Though Covid-19 has quieted Alaska's typical summer tourism buzz, guides from Salmon Berry Travel & Tours are staying busy. The Anchorage-based company took over operations at Independence Mine State Historical Park in June.
Salmon Berry has run gift shops in the past, but full management contracts are a new venture for the operator. Co-owner Mandy Garcia, who learned of the Independence Mine opportunity days before the state's deadline for concessionaire applications, involved her staff members in the decision.
"As tour operators, a lot of us are thinking six months out, a year out, maybe two years out," Garcia said. "Covid has limited us to making decisions on a monthly, weekly or sometimes even daily basis. As a consensus, the team decided that we really did need to think farther outside the box."
Independence Mine State Historical Park, located at Hatcher Pass, includes early 20th century buildings, interpretive sites and hiking trails that fall under the Alaska State Parks system umbrella. Garcia called the site in the Talkeetna Mountains, north of the towns of Willow and Palmer, "a hidden gem."
"Visitors traveling to Alaska want to do something off the beaten path. Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine are really unique," she said. "You've got everything here. If you want history, there's plenty. If you want the outdoors, you'll find easy hikes and somewhat more strenuous hikes. You're up in the mountains at 3,500 feet of elevation, with peaks all around you, and it's only an hour and a half from Anchorage."
In taking over Independence Mine operations for the 2020 season, Garcia saw an opportunity to expand guided tours, enhance family-friendly activities, and offer more consistency for Alaska residents and out-of-state visitors alike.
"Previously, you got to go into any of the buildings that were open on a given day. Sometimes there would be one building open, and sometimes there would be multiple buildings. This year, we decided to keep three buildings fully open, all the time, for day-pass visitors. The three tell a really good story of the mine," she said.
Those structures include the assay office, where displays document the gold mining and milling process. Exhibits in the manager's house feature people who worked at Independence Mine and document the facility's history, with a special focus on the period between 1938 and 1950.
Collections in bunkhouse No. 2 spotlight worker housing and hand tools used by the miners. A small cafe and retail counter occupies the building's former recreation room, and guests can rent gold-panning equipment to use in the nearby creek.
For individuals interested in digging deeper, Salmon Berry's guided tours chronicle life at the mine and explore additional buildings at the state park. In addition to viewing the mess hall and an apartment building, visitors see the differences in living arrangements for line workers, supervisors and kitchen staffers.
On each tour, Garcia and her team members tailor historical context and natural highlights to the interests of visitors.
"It could be as simple as, 'My family and I want to see as many wildflowers as possible.' We have naturalist guides who can do that, and we also have a guide who specializes in area hikes. He knows local routes like the back of his hand, and he has a wealth of knowledge about the mine, as well," she said. "Other people just really want to learn about gold panning. In that instance, I talk about the milling process and how it's different from other gold mining operations, and we discuss the history of gold mining. Then, we spend time down in the creek showing guests where to dig and how to find gold."
The maximum size for Salmon Berry's private Independence Mine tours is 12.
"Most of this year's mine tours are private by household or trusted group," Garcia said. "If you sign up in advance together, you come up with people in your bubble, and you acknowledge that you're a trusted group, then you go on tour together."
Salmon Berry has implemented several pandemic-related protocols for summer visitors. Masks are required on all tours and in all buildings, and buildings are fogged with sanitizer each evening. Entrances to the mine buildings remain open during tour hours, which eliminates the need to touch doorknobs. A touchless payment system is also available.
"Right now, our hope is that people are responsible when they travel. That's our biggest message," Garcia said. "Wear your mask. Be responsible. If you've got the chance to do a picnic outside at Hatcher Pass, for example, choose the picnic versus eating inside."
Activities in the Hatcher Pass vicinity offer rich daytrip options, she added.
"You can tour the Musk Ox Farm. You can do a kayak tour in Eklutna. You can visit the Friday Fling markets in Palmer. You can go hiking at Thunderbird Falls. There's a lot to make a trip into whatever you want it to be, and I think adding Independence Mine to the to-do list sets tour operators' vacations apart."
Salmon Berry will operate Independence Mine State Historical Park tours through Sept. 30. Prices start at $15 per person for adults; $12 for Alaska residents, military members and seniors; and $5 for children under age 2.
Gold pan rentals, including a demonstration, are $5 per person.
Day-use fees are $5 per vehicle, or free for Alaska State Parks passholders.
For Independence Mine tour bookings, call Salmon Berry Travel & Tours at (907) 278-3572.