Entries in Atikokan (1)

Sunday
Jan032010

THE STEEP ROCK IRON MINE

Originally written July 2002 for submission to Explore. More recent images of this fantastic location can be found here. 

If you’re heading up North this year, or maybe making a run across Canada, there’s a special stop to make— a side trip to an unusual place that tour guides ignore. More interesting than the tourist-choked Ouimet, ‘Grand Canyon of the North’, and more impressive than nearby Kakabeka Falls, the Steep Rock Iron Mine (SRIM) hovers above the town of Atikokan, Ontario.

Those who wander out the backroads past the adrenal taphead of the local motocross track will encounter a place that’s hard to forget. This is an abandoned open pit mine, once the site of an entire industrial complex. It’s currently in the process of natural reclamation, the hard lines of erosion benches and rock cuts melting serenely into a background of green brush. A man-made canyonland, now empty, bordered by Hazardous Area markers and signs that are only the ghosts of signs. Blind Exit 50 feet. Danger. Keep Out.

Sounds good to me.

Easy access, baby 

You don’t have to sneak around to visit this site. This is Northern Ontario— a land where residents leave their doors unlocked when they go on holiday. Factor in that everybody knows it’s there and nobody but the absentee landlord really cares and you’ve got prime infiltration territory. Since the land is currently slated for “passive recreational” use, you can get away with anything short of waste disposal or marijuana cultivation. In fact, assuming that you’re not dumping a body, the only ones who’d really give a hand smack are local Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) representatives, who don’t want members of the public accidentally getting hurt on their turf. As a plus, it’s untouched except by locals, because it’s off the beaten track and unadvertised.

This mine is central to several bureaucratic paradoxes. The government doesn’t want everyone to know about it, but it’s so visually striking and the local economy has depended on it for so long that most residents feel it has the draw to become some sort of attraction. It’s impossible to predict what direction this movement will take, but the best time to visit is before it gets a fence around the edge and someone starts charging admission at the gate. Right now it’s ripe.

Although I would not recommend climbing the open mine faces and stepped rock walls (notorious for caving in), Steep Rock is ideal for activities of the ripping recreational sort. This is a slice of offroad paradise; local trails abound. Take your mountain bike to explore the sideroads, or go one better and haul out the dirtbike or ATV. In winter bring your snowmobile or cross-country skis. The mine is huge and offers more points of interest than the average tourist trap— and more hazards too. Which makes it an interesting challenge for any of the hardier sort...

 

                                                                           Warehouse and buried buildings from entrance

 

If you must visit, the MNR only wants you to come with a local or a retired miner, someone who knows the area and its inherent dangers. My guide today doesn’t fall into either category, but he’s a government employee who has had the benefit of knowing both. He’s got an affinity for unique landscapes and sites with their own sort of geographic magnetism; this is his ninth visit and third trip around the rim. We’re sticking to the edges, leery of the trails that head off and disappear. “You could get lost on the side roads,” he stresses. Not if you can memorize landmarks and backtrail tire tracks left on a dirt surface, I think— because, privately, I’m marking positions in memory for later exploration. I will study their location on a site map and check them out at my leisure, because this is my summer vacation and I love visiting places that defy the mundane. Standing on a gravel embankment at the edge, I’m suddenly dizzy. You know there’s places like this, but to find one… 

The canyon is huge: a couple kilometers long, at least another across. There’s a vertical drop of maybe three hundred meters from the highest walls of Errington Pit to the lake below. The floor is a valley of emerald water and pine trees, much like a mountain lake but without glacial peaks to account for that particular shade of green. It’s peaceful and quiet, open to explore.

We stick to the overlooks, skirting the edge, stopping to examine ruined buildings and enjoy the clearest views. A little ways along the loop road we come to a confluence of red puddles. It rained the week before; the Atikokan River rose six feet overnight and flooded parts of town, creating a localized disaster zone. The rain did good things here, though: the hard lines of a working pit are gone. The water looks to have risen about twenty feet; it’s climbing the edges of the pit. Before the rain, there were two lakes in the canyon; now there’s a single long undulation. There’s plenty of mud and runoff gullies in evidence too. “Here’s where we turn around,” my guide says. What? Roads my mighty Honda can’t take? Unheard of! A wiggle and twitch of the wheel and we’re through. This place is red and scrubby and looks like the Australian Outback, but the crushed slag’s not that tough. Besides, I pack a spare.

