'I can’t do it’. After a gruelling five hour upward hike, my goal seemed unreachable. The Erie Mine Bunkhouse, now just metres away, sat beyond an unexpected, razor thin ledge, which was less a problem than the terrifying sheer drop it crowned. 'It’s not the fall that kills you - it’s the sudden stop at the end' I recalled reading somewhere. The bunkhouse, long revered for its impossibly lofty position, was demanding one more test of my worthiness, like an ancient gate keeper taunting the hero with a final riddle. While indeed proud of my progress, I’m no Indiana Jones. I’m an acrophobic Irishman with a known history of hang overs and hysteria. ‘Why do you need to photograph some wreck, anyway’, I thought, already bargaining defeat. Attempts at self trickery fell flat. Past this ledge lay precious treasures.
I had flown by the remains of the Erie Mine in the summer of 2016 while living in the Wrangell St Elias National Park, Alaska. After a sunset pleasure flight in a two seater Cessna, my pilot friend and I had descended over the Root Glacier en route back to McCarthy. Feeling like a speck of dust amidst the landscape’s majesty, I caught my first glimpse of the partially collapsed structure, perched precariously on the northern flank of Bonanza Ridge, 1200 feet above the glacial moraine. Completed in 1924, the building, aptly known as the ‘Eagle’s nest', was left to the elements with the closing of the Kennecott copper mine just fourteen years later. The working men were given just one day to vacate their home. Posters were left hung on walls, shoes strewn on floors, plates on tables and linen on the beds. The plane flew on and the building fell out of sight. Its weathered facade spoke of perseverance and the merciless march of time. This was a human place - as unique as it was unlikely. It was distant, dangerous and fast disappearing. I needed to get there and given the building's swiftly worsening structural state, I’d need to be quick.
Over the coming months I investigated the route. The miners had been transported by tram, a mechanism long dismantled. The only way up to this mountain-top Marie Celeste was on foot, climbing above the site and scaling down Bonanza’s steep cliff edge. Any mention of my aim was met with parent-like looks of concern, and stories of tetanus, loose scree and broken limbs. Having spent the winter in Ireland, I journeyed back to McCarthy in June 2017 with my resolve barely intact and secured a willing team. Conveniently forgetting to mention the 'ledge of doom', my fellow hikers, both locals, altruistically tricked me to this final point, where my desires could battle my dread in full sight of the prize. And there I found myself, with a year’s ambition wilting by the minute. The loose rock bordering the ledge, if grabbed for support, disintegrated to shards, like a cruel and dangerous joke. My whimpering escalated, as tears of frustration and panic filled my eyes. 'Paul, Look at me! Put your foot there and take my hand,' a calm yet decisive voice distracted my demons. I gulped, grabbing Bryan's out-stretched arm and launched myself over the chasm. Crumbling to the ground, I feverishly expressed relief and gratitude peppered with repeated profanity. I had passed the test.
The final triumphant trek lead us over various dismembered beams and planks, dislodged by blizzards and gales. The building’s front aspect is of breath taking beauty, with the glacier far below undulating south in icy waves. Piercing blue pools and a sea of white hugeness reflect light all around. Donohoe peak lies opposite; its ancient limestone slabs slicing diagonally downward. We entered the building to the rear to find a long, dusty mess hall, mostly intact. Every step was taken with the uncomfortable thought that it could be our last. Having battled Alaska’s harsh conditions unprotected these 80 years, the building could easily be coaxed to collapse by the movements of three heavily bearded men. Buried in a real-life deck of cards, we would be hours from help. We ventured forth, like children alone in a toy shop at night - cautious, curious and alive with expectation. Peering into my camera bag, too giddy to choose a lens, my mind raced at so many objects, angles, corners and stories. ‘Breathe’. The ceiling above the main room has long buckled downward, spewing part of the upstairs corridor to the ground floor. A section of wall on the far side caves noticeably inward as though being nudged ever closer to infinity by the mountain behind. This battle for territory holds irresistible drama. Nature’s desire to erase these man-made aberrations creates hybrid spaces, temporary and ever changing. The first two bunk rooms sit far left in opposing corners, the right hand of which offers a dual aspect glacierscape. Bunkbeds sit peering through glassless windows. Rust spilling from the white wooden wall slats resembles dried blood. ‘Eerie’, I mused, considering the aptness as an icy breeze sliced through the summer’s warmth.
