12 February 2011

Chapter 48: The Saghanni Ggaay at Mother Lode

ML upper camp jig back
Jig-back tram at the rear of the ML upper camp plus two Marvelous Mine snowsheds in front of mine entry points.

        Eldon Johnson could not sleep.  He got up from his bed wearing a heavy tan-colored union suit. Most of the men slept in the full-body woolen underwear, as a protection against the elements.  It was an Alaskan pioneering tradition that all white men wore and slept in the heavy wool.  Adjusting to the scratchy wool was one thing. When it was worn and slept in several days running, a man would sometime find he couldn’t stand even the smell of himself, much less tolerate the odors of the others around him.
          At least here, we’ve got working showers.  Amazing that the engineers were able to find a way to keep them running. It’d really be rough around here without a way to clean up. Smelly, too.

          It was cool to the point of being uncomfortable, even with the radiators running, due to the constant winds sucking the warmth out of the large building.  Realizing he could sleep no longer, Eldon pushed the two heavy woolen blankets and the freshly laundered sheets off himself, pulled on his heavy working trousers over his union suit and headed out his private bedroom door.  He turned left and walked up the hallway toward the mess hall. A light was flickering through the partly-open door.
          He pushed the door open to find Sato already preparing meals for the day.  The electricity was indeed oscillating. The light bulbs were dimming, then brightening irregularly.

          Oh, oh.  That’s not a good sign. The high-tension lines are probably being whipped around over on Bonanza hill.  Not good.

          Sato was facing away from him, stirring a large pot of stew on the cast-iron stove.

          All right! Sato’s got the coffee made.  Can’t sleep anyway.  Might as well sit down and play a game of two of solitaire.      

          Sato turned around and waved his hand to Eldon. He was not known to be much of a conversationalist.

Japanese camp cook
Japanese camp cook at the Jumbo Mine  --Cordova Museum

          “Eldon! I see you couldn’t sleep, either! Bring your coffee over here.”

          It was Frank, still in his heavy robe, pouring over a handful of mining maps. No one but the engineer wore a robe into the mess hall.  Frank practically lived in that seat on the south end of the long dining table. The lights over it were also flickering.

          “You live in that seat, Frank?”

          “Guess you can say that. Look out the west window, Eldon.”

          The Marvelous Project foreman took one look up the wildly-swinging line of the 980-foot jigback tram and decided the men would have to take the
long route through the Rhodes tunnel to the new vertical shaft extension.  It was the long route to the top of the workings.  

          Lord, look at what the gusts are doing to that tram!  No way am I getting on that thing.  We’re taking the tunnels today.

          The tram had been built to provide access to the Marelous workings before the Pittsburg tunnel was connected to the Rhodes by the deep ML vertical shaft.  From the ML camp, the jig-back was by far the quickest way to the upper-level diggings.  
          High overhead the winds were blasting the lightest layer of snow like a raging sandstorm off the top of the heavily-stacked snow accummulations which had developed into a long series of cornices along the top of  Marvelous Ridge . 

          It was enough to make Eldon shudder at the thought of what could happen if one of those buckets ever flipped with a man in it. Then he started thinking about the cornices high above, threatening the camp itself.  Eldon decided to think about something else. It was still several hours until the shift started. The  entire crew would be getting up for another shift in four hours.  Due to daytime melting conditions  in the upper levels of Marvelous, the engineers had decided to do all the work in the early morning hours. The only shift at ML-Marvelous began at midnight.

          The crew of eighteen included Eldon’s assistant foreman Scott Wilson.  The operation involved two working sites at relatively distant locations, so the assistant-foreman position was crucial.   The  sixteen miners and muckers were  paired off into teams and matched by nationality.  Most were Norwegians, Swedes, or Finns.  There were only four Americans, including a rough looking duo from Montana named Jeff Boyd and Darrell Everitt.   They were new to the area, but had mining experience at the Anaconda.   Then there were the two Chitina Indians, Johnny Gakona and Cap Goodlataw.