We push on. Five minutes later we’re climbing slickrock chunks. This a different sort of gravel—large fragments of crushed rock that pop sideways from under the tires. I reconsider. The roads are kind of rough, although they owe more to farm country than the logging truck death roads of true North. They’ve been graded, possibly by the MNR, probably earlier in the year. Someone has acquired a quarrying permit, so for a full quarter of the way around the East side of the rim the dirt trail is triple wide— there’s enough room for a herd of dumptrucks. My guide tells me that it’s always been this size. (The road is impressive, but the real hard core equipment, the 50-ton Lectra Haulers and earthmovers, are long gone. This operation shut down in 1980.) Halfway around the gravel shifts to pavement, greying with age and exposure, frayed by runoff down the edges. Parts of this route are rippled and stream carved; in one spot a creek carves straight down the center of the road. Then come the moguls— a long series of wavelike ripples that drivers have taken the shoulder to avoid. But they’re passable and kind of fun. Easy does it, that’s all.

This is a place weighted with history. It came into being because of the steel demands of WWII, but wasn’t actually producing until the Korean war was in full swing. Around the time the Nazis were sinking ore supply ships from their U-boats, the American administration realized it was going to fall short of raw material for war industry. The Canadian government volunteered to do their part. Surveys had already indicated a large hematite ore body in the bed of Steep Rock Lake, a remote but promising location, conveniently close to the American border. The idea behind the mine was noble— sacrifice a lake to feed the war effort— but this attitude basically handed carte blanche to the sponsor companies for the standard rape-and-pillage open pit mining technique. (Polite euphemism: lake removal.) The mine became Ontario’s biggest producer, focus of a truly unique and massive construction effort, but a lot of environmental havok was wreaked along the way.

                                                                                                                       Errington peak view

First of all, the three main iron ore bodies were under water— fourteen hundred feet under, in some places. Standard mine shafts built to reach the ore vein quickly flooded. That meant all but one arm of Steep Rock Lake would have to be drained and then dredged, and to do that the entire Seine River system had to be diverted. The plan sounded impossible, but enough engineering and manpower was applied for it to work. Thirteen dams and a underground tunnel over a kilometer long were built to divert the water table and provide power for the works. The numbers and scale of the earthworks are scary and impressive— and well documented at the local office of the Atikokan Mining Attraction. The building process took forty years and required the removal of twice the amount of earth displaced by construction of the Panama canal. At peak production the mine employed 1200 workers and produced more iron each year than was used in all Canadian automobiles made before 1978. Apart from the miners, it’s a statistic that only a lifetime General Motors employee can fully comprehend. So let’s put it another way. Once, the Steep Rock mine was the town.

 

Have you had your wild strawberries today?

Walking back from another overlook, I spot a patch of the tiny berries. I pick a few and offer them to my companion. He looks a long time at the red objects on my palm before answering. “No thanks. There’s a lot of contaminants here.”

Oh. I should have thought of that. The berries go out the window and I perform an attitude adjustment. No more running around in naturalist mode: this place was a serious industrial site. What has it got? It turns out my guide has read the toxicology report. Arsenic and sulphur top the list of groundwater contaminants. I’d like to get a good look at this paper, but it’s filed somewhere outside the realm of public domain. All I can turn up is a list of the hazardous byproducts being created by the adjacent coal burning power plant: arsenic, mercury, sulphur dioxide, nickel, cadmium, chromium, beryllium, nitrogen oxides... yum. You can see the smoke stack from here.

Government policy in this neck of the woods has always been dicey. The same administration that nodded on 10 hydro-electric dams being built in close proximity to the site has established a coal burning plant downwind of town. Coal is shipped in by train from British Columbia and burned for power, which is routed to points North and East. The plant itself lacks modern emission controls; in fact, rather than bringing it up to date, the government has put it up for sale. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Quetico park— a supposed wilderness area— vast corridors are being logged along the highways. I’m confused. This is the opposite of the usual 50 or 200 meter green margins that timber companies were legislated to leave alongside lakes and roads. Maybe the lumber trucks were depleting the moose population. I know that the land use policies have changed, but it seems to me that the left and the right hand don’t know what they’re doing— short of selling their holdings for a new deal. They certainly don’t know what they’re going to do with this site.

