landlubber and as I tumbled around trying to get a grip on something Bob and Buness had a good chuckle watching me get my ass settled in for the ride. I don't remember how long it took us to get to the drop off location for the Garnet Cabin, but we were sure zooming along with river spray spouting all around and the noise from the engines drowning out all thoughts that might have popped in to my head. No sooner had we taken off than we were starting to ease the throttle back and the front of the skiff settled back down on the water, so I could get a good look in front of us to what appeared to be a small inlet and a flat grassy area butting up against what looked to be straight out of a postcard a large forest with snow capped peaked mountains jutting straight vertical.
Buness eased the skiff along the banks of the grassy area and said we had fifteen minutes to get unloaded before he had to catch the tide as it was going out. Bob and I chucked everything out into the grass not worrying about how things were scattered at the moment. Bob proceed to set up the extraction day with Buness, who in turn consulted the tide table book to let us know when to be ready. After waving goodbye to Buness and watching him throttle up and away it was interesting to see the skiff from land and how far the bow stood up in the water. Bob and I started moving personal items the fifty yards up to the Garnet Cabin and then started stowing the wax covered boxes for the garnets to be packed in and the drilling equipment along with the powder to dislodge the schist.
Bob wasted no time in getting the freighter frame backpack set up to carry the drill. Bob outfitted me with the drill steels and fuel and off we hiked into the dense green underbrush of the surrounding forest. We hiked about a half mile to a small creek and followed this for another hundred yards to the locality.
I am glad Bob knew where the ledge was as I would have walked right past it and been in the Northwest Territories before figuring it out. There was green foliage covering everything for as far as the eye could see, which was about twenty feet in this area. Bob started to get the ledge prepped for drilling while telling me the story of a group of women who supposedly worked the garnet area for sandpaper stock around the turn of the century.
Bob showed me the old collapsed and overgrown adit across the creek from us and told me that Keene had one of the garnets from that era and it was the size of a man's fist and that Keene was interested in opening the tunnel up again to see if it was possible to access the underground areas where the large garnets came from. Back to the business at hand I was continuing to clear the forest debris from the ledge and Bob was getting the old SuperCobra running to start putting holes in to shoot the schist out in vertical sheets for us to then gather up. Work progressed and we had our first shot off within a couple of hours. After walking back on the freshly blasted pile of schist there were loose garnets everywhere and plates of schist loaded with garnets peppered about.
This is why Bob is a star among the field collecting community with the precision to lay out the right pattern of holes and then execute a flawless drilling campaign and onwards to the perfect shot to drop the material we wanted. It became quickly clear now what my intended job was for the next five days...pack mule!
We started stacking the schist with garnets that we wanted along the edge of the locality like cordwood. I would use the Spanish moss, which was hanging all around in the trees to pack the plates in my backpack to about seventy pounds and then hike off to the Garnet Cabin to drop and then return.
After about five or six trips this day I started to become extremely hungry, but I wanted to impress Bob by continuing to haul garnets, so I would grab a Ramen noodle packet and eat the dried noodles on the trail back to the garnet ledge...no time for water or heat! Upon returning this time around Bob told me that we would call it a day as it was around eleven p.m and still light, welcome to Alaska! No wonder I was tired; as we had started around seven in the morning and we were just now finishing up. Back at the cabin we started a fire in the freestanding stove to warm dinner up and dry out the damp clothes we had on.
For the next four days Bob drilled and removed layers of the garnet bearing schist and I sorted out the most desirable pieces for haulage down to the cabin. During the days that we were digging many locals came to collect the garnets to subsequently sell to the local tourist who arrived by ferry, which had been done for some time and was one of the reasons we were there, to create new material for the locals to collect.
For the effort, Bob was allowed to take out what we could haul and then donate ten percent of this gross amount to the local population. If I remember right we ended up with about two thousand two hundred pounds packed into the wax boxes with the Spanish moss and ready for barge shipment to the Seattle area. There were a few locals that when they came to the garnet ledge they brought fresh canned salmon that they had just caught and taken to the cannery and would then trade for already sorted garnets, which made for a nice break from the Ramen noodles I was living off of.
It seemed the locality belonged to the town folk anyway and it gave Bob and I something new to eat instead of Ramen noodles. One interesting thing to watch for when sitting on the front porch of the cabin was the American Bald Eagles that would sit on any protruding dead branch sticking up and look for prey or anything interesting to catch.
There was a giant hovercraft that would cruise the Stikine River heading south with a load of gold concentrate bags layed out on the deck from some mining operation up river for offloading in Ketchikan to then head out by barge down to the lower forty eight states for processing.
On one particular day the Boy Scout Troop from Juneau came down on the tide and camped in the grass in front of us for the night and that was a hoot having twenty some Boy Scouts running all around the area.
The day came for extraction with Buness and his skiff, so I started hauling all of the boxes off the front porch of the cabin and on down to the shoreline.
Back to town we zoomed, but the bow was not quite raising up like on the way out with the ton of garnets sitting in the middle. After unloading the boxes and gear I collapsed in the sea freight container and slept for twelve hours straight! The next morning it was time to move the boxes to the barge center for shipment south. While standing with the boxes on the pier I was accosted by an elderly woman ranting and raving about how we had ravaged the locality and stolen from the children of Wrangell, this was obviously not one of the people who had visited the locality while we were digging and pigged out on the loose garnets. I was later told that I had made the front page of the local newspaper and indeed I had!
Prepping of the garnets was a bit of a tedious task while using an air scribe to remove matrix from the surrounding area of the garnets.
Thanks to Bob Jackson for the wonderful adventure as a young mineral buck looking to explore the world!
Below is the article from the Wrangell Sentinel that was published a bit later after we had left.