Editorial Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part article about Frank Baker’s father, Kenneth D. Baker who, along with a friend, operated a hard rock gold mine near Seward from 1947–50.
My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and after that I didn’t have much contact with my father, except for letters. But I had his book of poems, a ledger book annotating his mining expenses, and I recalled his stories about going up to the mine.
When my parents separated in 1954, my dad moved back to Pennsylvania. But on one of his last trips to Seward, Alaska in 1976, he provided me detailed instructions on how to find the mine site. Instead of following his footsteps up Spruce Creek, I decided to go directly over Bear Mountain, west of Seward, which was an ill-fated attempt. He was as disappointed as I that I didn’t make it.
After his death in 1984, I became more determined to find his mine site and name a nearby mountain after him. Armed with his detailed map, I chartered a helicopter out of Seward in early September 1998 and flew into the area. I was landed very high in an open bowl at about 3,000 feet. Had I examined my dad’s map more closely, I would have seen that the milling site was at a much lower elevation, only about one-half mile above tree line. It was warm and sunny with barely a breath of wind. I set up camp near a lake and searched the area for hours without finding the slightest evidence of mining activity.
Finding the mine
The next day brought a brilliant blue sky, and something told me to go downhill. After crossing a large gravel flat that was clearly indicated on the map and mentioned as an aircraft landing spot, I hiked up onto a grassy knoll for a better view. Below and to the east, beside a small stream, were the rusted metal remains of a large piece of equipment, with a lot of age-bleached boards, wire cable and steel pipes lying about.
It was a deeply emotional moment for me as I hiked down to the site, plunked down for a rest on the grassy stream bank and took in the scene. Nearly seven decades earlier my father had walked here, labored here, and dreamed of gold riches!
It was mid-afternoon and the sun was still high, so I took my time inspecting every square foot of the area; probing for artifacts from those bygone days. Strewn around the area were two gas-fueled cooking stoves, cooking pots, an old can opener, a piece of canvas, rope and a chunk of wood that looked like the runner of a sled. When I found a bullet from an 8 mm Mauser rifle, I was certain this was my dad’s site. He always used 8 mm Mauser. (I later found further confirmation in my dad’s ledger that described the Straub ball mill).
It was a two-hour hike back up to my high camp so I didn’t stay at the site as long as I wanted. On the hike back I spotted three goats on a ledge of what my dad called “Black Shale Mountain.” I later re-named it Mount Kennybaker, but my formal application did not receive enough Seward support to be approved by the State of Alaska.
On another helicopter trip in 2011, I installed markers at the milling site and atop 3,400-foot Mount Kennybaker. At age 66, I admit it was quite a difficult climb. My dad always warned me to “stay off the cliffs,” and as I slowly proceeded upward, edging myself around steep sections, I thought I could hear his voice saying “be careful!”
Atop Mount Kennybaker I was treated to a spectacular view, with Phoenix Glacier to the northwest, Bear Glacier due west and the deep blue Pacific Ocean far to the south. I took a rock and pounded the marker as deeply as I could into the ground. My sister Phyllis had died earlier that year and I spread her ashes before my descent back to camp.
On this trip I erected my tent in a hollow near the milling site. I believe dad and Forrest camped there to avoid the wind when they opted not to descend down to their main camp at tree line. For hours I hand-crushed baseball-sized chunks of ore that I found lying about. “If they spent all that energy dragging this ore from the prospect hole over here, they must have thought it contained gold,” I thought. I panned and panned the rock I crushed without finding the slightest trace of color.
Exploring the area
On another helicopter trip the following year, Eagle River’s Pete Panarese and I camped in the area for a couple of days. We hiked to the west of Mount Kennybaker toward Bear Glacier, and north to the divide overlooking Lowell Canyon, Mount Marathon and Seward. During our two days we spotted two black bears and a grizzly not far from camp. We nicknamed a large black bear “Reinhold”, after the famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner, as we watched him climb very high on a nearby mountain ridge.
Finally, on September 2, 2018 – exactly 20 years to the day after I found the site – I helicoptered there with Seward friends. It was a warm, bluebird day identical to the one when I first found the mine, except with much less snow. I savored the moment, picturing my dad and Forrest huddling around the ball mill, rigorously feeding the ore into the crushing drum. I thought of them glancing up at the knoll where they first found the gold, wondering if the mother lode was up there somewhere.
I wanted to stay longer, but helicopter time is expensive. We took some photos, straightened out the marker, got back into the bird and flew up and over the summit of Mt. Kennybaker where we saw that my marker was still in place. From there we flew northwest into Paradise Valley, which connects with the Resurrection River drainage that leads to Exit Glacier, a popular tourist destination.
In a wistful way, my father regretted not hiking to Paradise Valley, which he considered to be something of an unreachable, spiritual Shangri-La. In just minutes, a trip that would take three days of difficult hiking, we were flying through the beautiful, pond-pocked area where very few have ventured.
In his later years, my dad joked about earning more money in the market with his gold stocks than he ever did with his mine. But I could always see in his eyes and in his tone that he had forged a spiritual bond with the mountains and the land at the headwaters of Spruce Creek. My father was not a sentimental kind of a person, but in a way I think his search for gold was something akin to the line by poet Robert W. Service: “It wasn’t so much having the gold as it was finding the gold.”
In one of my dad’s poems, titled “The Conifered Heights,” he recapitulated:
“From his lonely aerie an eagle watched
While the gods were whispering an ode;
It was dust to dust by the dusty trail
Where you found the mother lode.
In that fleeting trail-bound moment
In the vista of eternity;
You saw the goal where your splinter-soul
Fulfilled its destiny.
And now the truth is before you,
Where the spirit reunites.
The wind toward you so long, long ago,
Out there on the conifered heights.”
Every time I re-visit the old mine site, I feel as if part of him is still up there, along with his friend Forrest, working the claim. And I think ever since that warm September afternoon in 1998, when I crested over the ridge and first spotted the ruins of King Midas Mine, part of me remains there too.
A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. He lived in Seward from 1946-58.