                                                                                                                      The Warehouse

Asking about man-made toxins leads to another interesting highlight. The first building you see as you enter the mine area looks like an abandoned factory: two stories, high windows making rows of gaping teeth, their glass all busted out. It’s the largest intact structure on the site, an obvious magnet for souvenir seekers, but we’re not going in to check it out. Not today, not ever. There’s a couple of good reasons for this. Part of the roof has collapsed. The ground entrances are well boarded. Like all the other buildings on-site, it’s worthy of being condemned. But mainly it’s a no-go zone because it’s full of toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

Their source isn’t made clear, but I can make an educated guess. PCBs are organic chemicals which usually appear as a clear or honeylike fluid; they have excellent cooling properties and numerous industrial applications. Before their manufacture was banned, PCBs were commonly used in paint, heat exchangers, and electrical transformers. This building probably houses old electrical transformers, since the mine had its own power generation from the 1940s on. I don’t know a thing about mining equipment, but because rendering ore and reshaping it into transportable pellets and bricks takes heavy machinery and a lot of heat, there’s a chance that other devices are rusting here too.

Fact or speculation? Consider that when all 5260 hectares of mine land were deeded back to the MNR by the Steep Rock Mining Company, this particular building wasn’t included. Its footprint is the only part of the surrender site that SRMC still technically owns. That means the MNR doesn’t want to deal with whatever’s on it— rightfully, I suppose, because it’s not their mess to clean up. We can cough politely and suggest that it’s awaiting treatment by an appropriately equipped decontamination team— or we can nod wisely and add it to the list of sleeping toxic zones that time might otherwise forget.

Is the chemical element going to be a problem for the intrepid explorer? Not necessarily. PCBs and mining byproducts of their ilk work by ingestion, a lot like your friendly neighbourhood escherichia coli, hazard of the drain hopper, except these are bioaccumulative endocrine disruptors. They build up in your body fat and never leave. Enough PCBs will land you with a skin condition called chloracne, progressive damage to your immune system and liver, or worse will induce hepatic carcinoma. Arsenic is poisonous when ingested, and unlike PCBs it may be present in small amounts in the ambient dust. Signs of arsenic poisoning include membrane irritations, arrhythmias, warty growths, and circulatory problems. Arsenic definitely causes cancer. Mercury poisoning shows up with flulike effects, but long term accumulation causes kidney and brain damage. Same with cadmium, a coal burning byproduct. All highly disruptive stuff when it accumulates in large enough quantities.

The practical upshot? Stay out of the storage facility. Resist the urge to lick the buildings. Don’t go for a swim. Wear a mask if you decide to venture into any dusty and probably toxic spots. If you have to get dirty, run out and take a shower. If you avoid eating the local flora and fauna or drinking the water during your visit to Steep Rock, you should be fine. If you develop a sore throat, fever or rash, go see your doctor and subscribe to some toxin tests. Above all keep in mind that it’s the people who live and work in the area who really have to worry. And that’s the story of every mine and mill town on the map…

                                                                                                                                   Errington Pit

Regrowth

Today, much of what past visitors saw is underwater, or covered with vegetation— literal ironweeds. The mine looks better now than it has since clearing began in 1939. The trees are growing in, earnest but stunted, rooting in the red soil and rock clefts, taking over the level spots and working into the abandoned ore flats. The lakes are now deeper than the visible portion of the walls themselves. Everything is rising; the heavy rains of the past week have helped.

Once there were two lakes here, one for the Hogarth vein and one for the Errington. Since parts of the town have flooded, the water level in the pits has risen significantly too. We step up to the first berm and my companion comments on this right away. “It’s one lake now!” Yep. From the East side vantages you can see the tops of trees stepping down into the green murk. This place gets 30 inches of rainfall a year, times twenty four years... the pits are slowly filling, the water table reasserting itself, crumbling the benches. Watching the process is like seeing an inverted ziggurat filling upwards. Give it a century of non-interference and the natural order will have neatly reasserted itself— or else we’ll have a slumbering pit of tainted waste. Shield granite isn’t the greatest organic filter.

The adjacent Caland Ore Company mine was a slightly later development, a mirror site with a much better chance at natural rehabilitation. Caland’s lake has a large section of limestone wall; the lime buffers the water and takes the coal-induced acidity out of the lake. This is good petrographic mojo. It must be okay, because there’s a fish farm there; a local entrepreneur grows arctic char and trout and salmon for Canadian markets. Nobody’s going to start a major aquaculture enterprise and feed the public without first testing the water quality, right?

Steep Rock isn’t so lucky. There’s no limestone wall and a whole lot of dodgy stuff is lurking under the surface. Like what? Well, more trashed mining equipment and more than a few burnt out hulks of cars and discarded stoves and refrigerators. Some of the locals have consistently used the site for a dump, you see, although it’s not really obvious right now. The lake is the same livid green color as the ceynotes where Mayans made their sacrifices— but nobody else is going to dredge it, not in a million years. The treasure under the lake is already gone.

