Bears, mosquitoes, salmon, rain, and a bush camp are memories I keep from one of my first jobs as a geologist. A story in the Arizona Daily Star tells of a man who will camp out alone for a year on Latouche Island. It brought back memories of my time on the island.
Latouche Island (12 miles long, 3 miles wide) is located in the Gulf of Alaska about 100 miles southwest of Valdez. A ridge running up the southeast side of the island rises about 2,000 feet above sea level.
In May of 1971, a barge carrying our supplies, towed by an ocean-going tug out of Cordova, arrived at Horseshoe Bay on the west side of the island where we set up camp to explore for copper. There was still snow on the island; our drill rig, left there over the winter was buried under at least 20 feet, but soon became free because of the abundant rainfall. That part of Alaska can be considered a rainforest.
The history of the island is described by Murray Lundberg:
A series of copper prospects were staked on Latouche Island in the late 1890s, and the Beatson copper mine, in the northwest section of the island, started shipping ore in 1904. In 1915, with war needs greatly boosting demand (and prices), the mine was taken over by the Kennecott Corporation. At its peak period in 1917-1918, there were about 300 people working at the Beatson and almost 4,000 people on the island, most in the town of Latouche close to the Beatson mine. Expanded operations required a steady supply of coal, and to supply that need, the Alaska Railroad built spurs into coal mines such as the Janios & Athens operation near Houston.
Most of the copper mines in Alaska closed soon after the end of World War I due to falling prices. The Beatson mine lasted much longer, but with copper prices nearing 5 cents a pound, it closed on November 29, 1930. During its lifetime, the mine had produced a total of 182,600,000 pounds of copper – there were 23 other copper mines in the region, but the total production of all 23 combined was only 26,067,000 pounds.
The earthquake that hit Alaska on March 27, 1964, caused massive changes to the state’s landscape. Latouche Island was raised an average of 9 feet and moved about 60 feet to the southeast, resulting in discoveries such as stumps from a forest that was submerged below sea level and buried in prehistoric times.
Latouche had been abandoned for many years when we arrived. We set up camp on the beach at Horseshoe Bay. That area is now a state marine park. Our water supply was a stream spilling into the bay. Our only contact with the outside world was our weekly food delivery by sea-plane from Cordova, which we supplemented by fishing. Salmon were very easy to catch, especially during the salmon runs at low tide. The tidal portion of the stream was so thick with fish that we could just wade in and grab them. We also managed to catch halibut. We occasionally had the company of passing professional fishermen who were seining for salmon.
There were many very large bears on the island, but we left them alone, and they left us alone. Our camp cook, Jim, was getting jealous of our tales of wildlife encounters. One day a troop of bears passed close to camp. Jim ran out with his camera yelling “Hey bear.” Probably not a wise thing to do. However, as Jim approached the bears, two sat down and posed. Jim got his pictures.
We had a helicopter to move our drill rig around the island, but most travel was by foot or by boat. When traveling by boat, we were often followed by porpoises. We folks from the desert also had to keep track of tide tables. More than once we found our boat stranded high on the beach at low tide. And once we made the opposite mistake, returning to the boat to see it anchored, unreachable in deep cold water. We had to walk several miles back to camp.
After two years of exploration effort, our company decided that the copper deposits were too small to be of interest, so Latouche Island was once again left to itself.
I do have a sad memory of Latouche Island. Three of our company, Berne Baetke, Sal Ramirez, and Mifflin Smith, were traveling back to Arizona aboard Alaska Airlines flight 1866. That flight crashed into a mountain near Juneau on Sep. 4, 1971. There were no survivors.
For more information, I came across a book by Decema Kimball Andresen, a 94-year-old woman recalls her childhood at Latouche Island during the early days of mining there.