Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bear Head Lake to Gitche Gumee

2,341 feet underground, this surreal complex detects neutrinos fired from a lab near Chicago, through the ground.

8:30 a.m.

Incredibly humid, a fog still over the land. Awoke about 6:30. Quiet. Tossed all night, but still felt rested.

Walking to the bathroom, other campers sitting silently, I imagined they’re miserable, kept awake by my snoring, thinking evil thoughts of me.

Clothes still soaked. I think I’ll need to find a laundromat today.

10:00 a.m.

At the Soudan Underground Mine State Park: it's already hot. I had to decide between the "Physics Tour" and "the historic mine tour". Since the physics tour is offered only 2 or 3 time a day, I decided to try that one. If I really wanted to go back down later, I could then take the historic tour. ($9.00 for each tour)

"Anybody claustrophobic?" Our guide says they're required to ask. Standing outside the nearly vertical shaft, I almost panicked as we were about to load into the tiny cage that would be lowered into the mine. I began looking for a way out, should I not be able to control the wave of adrenalin. “This is ridiculous!”

Fortunately, it subsided. The car arrived at the surface. A worker inspected the cage. "No bats." Six or seven of us stepped inside, the door latched behind us. We were lowered by a "very strong cable" into the darkness. The guide had a small light, which she directed outside to the shaft wall, just inches away. As the rock strata raced by, occasionally there would would be a snapshot of a dark void, the different levels within the mine.

The pressure increase caused discomfort in the ears. It took several minutes to reach the bottom of the shaft. Finally, we came to rest aside a small cavern.

"Okay. Try not to think about how much earth is over your head and what a tenuous connection there is to the fresh air far above. Don't think about power failures, or earthquakes, or flash floods." Of course, I didn't think about these things. I was very busy convincing myself that "people do this all the time" and live to talk about it.

A sign on the platform tells us we're 2,341 feet down, and 689 feet below sea level. From this same platform, the historic tour moves onto a small train and ventures off into the mine's recesses.

We, however, are led into a huge hanger-like space, an underground cavern-turned-science project. This is MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search).

"MINOS is a five kiloton magnetized tracking calorimeter designed to observe neutrino events from the NuMI beam. If the beam is different at MINOS from what it was at the Near Detector, the neutrinos oscillated in transit. Observation of these oscillations would be conclusive evidence that neutrinos have mass." Elementary, my dear Watson.

The "NuMI beam" is a beam of neutrinos sent from the Tevatron high-energy accelerator at Fermilab, near Chicago, about 420 miles away. The beam travels through the Earth's crust. The beam strikes the detector plates here at Soudan, and the nature of those strikes tells something of the particles in the beam. I guess.

The cavern is brightly-lighted and air-conditioned (the scientific equipment generates so much heat that, even though the ambient temperature is about 50 degrees, a massive air conditioning system is required.) Scaffolding, catwalks, offices, banks of electronic equipment, an enormous detector plate grid, masses of cable, educational displays, and on one wall, a huge, brightly-colored mural, full of scientific symbolism.

We are reminded that every piece of equipment, all the concrete, steel girders, ducting, machinery, vehicles - everything was transported down the same tiny shaft we traveled. There is no other way. And when the project is complete, because this space is actually being leased, everything must be taken back out. This is difficult to fathom!

Half a mile underground.

The physics tour was fascinating, but now I was really curious about the historic tour. Returning (safely!) to the surface, I learned I was too late for the 11:00 historic tour, which was just boarding. Took a break to have a cream soda and chips at the Soudan Market.

At 1:00, I had no apprehension about going back into the mine, even though the historic tour group was much larger. The shaft is at a 78-degree slope. It's no coincidence that this is the angle of the iron ore deposit within the mountain.

We rode down into the mine in a car just like the one on the left (but it was standing on end.)

This tour is led by a short, stocky middle-aged gentleman with a gritty blue-collar demeanor, but good sense of humor (the pony tail sticking out from under his hard hat kinda gives it away. If he had a crew cut, I wouldn't be s sure.) He tells us the rock is 2.6 billion years old – "there's no organics, so we don’t need a canary."

Again, he shines his light on the shaft wall as we sink into the depths. Everything's fine, until we step off the platform and onto the train that will carry us off. This is no Disneyland ride, this is the real thing! The scary part is heading away from the loading platform into a small dark tunnel and continuing for a VERY long time (though it was probably only 5 minutes), away from the only exit. My worst nightmare is to be buried alive. (I was reminded of one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen: The Vanishing - the original French version.)