                                                                                                               Remaindering plant floor

We drive around the pit and check out the best parts. There’s a massive ruin where the ore pelletizing works used to be. The road goes right over it. I park between two giant concrete monoliths— the remains of ore chutes which served the remaindering plant, red spikes that radiate presence like standing ghosts. The dust that coats everything has turned them from grey to adobe red. We go for a walk. It’s not gravel underfoot— it’s ore pellets. Like rusted ball bearings, they come in all different sizes and a variety of slingshot-ready shapes. I scoop a few of these as souvenirs and reload the camera. Two more rolls of film— that isn’t going to be enough. We’re looking out over the foundations of a factory floor. This used to be a dry spot, but it’s turned into a basin lake, a vast frame of concrete growing with poplar trees and laid with slick black water. In the back, against another esker, monstrous buildings have collapsed. Their edges display like layer cakes, flattened and smeared by a giant wintry hand. The pits are beautiful, but now there’s so much to absorb that I just shift my amazement into standby and start snapping photos. This is supposed to be my only chance to see, but I’ve already decided that I’m going to come back someday. From the monoliths onward, I’m hooked.

We climb the ring road and admire every possible view. We’re almost back to the entrance point when a white vehicle pops into the rearview. I have a momentary vision of being busted for trespassing, but it’s a local— one of the shuttle vans owned by the bush plane company operating out of the untouched remainder of Steep Rock Lake. We’ve been watching these planes come and go all morning. Unwilling to be rushed by someone who obviously knows the roads, I pull over and let him pass.

Since the theme of the day is pits, our next stop is the Caland site. It’s the third and final ore body excavation. There are connecting roads through the bush, but we drive back into town and double back down a different highway to reach this lake. We can’t get close; this pit has tenants who don’t like random visitors. Still, there’s parking just before the gated road which leads down to the fish farm. The gate, appropriately, is a large blue wrought iron fish.

                                                                                         Portion of Caland Lake with Fish Farm

This is the beaten path. The complex of mine buildings here was demolished less than two years ago. It’s very scenic; the shape of the collapsed walls and green-topped islands remind me of Crater Lake in Oregon. The farm must be doing business, because vehicles come and go, negotiating the lock. We duck the gate and walk to a lookoff site, cliff edge considerately restrained by chickenwire fences. The grey-white limestone wall that’s saved this lake is obvious, a striking contrast in the red surrounds. From another overlook, the top of a capped mine shaft, we get a good view of the fish farm: a platform of floating circular nets that slowly roves the lake. Today the lacy interlinked circles are in the center. I imagine that all the fish are down deep in the cold layers, wishing for shade. Meanwhile, atop the old Caland works, someone is experimenting with natural filter plants. Blue vats with rooted bulrushes sit in a manmade bog of silt and clear water. I wonder what additives are in the silt; it doesn’t look like any of the red dirt I’ve seen around here. At high noon, on the wide cement pad, the sun is merciless: Northern Ontario is broiling at thirty five degrees. Time for siesta. Lunch in town, supper under the red pines at Quetico, and all day and night the place consumes my thoughts.

Danger? Today was fraught. Tomorrow will be more, if I go back alone. But I’m already thinking about it. I decide that if it rains between now and then I won’t do it. It’s not the mud, it’s the inherent instability of the place— something other than the blasted rock and tunnels. The edges and much of the pinnacles of fill consist of tons of partially processed iron ore. This slurry rusts together over time and gloms into a quasi-solid metal mass— but it will still shift out and slide like any dirt or scree. Thus the white and green Hazardous Area signs posted around the rim. They’re not very intimidating, but apparently the local archives have photos of wall collapses actually taking place. Personally, I figure that if you can get close enough to take a look, you shouldn’t need to be told.

Adventure or no, it’s an early start as we go out for breakfast in town. Over coffee, I do some serious contemplation of the 500 or so kilometers of driving before my next sleep. I can do both, I think: the days are long at this latitude. It doesn’t get dark until midnight. I’m on my own now, although Steep Rock isn’t the kind of place I want to explore solo. I’ll admit to fear and trepidation, because there are too many possible pratfalls. A visit to the  Atikokan Mining Museum hammers the point: twenty-five people have died here, a litany of scary proportions. Men have been caught in mudslides, hit by flying rock from a blast, run over by ore bins, suffocated in tunnels or crushed by collapsing walls. There have been no casualties since the mine closing— at least that we know of— but around here people get lost in the bush every year. And the rednecks are thick in the neighbourhood… I’ve been road-warring with pickups and other chariots of testosterone for the last couple days.