          I don’t care what anyone else says.  Those Indians are as tough and daring  and even reliable as anyone I’ve worked with. They must have come here to prove a point. They’ve certainly made one in this camp.

          The next thing Eldon knew, his assistant foreman came walking through the door.

          “Eldon! You’re up already.  Can’t sleep, either? Say, it looks downright hostile out there. Does this mean we’ll skip the tram and go for the Rhodes tunnel route instead?”

          “I sure does, Scott , I’m giving you the larger team to continue working the 400-level.  I’ll take a smaller group of six and commence work on the 100-level.”

          “That’s a long run up there.  So you’ll be the first ones working up there?”

          “They will, Scott.  I intend to begin blasting up there. It looks like the last place the old company was working.  I’m going up there to check it out for myself. I have a feeling we just might find something of interest.”

          “Feeling? Since when do engineers have feelings?”

          “Hunch.  It’s a hunch, Scott.  You’re right. I don’t have feelings.”

          “That’s a long series of raises going that direction.  No easy way up using incline shafts or elevators, only vertical raises you’ve got to climb a hundred feet at a time.  You’ll be worn out by the time you get there.”

          “Climbed through the whole area already, Scott.  It’s nothing but work just getting there, but no other way up.”

          “Or getting back down, Frank.  Sometimes it’s a hard going down as up.”

          “You’re the one who’s taking the crew up there, Eldon.  Hope you’re up to it, old man.”

          “I may be older than the rest of you, but don’t you underestimate us duffers.  We made this country what it is, you know.  I’ll be fine.  It’s you I’m worried about.”

ML barracks

Mother Lode upper camp: New
Kennecott-built barrack; old ML Company barrack & kitchen-dining
room plus what is probably the office.
          “I climbed all over the Rockies.  Already been at the top of the Marvelous and on the ridge above it making survey marks. I think I can take the physical stress.  Don’t underestimate us younger guys, either, Eldon.”
           “I’m taking the two Indians, and placing them on the blast line. I’ll team them up with the Montanans and one of the Norwegian groups.  The rest will go with you, Scott.  We may be doing some extensive blasting, but it shouldn’t affect you down there at the 400 level.”  
          “That’s fine, boss, but please warn us anyway when you’re about to blast, so we can duck.  After all, we’re still working below you. Never can be too safe.”
          “We’ll keep in close communication.  I’m going back to try to get a few more hours rest before the big night on the hill.”
          “Me too.  What about you Frank?”
          “I’ve got too much to do. Never be able to sleep now, anyway.  I’ll sure still be here when you guys get back up in a few hours.”
          The Chitina Indians were in a sleeping room next to the billiards open area.  Both were sleeping fitfully.  Johnny woke up first when he heard Scott’s door close somewhere down the hall.  The window faced south toward the gulch. It was rattling in response to the gusts.  Johnny pushed his heavy potlatch blanket aside.  Below it were two more blankets and a heavy sheet.  He reached over and felt the radiator.  It was hot, but the room felt drafty and cool. The window had no blind. It was still light outside. Johnny stood up, feeling the cold air against his bare upper body, he realized he was wide awake.  He looked out the window, became alarmed and immediately went over to the other bed to shake Cap awake.
          “Cap! Wake up.  They’re out there flying around again.”
          “It’s cold in here, Johnny. I’m comfortable under these blankets and sheets. Why did you have to wake me up? Is it time already?” 
          “I said they’re riding the wind out there.  It’s the Saghani ggaay!”
          “Now you’re beginning to sound like me, Johnny.  They’re probably just saghani looking for white man’s trash. How many?”
          “Four large ones.”
          Caps eyes opened wide and he bolted out of bed.
          “Wow, it’s cold on out here.  The wind must have really been busy to suck out so much warm air.”
          He touched the radiator and quickly pulled back his hand.
          “Hot! Boiler’s working fine.  It’s just all that wind pulling out the heat.  Whew! No wonder the white men wear those wool suits all the time.  I’m getting dressed!”
          “Look outside, Cap.”
          Cap grabbed part of his clothing and headed for the large, uncovered  window.  It was clear of frost, but rattled with the wind. Cold air seemed to seep right through the glass.  Outside was a field of bright white, making the natural features difficult to distinguish.  
          “Can’t see much of anything out there.  Just lots of heavy snow.  I don’t see any saghani, either.  Let’s go to the mess hall. It’s still early, but I’ll bet Sato’s got some coffe going.”
          Johnny looked again for himself. Nothing was out there.

