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Book celebrates last of Alaska's hand-tool prospectors

  • Author: Tom Kizzia
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2012

They're gone now, that immigrant generation of Alaskans who came north in the decades between the Gold Rush and the Second World War. Fading too are the stories left behind about those prospectors and hunters and homesteaders and their feats of derring-do.

What a treat, then, that one of the more amazing characters of that era should emerge from local legend as the subject of a new, big, glossy-paged, full-color picture-book biography published by the National Park Service.

In the Wrangell Mountains, Martin Radovan is still remembered as the soft-hearted, unbelievably tough Croat prospector who laid claim to an azure-stained copper claim, thousands of feet up a sheer cliff, that was known to the world as the Binocular Prospect because not even European mountain climbers hired by Kennecott Copper Corp. had ever been able to reach it.

In "Tunnel Vision: The Life of a Copper Prospector in the Nizina River Country," historian Katherine Ringsmuth opens up the old guy's story with the stuff of a sweeping Alaska epic: travel from distant lands, a moving love story, an improbable family reunion and a fox named Bootsie who shared the prospector's cabin.

With a good sense of her tale's special treats, Ringsmuth describes the ingenious Bush engineering and solo escapades that established Radovan's regional reputation -- such as how, working alone, he figured a way to pull a heavy steel cable taut when he erected a handcar tram across an unfordable glacial river. (How would you do it?) Or how he beat darkness home one night by glissading down a couloir with enough speed to leap a yawning glacial crevasse -- only to lose, in the ensuing out-of-control somersault, an irreplaceable ore sample.

But the story is bigger than such exploits. Radovan left his close-knit family in Croatia in 1900, when he was 18 and conscription into the army of Austria-Hungary loomed. His name, Radovanovich, was shortened as he passed through Ellis Island, Ringsmuth writes. He made his way to Alaska to help build the Copper River and Northwestern Railway and, after he settled in McCarthy to work on small mines peripheral to the big Kennecott operation, he married a "pretty Norwegian bookkeeper," Augusta Iverson, who had herself left Norway as a child to work on a sugar plantation on Maui in the Sandwich Islands.

Ringsmuth pans through the historical record and the married couple's taciturn private journals to reconstruct a picture of cabin life in the mining camps. Indeed, the author is quite taken with Gussie and intent on raising her from the marginal status accorded women in most old frontier histories.

Occasional pauses to generalize about the immigrant experience or the role of women serve this government publication's primary purpose: to establish the Radovans and their properties as significant under federal law. Likewise the sometimes shapeless accumulation of local facts, appropriate to the book's origins as a compliance document under the National Historic Preservation Act.

But it is the undertow of emotional mystery -- the couple's wilderness bond, the coping strength and self-confident faith of the lone prospector -- that carry this Alaska story forward.

The Radovans lived together in their small Glacier Creek cabin until 1944, when Gussie died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her grieving husband buried her somewhere near their cache and lived on alone in the ghost town landscape. As the mining industry became more mechanized and professional, his reputation grew as the last of the old hand-tool prospectors. Some of his later claims he registered under the names Ki-Ki, Pongo Boy and Boots, after wild animal friends he adopted as companions.

One day, in a grocery store in Cordova, Radovan glanced at a fruit packing box and was shocked to see on the label a painting of his own gray-haired mother, whom he hadn't seen since 1900. He had no idea that his brother, Jack, had immigrated to California and started a fruit packing company under the brand name "Mother." The brothers were reunited in 1951, when Jack flew out to the Glacier Creek airstrip and surprised Martin.

Above all, there is the enduring prospector's dream: the story of Radovan's long labors at the Binocular Prospect and nearby claims. Years later, he wrote of the delight he felt when his "eyes rested on virgin rock never exposed to the gaze of man since the earth began spinning round the sun."

Convinced he had found a mountain of solid copper, he drilled and dynamited dozens of cramped tunnels into his inaccessible mountain above the Chitistone River, always at risk of setting a fuse too short and getting shot off the cliff like a bullet. To the booster-minded newspapers of his day, the impossibility of the task reinforced the inevitability of great riches. Even at the age of 75, he was still commuting to work up his trail of chiseled steps and rope and pitons.

He finally left the Copper River country when he was 92 and moved to California. He died a few months later, after hearing that a mining company had flown into Radovan Gulch by helicopter at last to do a full mineral assessment, but before hearing what the mining company discovered.

For all his life's labors, Ringsmuth writes, Martin Radovan was the man who never gave up and never found anything. The only pay he ever got from his years of gold mining, he told a friend in McCarthy, was "two halves of the same gold nugget." His copper claims disappeared from the map as a corporate tax write-off with the creation of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Some Alaskans may consider it ironic that the government agency charged by Congress with bringing down the curtain on the era of hard rock prospecting in the Wrangells should publish such a vivid account under the auspices of its Abandoned Mineral Lands Program. But "Tunnel Vision" is reassuring evidence that the new park recognizes its charge is not only Alaska's untrammeled wilderness but also the land's richly trammeled, drilled and dynamited human past.

Former Anchorage Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia's nonfiction book set in the Wrangell Mountains, "Pilgrim's Wilderness," will be published by Crown/Random House in 2013.

By TOM KIZZIA

Daily News correspondent

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