Deep breath to dispel paranoia. I’m not stupid, not unarmed or untrained, and above all not unaccustomed to bush travel. Alone, I can make more inroads, calmly memorizing and retracing. After all, when else will I be here? It could be years before I come back this way. I can’t dwell on what little I’ve seen for that amount of time. Yes, I think. I’ll take another tour of this dumping-ground of post-industrial souls. I’ve travelled the backcountry here for months at a time, so I figure I can handle it. No bench climbing, no toxic buildings, no attempts to drive down to the lake. I’ll just check the other stuff out. Scope the site to my own satisfaction, memorize the layout for the future, and then hit the road.

I make all these plans and I still don’t know if I’m going to go. It’s a conflict of common sense. I linger at the mining museum and pick up the background, all interesting stuff for a rockhounds’ kid. The shots of the mine working at full bore are stunning: aerial views of the hundreds of tiers carved in the walls, raw earth scattered with ore trucks tailing each other up and down the curves like ants. Almost no semblance of this world remains. I dither almost until noon, then I start to head out of town and turn around, calling myself a chicken for trying. I can’t help it. In a land of clearcuts and logging scars, this place is different somehow. It’ s an open wound and I want to poke it. It’s irresistible, like blood-pull.

I don’t tell anyone where I’m going. I go back.

                                                                                                                                       Monolith 1

Fear no bush

Shouldn’t have worried. The heat doesn’t bring thunder. It’s thirty three degrees today; the North is unprepared, poleaxed by a week of incredible temperatures. People stay inside or go to other lakes. There’s no-one around, but I can tell by the fresh tracks that someone has been poking about since our visit. A light duty pickup or SUV, tire marks melting back into the scrub. Probably tourists too, and they’re long gone. No worries. Be serene. Step carefully to the lip and survey the works of man.

It’s a still day; the silence of the bush is a presence, a living pressure on the eardrums. The walls hold every hot echo and scrap of sound; apart from my breathing, ragged from climbing out of the pit, they’re silent. In the baking light, there’s neither threat nor hint of danger— but the trickster suddenly manifests in full force, ravens laughing from both sides of the pit. Their clatter startles me briefly, but I know these birds too. They like to play, to dive off cliffs and ride the thermal updrafts. It’s all the same to them if this is a dead zone.

I check some of the sideroads, the tantalizing paths, and find that most of those which don’t dead end or head outwards simply double back to the rim road. I don’t follow the dirt tracks to the various other projects (several of the dams and a back way to Caland), although they’re theoretically accessible: my little car doesn’t have the clearance, the weeds whisk the undercarriage and the foot-high gravel drifts made by the road grader have to be taken slowly if they can be hopped at all. The one aside I really want to take—the back way around the ruins of the remaindering plant— is under several inches of potentially toxic groundwater. I pass. Apart from the ravens, which throw themselves off the quarried edges with vigor, there’s no wildlife to be seen.

There’s a few thousand tonnes of ore in various stages of processing that the government couldn’t be bothered to reclaim. It’s lying around the site, shaped into hummocks or plowed into roads. The smell of it baking in the hard sun is somewhere between drying blood and warm stale beer. There’s a nastier chemical undertone too, in the odd spots black or grey streams have cut out of the hillsides. I find a pink beer bottle – hah! – and with just a trace of conscience pitch it over the nearest edge. Glass is technically a mineral, right? Chik, tunk, smash. The mine’s red dust has stained everything, even the road paint in the nearby town. Pink lines separate traffic. Atikokan’s older buildings have a distinct tint. When the mine was in full swing, there were no white houses in a wide  radius. Given enough time the iron dust permeates everything.

I’m at the remaindering plant when an engine starts up. Sounds like a lawnmower puttering down the road. A moment later a Beaver seaplane lifts from the west arm of Steep Rock Lake, maybe two kilometers away. I can almost read the registration; the air is very clear. I wave— what the hell, why not?— but the pilot is banking over the trees, too far away to see. He’s ferrying warm bodies out to Fort Hope or White Otter Castle or some less tainted fishing hole. Tourists can ride out here from the mine’s namesake, the remainder of the massive body of water that once covered the site. Parts of the parent lake are clearly visible from the pelletized zone, a blue body level to my current position on the old lakeshore. Its surviving portion hosts dock and hangar for the bushplane company, but it has more history of its own. Instead of living in town with the miners, company executives kept their homes here. These cottages are gone now, rubble in the undergrowth, but signs of them persist. My friend tells me that tulips volunteer there in the spring, alongside other plants escaped from these pioneer gardens. It seems that in order to counteract the mental effect of facing daily the ecological devastation, one mine financier suggested planting flowers.