         “I must have been dreaming, Cap.”

         “Don’t let that big imagination of yours get to you, Sla’cheen.  This is a spirit-place.  There’s something here that’s always with us. I know that. I’m not so sure, but I think it might be kay-yee-gay. It bothers me enough without you making it worse.”
          They wandered into the hallway.  A brisk breeze was running right up the narrow, straight passage from east to west, up the hill.
          “Just like in the tunnels, Cap.  Worst I’ve seen it in here.”
          Johnny pushed open the door into a room that was warm from hours of cooking.  Sato had been busy. The lights were flickering, but otherwise, the place seemed unusually calm, warm, and comfortable compared to outside, or even down the breezy hall.
          “Johnny and Cap. You’re up early!  You’re not the only ones.  Seems like no one is sleeping well tonight.”
          “Frank! Don’t you ever stop working?”
          “Naw! Grab some coffee.  Join me. I’ve looked over all the maps and charts I think I can stand for a few hours.”
          “Really?  Let’s shoot an early game of pool, then.”
          “Billiards, you mean?”
          “Pool or billiards. What’s the difference?  We’re still going to beat you.”

          Frank considered the proposition for only a moment.

          “It might be a little cold down there.  I’ll stop by my room and get my outer gear on.  See you guys down there.  Thanks for the invite.”
          Sato was still busy at the cook stove.  Jim Tanaka had joined him and was busy preparing lunches the men could carry to work.  Sato smiled at the three men as they left the mess hall.  Jim waved.  
          “Try your hand at pool, Jim?”
          The young cook’s assistant looked at Sato.  Sato, who had returned his attention to the cook stove, nodded without looking at his young assistant.
          “You have half-hour, Tanaka.  Come back to help with breakfast.”
          Jim’s narrow, oriental eyes widened with a child’s look of happiness.
          “Boss Sato let me go!  I’ll be right down as soon as I finish packing lunch.”
          Ten minutes later Frank and Johnny teamed up against Cap and Jim.  The room was large and drafty, but the men became completely engrossed in their game.  They were able to play two rounds before Jim realized he had to return.
          “Never played against any of the orientals before,” Johnny observed softly.
          “He plays well.  Must have had practice wherever he came from,” Cap responded.

The Mother Lode camp at the beginning of winter

“He’s from Juneau, guys.  Same as Sato. They’re probably distant relations.  The super recruited several of them from Juneau.  Look, it’s been great playing against you, even if Cap and the Jap won.”
      Cap gave Frank a stern look.
      “He told me he’s Japanese, not Jap.  I know you guys call them Japs, but I don’t think they like it too much.”
      “Sorry, Cap.  I didn’t know that.  Won’t do it again. Next time I want to team up with you.  Maybe I’ll finally beat Johnny that way.”
      Cap smiled at the thought.
      “Smart white man.”
      The wind blasted the end of the building particularly hard.  The building shuddered and the large windows rattled loudly.  A cool breeze swept through the wide room seemingly right through the east-facing wall from the downhill direction.
      “Wow, it’s getting vicious out there!  I’m beginning to think I’d rather be somewhere else. This reminds me of one of  the worst winter storms I’ve seen in the Rockies. We call them blizzards down there. As they’d say, ‘not fit for man nor beast.’
      “Odd though,” Frank said as he looked out one of the windows facing south,
“those four large ravens circling around out there don’t seem to mind this wind at all."


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