Commuting by snowshoe

Gary Gillette and Renee Hughes at the Last Chance Mining Museum where they have lived for twenty years. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire)

How long does Hughes, a New Orleans native, plan to live among these gold rush artifacts, in the restored ruins of a turn-of-the-century mining camp?

by Amy Condra

This article was originally published in the Juneau Empire.

On those Juneau mornings when the snow falls with a denser-than-usual determination, slipping out of the seductive comfort of our sheets and stepping onto a cold floor, into a frosty day, can be a daunting proposition.

For Renee Hughes, the task is especially tough; while many of us dread the short walk from our house to the driveway, she gamely straps on her snowshoes, flicks on her headlamp and braves a 60-minute trek to reach her car.

“When I worked at Gastineau School, people would laugh when I would show up looking haggard,” said Hughes, who works as a substitute teacher at several local schools. “But I’d say, ‘Do you realize that I just spent an hour snowshoeing through the woods, in the dark, so I can get to school?’”

Hughes says that, luckily, some of the work she does for the school district she can do at home.

And when home is an apartment above the Last Chance Mining Museum, situated in the Last Chance Basin at the end of Basin Road, “working remotely” doesn’t just involve a flexible employment schedule; it often entails a geographic reality.

To reach downtown Juneau, Hughes and her husband, Port Engineer Gary Gillette, must hike down Basin Road and across the Basin Road Trestle Bridge.

But during winter storms, they are often snowed in.

“We have enough gear that we know how to get out,” said Hughes. “But it can be hard!”

And even when and if the road is clear this winter, Hughes still won’t be able to drive directly into town: The Basin Road Trestle, which was built in 1936, is undergoing a rehabilitation that began in October and won’t be finished until spring.

In the meantime, no cars are allowed on the bridge.

“They’re totally rebuilding the trestle,” Hughes said. “We’ll be out of commission until May, so basically what we’re going to do is to have a car on one side, and a car on the other. Gary brought in 12 cases of cat food, and a couple hundred pounds of dog food — we stocked up on everything to get wintered in.”

“Everything else we need,” she said, “we’ll drag from one side to the other!”

Do you realize that I just spent an hour snowshoeing through the woods, in the dark, so I can get to school?

Renee Hughes

This isn’t the first time Hughes and Gillette have had to navigate a difficult journey home —when she first moved out to the museum about 20 years ago, they had to cross Gold Creek by boat.

“After three years of record rain, it got to the point that Gold Creek did not go under the bridge anymore,” she said. “There was a cable strung between the bridge and the nearest tree. There were two pulleys on each side, and you’d get in and have to pull yourself across in a small boat.”

It could take up to half an hour, and several back-and-forth trips, to ferry groceries across the creek, Hughes said.

After hauling laundry to town by boat and then by sled, she added, they finally bought a washer and dryer to use at their apartment. Of course the appliances also had to be towed by boat, which was no easy task, said Hughes: “It was a celebration when we got it up here!”

Hughes acknowledges that living in the basin presents unique challenges.

“There are not many people that would enjoy living the way we do,” she said.

But then there are the days when the beauty of the basin blurs away its frustrations.

“The most wonderful, fabulous day I can remember was when (local historian and storyteller) Mark Whitman came up here, and was standing on the bridge playing his flute — he had no idea we were up there listening, in the world’s greatest amphitheater!” she said.

Hughes and Gillette both work with the Gastineau Channel Historical Society, a nonprofit organization that operates the Last Chance Mining Museum. The museum itself is owned by the City and Borough of Juneau.

Hughes is the society’s volunteer director, while Gillette serves as its president.

“The museum is in an old historic building — the compressor building — that was part of the Alaska Juneau gold mine,” Hughes said. “It still houses a lot of tools and equipment that were part of the AJ Mine, which was the largest gold mine in the world when it was in operation.”

“The fact that we’ve been able to take care of it, and open this to the public so people can appreciate it, is great,” she said.

The Alaska Juneau, or AJ, hard rock gold mine operated in Juneau from 1912 until 1944. During that time it produced more than $80 million in gold.

At its peak, in the late 1930s, more than 1,000 men worked at the mine on a three-shift, 363 days per year basis — the only holidays that earned employees a day off were Christmas and the Fourth of July.

Juneau’s City Assembly declared the Last Chance Basin a historic district in 1978, and the buildings of the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company’s Jualpa Mine Camp are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Last Chance Mining Museum is the only historic mining building from Juneau’s gold rush era that is officially open to the public, and Hughes says that it receives about 2,000 visitors every summer.

“My primary visitors are locals with friends and family,” said Hughes, “but we also get a lot of engineers — they’re interested in the big stuff!”

One particularly large piece of equipment on display is the mine’s old air compressor unit, an Ingersoll-Rand compressor that was the largest air compressor made at the time, Hughes said.

But it’s the three dimensional glass map of the Deep North ore body that especially intrigues Hughes.

“The air compressor is big, but I like the fact that they were able to design this map on glass, showing the different levels,” she said. “I have a cabinet that has core samples — you can take each core and identify exactly where it is on the map.”

How long does Hughes, a New Orleans native, plan to live among these gold rush artifacts, in the restored ruins of a turn-of-the-century mining camp?

“We keep talking about what we’d like to do when we can’t physically deal with getting up here anymore,” she said. “But we haven’t found another place we want to go.”

In the meantime, Hughes says she loves that she can just go down the street and get smoked salmon and fresh halibut.

“And I love that fact that one afternoon I was talking to my father on the phone, and an avalanche started coming down Mount Juneau,” she said. “I yelled, ‘Oh my God, can you hear it?’ He was having a heart attack, asking me what I was doing sitting in front of an avalanche.”

Hughes explained it this way: ‘Well, I’m on this side, and it’s on that side, and can you hear it? It’s the coolest thing in the world!’”