No point making reforestation efforts here now; nature has it well in hand. Although Steep Rock nearly got another imported plant— cannabis. When the federal government was looking for a private place to grow their first official medical-use crops, this mine made the short list. Flin Flon, with twice the warm bodies and a retired copper mine protected beneath a lake, won. We’d be having a different kind of fun if Atikokan was the official “Marijuana Capital of Canada”.

Or, more accurately, we wouldn't be allowed on the site.

                                                                                          Remaindering plant from Hogarth cap

 

Natural magnetism

Stoner’s delight? This isn’t the place or time. The red rock walls are demanding all of my mental energy. I park atop a road that drops below the rim and scramble up some heavy angles and unstable berms of iron scree. It’s all flattened and pocked by the primordial rain. It’s not hard to find the fragmentary remains of mining equipment and buildings, but most shards are too far gone to identify, scraps of twisted metal or plastic. I find a wire bracket arrangement like an ore winch might use— or a high tension power line. Fragmentary cables emerge from the ground nearby. I walk across a field of fractional things and begin to feel like I’ve stumbled onto the lost mine of the damned. Everything’s been stomped by a backhoe and abandoned.

I’m the only one who’s come down here since it rained, I’m certain. There are no other signs of life on the hardpan, no tracks or spoor— just the occasional industrial shrapnel and an assortment of pop bottles. You can’t drive down here, because someone with a backhoe has carved a moat across the road. A bike trail goes around it. I climb to where I can see a giant truck tire and find the rotting feet of two removed buildings. They appear to have floors of cement and mortar. Huh. Then I realize that I've found an old mine shaft without realizing it. I’m standing right on top of a capped vent from the old Hogarth shaft.

The view from this point is really nice. You can see a lot of the inside of the Hogarth pit. I check the benches for rotting car hulks. Damn, not a thing. Pretty clean for a giant municipal trash pit. Has the garbage grown over, or were they just tossing things off the steepest part of Errington, where they go straight to the bottom of the water? I dig out the field glasses and find a white triangle in the scrub. It’s a clothes dryer that somebody lit on fire and pushed off the edge— the old kind, with a circular glass door on the front. The scorch marks on rusted enamel are a nice touch, though I was really hoping for crumpled car bodies. Cars are post-apocalyptic; appliances are just plain ghetto. But somebody must have put a lot of effort into the disposal. They have Pit Parties instead of bush parties around here; maybe it was one of those. I can see it like a scene from a Mad Max movie: night-time, big bonfires, backlit clusters of kids hauling that hefty bugger from the pickup truck and pushing it to the edge. Then someone sets it off with lighter fluid or a briquette of cherry bombs and it skids downslope with a rattle and bang. Processed steel, right back atcha...

Why sacrifice theory? The backbrain kicking in. Images of cenotes, lakes formed in flooded sinkholes or collapsed limestone caves, occur to me. These deep green watery pits were considered a channel to the underworld. The Mayans used them as a site for making offerings, so the cenotes in Mexico are full of interesting stuff. There’s cavelike excavations running way down into the earth here too— as far as a kilometer into the red vein. Maybe that’s the vibe I’m getting. It makes me alert but doesn’t seem unnatural anymore. After all, this place was one big sacrifice from the start.

                                                                                                                              West side view

 

My friend and I have a theory about geographic magnetism. We met in Thunder Bay, where there are a few major mythic-geographic sites. The Sleeping Giant lies in the lake to the South; Mount McKay, the legendary roost of the Ojibwe version of Thunderbird, stands to the West. Like leylines bracketing a gateway city, the big guy sleeps on the lake and a heavy manitou rests in the sugarloaf over Fort William. After a few years in proximity to these mythic anchors, we decided we only wanted to live in places that had good natural features— places which focused the natural energy. Now I have the cosmic syringe known as the CN Tower and he has the Atikokan Pits, with their attendant deepwater vibe.

Oh, and there was a UFO sighting here in 1950.

 

                                                                                                           Tool shop

 

Economy Demolition

Steep Rock has a plethora of ruined buildings. I sort these into two types: the ones buried on purpose and those not important enough to rate total mineral obliteration. Only a few good examples of the latter remain; the decommissioning team that went through here was very diligent about destroying things. Maybe a tenth of the total structures are still standing; the rest have been buried under a few tons of waste rock, eliminating the need for clean-up in one big collapsor. It’s a very efficient method of disposing of leftover ore and demolishing a structure at the same time. What’s not under a rusty new esker is collapsing daintily into a habitat for wildlife. Supposedly there are a few mine shafts left open, but I can’t find them.

