This one reminds me a bit of the thriller I read and posted about in New Hampshire Pre-Visited–it really didn’t do it for me in terms of plot or characters, but there were some great descriptions of Idaho and Lake Coeur d’Alene that I really wanted to post.
I’m reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We’re in Idaho right now (and I keep saying we’re finishing up…).
Between the bits and pieces we got in Housekeeping, and the descriptions here of Lake Coeur d’Alene, it’s clear that lakes in Idaho are very different from the lakes we saw in Minnesota with their shifting mazes of water and bog. These are large expanses of water with a clear definition between lake and shore.
Lake Coeur d’Alene is named after the Coeur d’Alene native people. The name was given by French traders and means Heart of an Awl–a reference to their trading prowess. The long, narrow lake was once a river valley that was filled by glacial activity 10-15,000 years ago, and more recently by dams that raised the water level and connected several smaller lakes. Today Lake Coeur d’Alene is 25 miles long and 1-3 miles wide.
Along with the lovely descriptions of wilderness, though, Hayes throws in evidence of man’s impact on the land–and not only through the mines. Here he says that at one time the sound of the mines could be heard all night, but now the nighttime engine noises are from trucks bringing goods to the resorts.
At night in the mountains, the ragged grunt of an engine could be heard from miles away, could be mistaken for some distant underground explosion. But the mines in the Silver Valley no longer ran at full capacity at night. The mountains resounded with the hum of heavy half-tons that carried an endless stream of equipment and supplies to the tourist destinations in Priest Lake and Coeur d’Alene, on the flat side of the Bitterroot Range.
We also get some insight into the mines, though. When we think about the American Gold Rush, we tend to think of California and Alaska, and maybe Nevada. We tend to forget other areas of the West where gold and other minerals were discovered. Maybe we remember that Nevada is the Silver State, but we often don’t remember that there are still many active mines all over the West. This page gives a map of mines in Idaho with links to some interesting related information (not all the links work). One of those links goes to this page from Idaho University with some great information about the history of mining in Idaho and current mining operations.
Hayes gives us some images of the mining operations themselves, both in memories and discussions of the accident itself, and in this description of the Miners’ Memorial:
The huge metal sculpture of a miner was streaked with dark wet patches. They could see the man at work, a twelve-foot-tall hard-rock miner, pushing a heavy drill firmly into the empty air above him. “Got any idea what it takes to hold a drill like that up to the rock, eight hours a day?” … On the man’s hip rested a belt clip, the square shape of a self-rescuer, a flashlight holster. Above him rose two lines connected to the drill he held. … “The air goes into the drill to be compressed and hit the rock, and after the air shatters it, the water shoots out and breaks down the rock. You have to hold on to it the whole time. It’s backbreaking work. You know, when I was mining as a kid, the muscles in my back used to get so knotted up, I would have my mom stand on my back for me. The guys I know my age who kept working, they’re all bent over now from the work.”
He also gives us some bleakness related to the economic results of mining operations that are closing down:
In Smelterville the next morning, the shadow of a minestack cut across the truck. Matt glanced up at the great bulk of the closed mine elevator on the hillside. He thought of the town ahead, of the people he’d see. They were the flotsam left behind after the Bunker Hill closed down and the rest of the mines scaled back in the 1980s. By now, it was beginning to sink in that the Bunker Hill mine might never reopen, and that the Sunshine and Hecla would never scale back up to where they’d been at the height of the boom. … Next year, by this time, a lucky few would have gotten on with a mine in Montana or North Dakota. One or two might have shot themselves, or rolled the truck when they were drunk. The rest of them would still be sitting in the same chair, hating themselves, waiting for the wife to come home from her job, the one that didn’t quite make ends meet. Smelterville was where they drifted when they finally began to lose hope.
And some more bleakness related to some of the environmental and public health consequences of mining. In the book there is a scene where bats which should still be hibernating are waking and emerging from their caves only to perish, trapped in the still partially frozen lake water. One of the characters muses that something about the mineral pollution has affected the bats and their sense of when to come out of hibernation. In the author’s note, Hayes says this about the effects of pollution from the mines on humans:
In August of 1974, the highest lead levels ever recorded in human beings were found in children tested in the town of Kellogg. Bunker Hill mining operations produced record profits of $ 25.9 million in the same year. In the late 1980s, it was revealed that the Bunker Hill board of directors had calculated that it would be profitable to operate the mine, despite the dangerously broken baghouse thimble room and smelter. The poisoning was just a business expense: their calculations included liability of “$ 6–7 million/ $ 10K per child,” for planned settlements to families permanently damaged by lead.
He goes on to say that, “To this day, lead levels in Silver Valley children run twice the national average,” and that pollution in the lake is visible in a “plume of heavy metals [that] extends 200 miles downstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene into Washington State.”
As for the bats, I wasn’t really able to confirm the scene from the book, however I did find this PDF document assessing conservation needs for the Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat. It’s quite lengthy, but as far as I could tell it doesn’t exactly confirm Hayes’ story about the bats coming out of hibernation early. It does, however, say that the Townsend’s tends to roost in abandoned mines, and returns to its roosts year after year. It is also considered to be highly susceptible to environmental contaminants. Also, the bats do skim over the water’s surface to drink, so if they emerged early, one could envision their wings getting wet and possibly frosted, dragging them down. It sort of fits, but as far as I could see, the report I found doesn’t indicate that this early emergence from hibernation is being observed (though White-nose Syndrome, which has been found in Washington, can include hibernation disturbances), let alone that it is being attributed to mining pollution.
The Sunshine Mine disaster in the book is a real, historic event. How the fire started has never been established.
The Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho, was once America’s richest silver mine, producing over 300 million ounces of silver in the course of its history through 2002. … The 91 men who died in the Sunshine Mine disaster in May of 1972 are memorialized in a permanent shrine built beside the I-90 highway outside of Kellogg. The shrine was built by a miner. After the 1972 disaster, the Sunshine Mining Company could not be sued for lack of safety gear. Idaho law states that employers may be held liable only for workers’ compensation claims. The average family received death benefits to equal two years of a good miner’s salary.
The book doesn’t attempt to recreate the events directly in a historical fiction way (though we see it through memories). Rather, Hayes weaves the real events into speculation about what might have happened and why, and how those events might be brought back to the present in a spectacular way.
It seems a fine line to tread–Hayes is very clear that the mining disaster was a real event, but Bitterroot County and its corrupt officials are fictional. There really were two miners who survived the disaster, but Hayes says he “knew that no Idahoan would undertake the unsavory and unethical activities I describe.” I hope he’s right about the corruption and murder (although Housekeeping claimed that Idahoans have a murderous streak), but I suspect that other “unsavory and unethical activities” in the book are credible–such as the Aryan Nations compound and the mining companies offering bribes to informants.
In any case, between the lake and the mines, Coeur d’Alene Waters by Ned Hayes was a pretty good addition to our reading challenge for Idaho.