I tried not to think much about cave-ins, breakdowns, panic-attacks, explosions and such potential disasters (after listing in my mind all the possibilities, that is.)

Not a great photo, but try to imagine the feeling of going off from the loading area, into this small, dark tunnel, knowing you're nearly 2,400 feet underground, there's only one way out, and you're going AWAY from it - far away. The train took us 3/4 of a mile off . It wouldn't have taken much to send me into a full-fledged panic at this point! We ended at the last, and deepest recesses mined before the operation ceased in 1962. An outstanding tour, and experience!

The train took us ¾ of a mile into a “drift” (horizontal tunnel), to the location of the last, and deepest working site when operations ceased in 1962. 50° down here, they say. It was very chilly, particularly when riding the train. But the air was fairly dry.

We came to a stop near an ant-farm-like chambered area. The last excavations. About 15 miners worked this cavern. Incandescent lighting strung overhead provided some sense of comfort.

The ore runs in columns, so the different working levels were stacked one atop another. The ore would be broken loose, then dropped through a shaft in the floor to a pile on the level below. From there is was loaded onto cars and moved to the elevator shaft.

At first, mining was done by candlelight, one person holding the steel "drill" bar, while two others took turns hitting it with a sledge. At first, no friends were allowed to work together (to discourage unionization.) The bosses even organized it such that teams were comprised of immigrants speaking different languages.

In those days, there was no train ride out the drift to the work site; they walked the tunnel, and probably in the dark. Candles came out of their paycheck, so they were used sparingly.

The guide moved over to a control panel and suddenly turned out the lights. For a few moments we stood in complete darkness. Then, he lit a candle to show how it might have been working this space by candlelight. Teams were widely scattered in the cavern, so that solitary candle was really the only light.

"Now imagine the candle resting on a ledge, you're holding the drill, and the guys swinging the sledges aren't your friends."

He blew out the candle, then flipped a switch. Manikins wearing headlamps suddenly appeared in different recesses. Later, headlamps were introduced. Still, it was not much brighter. Even with the advent of electric lighting, they never bothered to light the work sites.

"Now imagine it's winter. You go to work in the morning; it's dark. You come here; it's dark. You go home at night; it's dark. You work six days a week."

Pretty close to Hell, I'd say.

I had to admit that reaching the platform again was a relief. Once outside the mine, I breathed deeply.

"Okay. I've now been in a mine. I don't think I ever need to go in another."

(But it was an outstanding experience.)

Down in the hole. The loading area. Waiting for our ride up. (I like the one clear image in the group; assist provided by guy on the right - kind of like an "alley-oop" in basketball.)

A few miles away, in Tower, I stopped again for a drink. It was in the 90's. Across from the grocery, I spotted a laundromat and decided to take care of those wet clothes I had just stuffed into my top box this morning. Inside, there was a machine labeled “Mine Clothes”.

A grimy, muscular fellow came in and loaded his clothes into the machine. “You don’t wash these at home. You don’t even take them home.”

One final bit of business in this area: I wanted to visit the International Wolf Center in Ely, a short ride east.

Entering town, I was surprised to find it full of outfitters and guide services. A community with vitality, lots of young people and adventurers. This is the gateway to the "Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness" on the U.S.–Canada frontier. There are 1,200 miles of canoe routes up there. Bars, restaurants and coffee shops support the effort.

The Wolf Center is on the east end of town. A fairly new facility with educational exhibits, wolf mythology and folklore, video presentations on wolves in captivity and in the wild and expert talks. I was barely able to "scratch" the surface. As with the Indian homelands, the White Man, with his “European idea of property rights” was in direct conflict the wolf population.

At the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN. This is "Malik", a White Arctic Wolf (a sub-species of gray wolf.)

"Malik" with "Grizzer", another gray wolf.

Extermination of wolves (and other wildlife) was undertaken on a massive scale in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A local log showed bounties paid on wild animals (1907-9):

Crow $0.10
Hawk $0.25
Wolf $10.00
Wolf cub $4.00
Wild cat $3.00

At the "Front Porch Café" in Ely, I found a wi-fi hot-spot and friendly welcome. Good food and the first REAL coffee I've had in a long time.

Searching for a break from the heat, I looked for a campground once I reached the Superior lakeshore. Darkness falling, I started to see fireflies in the dense foliage. Wonderful creatures! 4 or 5 campgrounds I tried were all full. Resigned myself to driving all the way to Thunder Bay and taking a motel.

Then, just short of the border, I came upon the "Judge Magney State Park Campground." Didn’t even recall seeing it on the map, but they had a spot open!

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