Abandoned buildings abound—most of them in the process of dramatic collapse. The ones that survive are hollow and tenuous. Several structures are in worse shape than any condemned building I’ve ever seen. The warehouse near the entrance is the only exception to the general structural failure. Around it, old office buildings have been buried by backfill. Wall edges peek out here and there; if you try to circle to the roof of the warehouse, you’ll be climbing on their buried frames. Behind the ore-filled office is a small hollow ruin. The mine shaft at Hogarth has been backhoed and butressed with the leftover ore, and the remaindering plant razed to its foundations. Beyond the remaindering plant is a dumping ground of pure iron ore where only grass has managed to grow. Below the ore piles are more hollowed and collapsing buildings. I see one that looks like a giant tiered silo, a cement elephant collapsing onto its knees. It looks like a sneeze would bring it down. Or one more winter...

I don’t bother with these. I know they’ve been gutted; the doors aren’t even boarded up. The local kids have been all over the site for as long as anyone can remember, so there’s not much left to find here now: fire marks along the walls, broken glass and keep out signs. Because I take a pass on entering the buildings, I don’t see any graffiti. There are no obvious tags here— the only signs of recent human presence are dust clad bottles and spent shotgun shells. (Oh, and bullet holes.) Frankly, I wish I’d brought a chisel, because this is the sort of place that deserves some new down home petroglyphs. Nobody’s tapped it yet, at least that I can find. Hmm, maybe next year...

 

                                                                                                                  Ruins

 

Here there be monoliths

Cement dappled by bullets, buildings riddled by shotgun practice, turned to adobe by dust and time.

Abandoned heaps of tailings; everything stained by the red rock dust. Still not quite a forbidding landscape—softened by the greenery that’s taking root all over. Roads dip. Flat gravel plateaus end in cliffs. All of it reeks of its mineral and chemical wealth. Not staying much longer. Got dust in my shoes. I’d trek down to the water, but can’t face the return climb. My calves are already solid with pain— shin splints, aching from beating the pedals so long, locked into their memory of the twenty hour driving kick to here.

This is the Northernmost point of my trip. It’s also the highlight, another spot added to my list of secret places. An amazing location: scary and beautiful, reclaimed wild. From the hands of one administration to the other, a big hurting embarassment. Mining iron ore from sludge at the bottom of a lake in the bonecracking cold? I wouldn’t have wished the job on anyone, but I’m somehow gratified to have seen the result. The affinity is hard to explain. I’ve been scraping across man-made moonscapes of regenerated landfill and delayed subdivisions for as long as I can remember. Overgrown junkyards and razed wire factories and abandoned mental hospitals don’t phase me. I’ve been to the most awesome wild places too, to Zion and the Grand Canyon and back; if it’s a natural monument and you can reach it by road in North America, I’ve probably seen it firsthand. But I live in the urban sprawl and keep coming back to the landscape that we’ve made. It has its own presence and beauty. Are there more places like this in the world? Is it sick to hope so? I don’t know, but I’ll be back again.

                                                                                                                                       Monolith 2

Postscript: Getting there

From east or west on Highway 11, turn off at 11B and drive into Atikokan. If you prefer visual aids, stop at the tourist information post here and get a map of the town. The mine and related sites are actually marked. A visit to the Atikokan Mining Museum is also recommended for a good overview of the site and its history. They have a wall-sized map showing all the features and side roads as well as numerous displays based on the history of Steep Rock. The Museum will give you a useful orientation before checking out side roads and connecting routes around the mine.

If you’re old-school and want to go in blind, follow 11B straight on. Once in town it curves and becomes Mackenzie Avenue. Go past the gas stations and hotels and turn right onto O’Brien Street. It heads directly north through town and at the outskirts splits to the left. From here you will have no problem following the signs for “Races” directly to the motocross track, and once you reach that follow the right arrow for the “Seaplane base” (not the left for the airport). You will pass under an aging railway overpass, part of a now-defunct branch of the CN line. In winter this black gate gets encrusted with enough ice to partially block the road and make passage hazardous. In summer, you can follow the road from here either to the West Arm of the remaining portion of Steep Rock Lake, the coal-burning plant, or all of the still-operational dams. Steady on from here will take you to a choice between the West Arm and the seaplane base.

