HATCHER PASS — With the distinct lack of summer tourist visitors from the Lower 48 traveling through Alaska’s State Parks, Salmon Berry Tours is offering a chance for locals to visit Independence Mine in Hatcher Pass.
When the Department of Natural Resources announced in February that Independence Mine would be closed this summer and the COVID-19 pandemic started producing positive test results in Alaska in March, Salmon Berry Tours co-owner Mandy Garcia was perusing the state website looking to find a way to put the fleet of sprinter vans used to carry summer tourists and the staff of knowledgeable guides to work however they could.
“We’ve always been small group and when we go into communities we really want to understand the communities that we’re going to, like when we go to Palmer or Talkeetna we want them to get to see some locals and get to say hello. We want them to visit the shops and the restaurants, the local places not just stop in for a bathroom break and leave,” said Garcia. “We’ve always concentrated on culture, history, heritage importance in our day tours and providing that to locals in a low cost manner was really a no brainer. Also I feel like once people have a better understanding of a place they can take it away and especially the visitors that are coming up with their family.”
Salmon Berry Tours won a bid to operate tours at Independence Mine and are is allowing visitors to enter three historical buildings on their own for no cost, provided each visitor has a mask or face covering. Garcia and operations manager Eli Wouk have taken various precautions to ensure that people entering buildings remain six feet apart. Though Independence Mine does not have running water, a hand washing station has been provided as well as hand sanitizer stations disbursed throughout the mine. Single-use masks are provided with the purchase of a tour that Salmon Berry staff is guiding through other locked buildings at Independence Mine including the mess hall.
“If there was already 120 people sitting down, they’d have a player piano going over here and one of the cool things is they used to have attendants that would stand here and before you can go and eat you have to wash up, and so the more things change the more they stay the same,” said Wouk. “They had to wash up and that was because if your crew got sick, it spread like wildfire. You’re in dormitory housing and that’s something you can’t mine in anymore if everybody’s sick and so they really really focused on cleanliness for sure to stop the spread.”
Salmon Berry tours started in 2005 and focuses on small group tours, usually with groups of visitors from out of state. Guides from Salmon Berry will man the mine every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., until September 30. All of Salmon Berry’s guides are local Alaskan residents and each guide stays in the building they work in without interacting with other staff.
Wouk said that some people have parked at the mine and gone hiking past 7 p.m. and their vehicles have been locked behind the gate and wanted to warn against hikers leaving their vehicles at the mine past 7 p.m. Salmon Berry offers discounts on tours, but residents can visit the mine paying only the parking fee if they do not wish to take a tour.
Despite the lack of tourists from the Lower 48, Salmon Berry has been able to open the Independence Mine site for local residents to learn more about the history of Hatcher Pass.
“The locals are really coming out and supporting us and I just absolutely love that. I can’t thank them enough for coming out and enjoying the mine and a percentage of the proceeds goes back to the state park to maintain the trails, to maintain the latrines and such so by them even coming up here it is helping us as Salmon Berry Tours a small business, but it’s great that they can still enjoy the park because it was going to be closed,” said Garcia. “This is a gem. You’ve got the mountains, you’ve got a great trail system up here in this park and the fact that we have this heritage park here that you know really speaks about the history of Alaska or a significant piece of the history.”
Tours provided by Salmon Berry focus on the operation of Independence Mine from 1938 to 1950. Each building open to the public features a different educational aspect about life at Independence Mine. Mine Manager Walter Stoll wanted to attract miners to Hatcher Pass with 24-hour accessible high quality food, eight hour work days and even painted the buildings a bright color to differentiate from other Alaskan mines. Salmon Berry tours are not scripted, and each guide shares the details of the history of Independence Mine with their own unique delivery. Though no fatalities were recorded at Independence Mine during operation, Wouk says that tours still ask about ghost stories from Hatcher Pass.
“I’d say about three quarters of the groups that we have ask about it and so we’ve been talking to the rangers that are up here and the state parks employees up here,” said Wouk. “With that passion comes so much more interest from the people taking the tour so that’s another reasons why we’re especially well suited is because we have Alaskans that work up here.”