Out Our Back Door By Tom Baake
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Gardner Mine Offers Glimpse Of Region’s Colorful History
By Tom Baake

A sign identifies the Gardner chromite mine.
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Although there was never a Gold Rush here to match California’s, mining and prospecting have histories in Southern Oregon that go back well over 150 years. In addition to gold, other ore such as coal, nickel and chromite have been extracted. Remnants of early-day mining can be found in many isolated places.

Among them is the Gardner chromite mine at the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness east of Brookings. Here, you can see the remains of two mining periods of activity that coincided with the two World Wars, when chromite was sought as a strategic mineral. It was also mined here in the 1950s.

As explained in a 2003 US Forest Service brochure, chromite is used in steel alloys, stainless steel, chrome plating and some paints. It’s a key element in hardening steel for weapons, armor plating, and other tools and equipment. Most chromite traditionally comes at less cost from imported sources, but during wartime, it’s been stockpiled in case supply lines get disrupted. The Forest Service says that by 1958 the Gardner claims produced about 200 tons of chromite.

Chromite is just one of the players in the interesting geology of the Gardner mine area. Weathered, rough-surfaced peridotite is the dominant rock type, high in iron, which accounts for the very red soils found here. In some places, it’s been altered by pressure and temperature to become serpentine rock, easily identified by its shiny, greenish gray color.

Rodingite is a white to greenish gray or pink rock that forms in veins intersecting the serpentine, and is well exposed at the Gardner mine.

The final major player is sandstone, in the form of gigantic boulders that are part of what’s called the Dothan Formation. Softer than the highly mineralized periodotite, they weather to tan or yellow soils and compliment the remarkable natural palette of color occurring in this place.

A trail near the Gardner mine passes under wizened old trees.

The area’s unusual geology resulted from eons of tremendous upheavals of the Earth’s tectonic plates, which folded and fractured and compressed and finally left exposed a sequence of rocks that resembles a slice of the ocean floor. In fact, the peridodite layer is the deepest layer of oceanic rock from the earth’s mantle, usually 5 to 8 kilometers below the ocean floor. How about that? Way up here on a soaring Coast Range ridgeline, rocks from the Earth’s mantle!

In addition to interesting history and geology, the Gardner mine area is in the shadow of 4665-ft Vulcan Peak, which offers breathtaking views of the surrounding forestlands, all the way to the ocean. The trail also leads to Vulcan Lake, a popular summertime hike. You can even make it into a short or long loop – lots of options!

Getting There

This trip traverses some very rough Forest Service roads, so high-clearance vehicles will do better. As for the hiking trails, one word: rocky.

So, from Brookings, go up Chetco River North Fork Rd. After passing Alfred Loeb State Park, the road crosses to the river’s south side. Pavement ends about 16 miles up at a “T” intersection.

Turn right (E) on FS 1909, following a sign to Kalmiopsis Wilderness, 18 miles. The forestlands rise almost vertically on either side. Dense stands of Douglas Fir slowly give way to tanoaks and pines in the drier and rockier soil higher up.

Pass the Vulcan Peak trailhead and continue to road’s end at the Vulcan Lake trailhead. As noted, the soil is rich in minerals but poor in nutrients, resulting in dwarf varieties of such things as white pines, and in the growth of hardy plants like coffeeberry and manzanita. The area was swept by the 2002 Biscuit fire, leaving many burnt snags.

From the trailhead, head east on the Vulcan Lake trail. It forks in a few hundred feet; this would be the south end of the Vulcan Lake loop trail. Stay on the left (or north) fork.

The mine is about 0.98 mile. There’s a small shaft from the early days and a larger excavation from subsequent activity. A sign marks the site of a former cabin used as bunkhouse and cookshack.

Vulcan Lake is about 2 miles, in a massive hollow, or cirque, carved out by ancient glacial movement. There are two smaller lakes nearby. From Vulcan Lake, backtrack the way you came, or follow the trail west up and out of the cirque to complete the loop back to the trailhead for a total of 4 miles. Or add mileage with a detour to check out the summit of Vulcan Peak. Where the views just seem to go on forever . . .

(Shopper columnist Tom Baake is author of regional guidebooks. Order onliner at:   www.scod.com/guidebooks)

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