If you want the old mine, once through the overpass, hang right at the first gravel turning. That’s it, you’re in: no gates to hop, no hassles, on your own cognizance in real “use at your own risk” territory. Follow tracks on the red gravel past the remains of an old warehouse and dead ahead you will find a slightly downhill overlook. The ring road heads off to the left, climbing counter-clockwise around the canyon-lakes. The first hill on your right is manmade— a small mountain of the material removed during dredging and excavation. The road climbs past a quarry zone with freshly broken rock and over a red gravel plateau where you can park and walk through partial regrowth to the edge. Actually, you can see where people have driven to the edge. It’s not the kind of place where you have to worry about damaging the flora, although the plants that survive here have enough to work against without us ripping through them.

The road around the rim is not maintained. If you drive slowly, for the most part, it's navigable... though sections of it should be tackled by four wheel drive (or skilled drivers in high clearance vehicles) only. If you plan to try to venture down to the water I recommend that you drive all the way around once first, to get an idea of where the best access points are. There are at least two visible road surfaces which touch the ever-rising lake: one for the Hogarth pit, below the remains of the pellet plant, and one dead ahead below the overlook where you enter the site. Trenches have been cut with heavy equipment to prevent people from taking their vehicles into the constantly changing interior zone. There are convenient lookoffs where one can shift to foot or bike. There’s raw hematite and other minerals, if you’re geologically inclined: pyrolusite, goethite, and brecchiated carbonate. Fresh cuts and placer finds can be had in the quarry area and along the rock walls. The lazy souvenir-seeker can take their pick of iron pellets from the thousands of tons which decorate the old factory floor.

The primary shaft for the Hogarth pit isn’t hard to find. It’s down the hill just south of the remaindering plant. Park your car near the roadsplit and walk down with the black rock wall on your right; climb the red berm with the giant tire on top or circle right through the poplars in the runoff creek. Behind the screen of trees is another series of roads where one can climb the tamer slope that the construction equipment used, or turn downwards and descend into the pit sans car.

The neighbouring Caland site can be reached by dirt roads which connect the site (turn right on the second road after the remaindering plant remains), or by going back out to the highway. (Turn onto Highway 10 from 11B before you get into town and follow the signs for the Snow Lake Fish Farm.) You can get to the lake more easily at Caland; a gated road runs right down. From this access route, you will have to park outside the blue fish gate and walk in. Enter however you wish; just keep in mind that this lake is occupied daily. There’s a fish farm, so sport fishing is prosecuted. (*2007 update: Locals tell me that the fish farm has gone out of business due to mismanagement. Very sad as there really could not have been a better use for this pit.) The MNR is renting the water out, however with a few sweet words the right people might let you put a small boat in. I get the feeling that this is a popular, ahem, ‘research’ spot for Lakehead students. The top of the mine shaft is a nice spot to party too, if you can stand the vertigo...

Most abandoned mines are underground. The facilities above are locked and boarded— if not sealed or collapsed onto themselves— and to venture below the surface takes tenacity, training, and specialized gear. Steep Rock doesn’t call for caving experience— just common sense, a bit of basic equipment, and strong calves. Mountain bikers and ATV’ers regularily take their wheels down to the water for a picnic. There are plenty of trails. Take a solid pair of hiking boots and a light in case you want to check out any of the buildings. Pack your spare tire or bike patch kit—crushed rock is not as friendly as gravel on the Goodyears, and it’s a long walk back into town. A whistle is also not a bad idea; while you’re technically on your own cognizance in this area, you could probably raise help if you needed it. (Note: sound carries far too well in the canyon and empty surrounds. It also has the potential to cause wall collapses, the short and dirty version of an avalanche. There are hundreds of shallow tiers on each of the walls. These stepped edges, called benches, were intended to forestall erosion. Most of them are still intact, but large sections along both pits have collapsed. Walking along these benches is definetly not recommended.) You won’t get lost here— not if you know how to shift into reverse. Not if you have a sense of direction, or barring that a compass. But there are a lot of other potential fates which could befall you. If you explore the bush areas, it might not hurt to bring some bear precautions. While there’s not much to eat or do here for a bear, it’s still technically their territory. Before arriving, get a tetanus shot if you haven’t had one. And bring water… don’t drink the water…

                                                                                                                      Hogarth pit from cap   

 

Satellite overview comparisons (thanks to Google Earth)

Note that the water level has been rising steadily; less and less of the rock walls are visible. Within another decade the water level will likely equalize with that of Steep Rock Lake to the north. The high iron content continues to tint the water in Hogarth Pit, however. This is less visible in Caland Pit due to the effect of a higher limestone concentration.

                                                                                                                                                    2006

                                                                                                                                                    2009