The road wound and bucked like a living creature trying to lose me in the wooded hills. I cruised along, keeping a modest speed, trying to be mindful of the posted limit while being anxious to get started. This was my first hike of the day and the drive from Appleton had been long and dark. I neared my destination, passing a dull yellow building that emitted a loud whine and a narrow landbridge over the basin's water, and then pulled over at the next gravel drive. I didn't get far. A yellow gate lay across the way to the dam on Schweitzer Creek and blocked my path.
I was a few miles southwest of Palmer, directly below the large Tilden Mine complex, and was trying to check out the basin on Schweitzer Creek. I'd been to both the waterfalls along the creek and just wanted to see how big the dam was (and if there were any 'manmade' waterfalls below). The dam was clearly off limits, though. I turned back west and headed the way I came, pulling over at the yellow building just up the road.
If the dam was off limits I at least wanted to get close to the shoreline of the basin. I headed up the drive towards the yellow building. As I neared it I noticed that the mechanical drone, which I had attributed to the nearby dam, was actually coming from here. The yellow building was a pumphouse. I'm not sure where the water gets pumped to (though I hope that the word 'fresh' is used loosely, as I know from personal experience that Schweitzer Creek smells pretty rotten) but it sure was pumping today.
Past the pumphouse the grass gave way to a scraggly forest that I could clearly see a rise through. I cut into the woods, feeling more at home with close trees than a cropped lawn, and climbed the hill with large strides. In a matter of minutes I was on top of a cleared bluff, looking over the narrow basin.
I could barely make out the cement features of a dam to my left in the dim cloudy light. There appeared to be two seperate structures, a larger gravel one and a cement one, the latter probably used as an overflow option. I couldn't tell if the overflow was running today and, assuming that the creek exited the basin through a lower pipe or grating, felt a little better about missing out on that destination today. A more prominent feature rose up beyond the dams. Tall and even, a solid wall towered over the trees holding back a tailings pond. I glared at it, wanting to skip over the basin and peer over.
The basin on Schweitzer Creek was not my only destination this morning. The narrow basin is hemmed in by two massive tailings ponds for Tilden Mine. The southern one is an eery blue on aerials while the northern one a bright orange. I was curious about these ponds and their hues and had hoped to visit both in one hike, crossing Schweitzer Creek near the dam. Crossing the basin or the creek didn't appear to be an easy option. With one last glance at the wall of earth I turned and headed to the orange pond, the larger of the two, which lay right across the road.
There was some water in the way. The basin stretched north here, across the road, forcing that narrow landbridge. I circled around the swampy stretch and found an easy dirt road leading right up to the pond's wall. As I neared it I was surprised at the size. I'm not good at guessing heights so I'll just say that it rose about a hundred feet up, covered in nasty grass and a few small pieces of brush, and I could make out rough rock poking out in a few spots. They probably made the wall from the mine's waste rock and let the vegetation slowly take over to stabilize the wall.
I was not in any rush to tackle the climb so I followed the road along the wall. It ran below it, to the west, leading to a small pool. The pool was nasty. A broken walk lay across it, pipes sprawled nearby, and the nearby ground was stained an ugly rusty brown. I could hear a low hum here, something that confused me at first, until I saw the controls next to the pool.
The water here must be some sort of buffer, a small holding pen between the water in the tailings pond above and the basin below. I wasn't sure which way the water flowed, guessing at first that it was coming from the pond above with how nasty the water looked, but there was nothing to verify the guess. In fact, with the exception of the low noise and these controls there was no indicatin of a pump, no water stirring or moving below.
Beyond the pool was a collection of snowmobiles that had been abandoned to the elements. This was odd. I was obviously on a service road for this pump and/or dike and here was a dump. Maybe the workers of Tilden were avid snowmobilers and the mine didn't mind them dumping their old equipment here. I turned here and headed up the wall.
The climb was quick and steep. Along the way I startled two deer who were up top and they bolted westwards. I hoped they weren't drinking the water. The bright orange from the aerials did not promise a healthy sip for any creature. Then I peaked the dike and got my first look at the pond.
It wasn't terrible. I was expecting a neon burn, a sharp blast of color that stunk. The pond was just dirty water. Maybe a direct overhead shot exaggerates the orange, or there was some sort of false coloring, or it changes throughout the year. I looked over the flatness to the mine beyond.
The most impressive piles of the mine were to the northeast, up near Tilden, which was to be expected. Loud clangs and booms rang out over the pond. They were the first sounds of the mine I had heard this morning and it came as a bit of a shock. Also, I finally got my answer about the pump below. A pipe poured water into the pond to my right, pumped in from Schweitzer Basin below. The nasty rust could either be from leakage through the ground or from the broken walk.
I took one last look down before heading back down. It was kinda cool to see everything - from the road below all the way over beyond the basin - and get a final picture of the entire (short) hike. When I hit the road I tried to circle to the right first, walking through the snowmobile graveyard, and swiftly bumped into a cabin on private land. So that's where the snowmobiles had come from, a landowner. Circling back I followed the same path out, back to the landbridge and over to my car. At least I had made it to one of the two tailings ponds and had learned that it didn't glow orange, though I still wished the dam was more accessible.