Past the mess hall lies a dark, dusty pantry where desolate shelves speak eloquently of emptiness. Food is life and both are long gone. The kitchen's roof has also buckled, rendering the room impenetrable. A further social space beyond hosts a chaotic array of broken chairs and barrel heaters. The remnants of half burnt candles cast the shadows of midnight card games, and illicit whiskey drinking. These walls recorded brawls and banter, cheer and loss over many long winters. Here had been a place of sanctuary and conversation where backgrounds blurred and words, foreign and native, built brotherly bonds. These men had come to work in a land so inhospitable and unknown, rooms like this were as close to comfort as they could be. Time has not erased this. Its passing amplifies it. Swapping my lenses, I worked with hurried efficiency. Rain clouds had settled and the light was dropping fast. Moving upward, I tread the stairs carefully, naively believing gentle steps might lessen my body’s weight. The rain drops tapping inward guided us to safer spots. Avoiding the wettest floorboards ensured the best load bearing surface. The landing, lit from a front aspect window, offers a long view toward two further bunk rooms. Every detail spoke of people. A twisted rag, now ingrained on the rotting floorboard, once soothed an aching man’s shivers. Its final resting place made the perfect composition with Donohoe Peak peering in from across the glacier. A rubber boot lay flopped double, echoing century-old footsteps, ready for battle and weary from work. Becoming fixated at every step, I was only urged onward by excited calls from Bryan and Jeremy, telling of yet more trinkets. I paused at the frame of each consecutive door, to imagine faces that peered to whitewash wilderness from windows glowing orange as the dark winter raged. In the corner of a rear facing bunk room we found the tiniest scrap of a poster still stuck to the wall. An unidentifiable 1930s starlet, her gaze fixed, her oglers long dead.
The far side of the corridor offers two more doorways to front facing rooms, each minus their ceiling. The missing, front ‘4th wall’ leaves them bare to a breathtaking panorama. They have become like a stage, with Donohoe their audience. Bunks that hosted the homesick dreams of Erie’s workers now lie rusting and strewn with debris. These spaces, once cosy and safe, now freeze under winter’s blanket for much of the year. It is amongst the most peculiar places I’ve ever visited. Perhaps not the top or the edge of the world but somewhere close to both. It is remote, fragile and awe-inspiring. The corridor, at a point, becomes too dangerous to tackle, having suffered almost complete collapse. Given our bountiful findings, any further risk seemed unnecessary. As if waking from a dream, our hike home became more real and the blue light of dusk continued its creep. We retraced our trusted steps, gathered our thoughts and our things and reluctantly left the barracks. My second brush with 'the ledge', whilst still a challenge, involved a considerably lower volume of whimper. With my feet firmly on the home-side of the chasm, I felt like my own hero. The process of dereliction and nature’s roll in that drives me forward in my work. The 80 winters since desertion have created a new space; half from nature, half from man. Seeing these artifacts frozen in their authentic state connects me to the past in an extraordinarily immersive way, so far from the caricature of ‘vintage’ we are so often sold. As objects reach out to us from across decades and centuries they gift us stories of lives we’ll never live and people we’ll never meet. Erie Bunkhouse offers history as untouched as can be expected. Its position is as impossible as its continued survival. Someday when I hear its walls have succumbed, I’ll feel ever the more honoured to have walked its halls and met its ghosts. Paint fades, metal rusts, wood cracks and people die but it’s in the darkest corners I’ve found the most meaningful stories, so rarely found more than in this unlikely 'Eagles Nest'.