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Sulfide Mining on the Edge of the Wilderness

Ely BWCA Spruce Road Mining Exploration Site

After 30 Plus Years

The other day my friend Richard and I took a drive up to the Spruce Road which is located just south of the Kawishiwi River about ten miles from Ely. People who camp and fish on Gabro and Bald Eagle Lakes are familiar with the Spruce Road. The reason for our visit was that we wanted to take a look at one of the old mine sites that was used many years ago when earlier miners were looking for a mother lode of copper and nickel. They found both minerals, but not in enough concentration to make mining the ore bodies a profitable venture. Whenever you talk of mining, it is always done for profit.

The site we stopped to take a look at is right off the Spruce Road, but not many people driving by the open field, surrounded by woods, know that it is an old mining site. Over thirty years later, the site is still devoid of trees and other small plants, like blue berry, which normally start to take over a site once the tree cover has been cut down. The only things growing in profusion on the old copper-nickel exploration site are several kinds of lichens. Lichens are one of the oldest plants in the canoe country, and in some rocky places, they are the dominant plants. But this old mining site was drilled, blasted, and the required specimens were hauled away a long time ago. The site was covered with gravel and left to nature. I looked at the bald spot in the forest and I wondered what kept it bald for so many years. Was it something in the gravel, or did the old blasting expose enough rock to cause some chemical change that kept the pine on poplar from reclaiming the site? All I know is that this site should have grown up like the country surrounding it, but it didn’t, and that fact bothered both of us.

When we got back to the car, I heard an engine like drone that filled the woods with its dull grinding sound. It was the sound of drill rigs. The sound wasn’t deafening, but it was easy to hear. Hearing that dull drone seemed out of place in the Superior National Forest. I told Richard that if we could hear the six rigs on the Spruce Road, you could hear it in the Boundary Waters. Up until now, my only concerns have been for maintaining the quality of our water, but now I realized the impact mining would have on the audio quality of the wilderness. If six drill rigs were this loud, what would two or three mines and a railroad sound like on Gabro and Bald Eagle?

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