EARLY DAYS ON TWO BULL RIDGE
By John E. Wood
"The call came about four in the afternoon of Labor Day 1972. Let's take the 180 and go moose hunting!" Although I had been up early taking Leo's teenage son Mike goose hunting downriver from Nenana in my old wooden riverboat, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
At the time I was 25 years old and, as the Usibelli Coal Mine engineer was involved in just about everything around the mine having to do with engineering, geology and running production crews. I was in great physical shape and always ready to go on an adventure. Little was I aware that events of the next several days would ultimately play a part in Alaska's newest producing coal mine.
I met shop foreman Leo Mollier at the Usibelli airstrip and off the two of us flew looking for moose. Luck was with us, and after spotting a couple of nice bulls on the north side of Lignite Creek we landed on a typical brushy Alaskan "bush" airstrip about 5 miles away where the creek made a delta flowing into the Nenana River.
We walked up the creek on a washed-out road, beyond the old Arctic Coal Mine camp, and proceeded to get into a heated discussion as to where the moose were. I had counted that the moose were on the third ridge beyond the camp, so I stuck to my guns. In the fading light we climbed the third ridge, and there, several hundred yards away, much to our delight and my satisfaction, stood three huge bulls.
Leo and I each chose our moose and commenced firing, the flash from the rifle shots several feet long in the twilight. After the shooting stopped we discovered that we had bagged two of the largest-bodied 60-plus-inch moose either of us had ever seen!
It took us pretty much all night to field dress the moose and walk back to the airstrip. Flashlights with fading batteries and moose so large two of us together couldn't turn them over added to our nocturnal pleasures. After it was fully dark a large red glow appeared on the southern horizon in the direction of McKinley Park. Several days later we learned that what we had seen was the old McKinley Lodge burning to the ground.
Over the next several days we hauled the meat off the ridge and back to Usibelli in a vehicle best described as a hunting jeep complete with oversized tires, no top and a winch. To top it off I developed a nasty case of blood poisoning in one of my arms that required several large injections of antibiotics to subdue.
The next two years brought tumultuous times to the United States. Inflation, commodity shortages, Watergate. Was the US going to survive? Then came the first Arab Oil Embargo, and crude oil prices quadrupled from $1.50 to $6.00 per barrel. Oil money was buying natural resources everywhere and Usibelli, having gradually over the previous four years consolidated ownership of the various coal leases in the Healy and Lignite Creek valleys, began to get sales inquiries.
Even though we had five-or-so years' reserves in the Gold Run Deposits and had drilled out a good resource in Poker Flats, we decided to get into coal exploration big time. Additional economical resources would increase the value of the Usibelli property holdings for whatever the future would bring. A new rotary drill, mounted on a new track carrier, coupled with a D-6 with 6 way blade and winch, and a Nodwell transport vehicle, made for the perfect coal exploration outfit. And this was before permitting!
As winter breakup ended in 1974 we drilled out a number of areas in the upper Lignite valley, but for the last two years I had had my eye on the benches on the north side of the middle stretch of the drainage. Although geologist Clyde Wharhoftig had pretty much described the possibilities of a Poker Flats occurrence "right-on" in an early 1950's USGS Bulletin, nothing much was offered about the possibility of surface mining deposits upstream. I'd had the time to study the outcrops and ponder the landforms, and figured there would be a pretty good chance of finding gently dipping low-stripping ratio coal under the north side benches upstream of the Arctic camp.
I'd already figured out how to get a vehicle onto the ridge that was my prime target two years earlier on that epic Labor Day moose hunt, and my suspicions were confirmed when we penetrated multiple thick seams with favorable overburden characteristics in our first drill holes.
That fall, when I was laying out the drill results on paper and computing preliminary resources, I came up with the name "Two Bull Ridge" - home of the massive moose and massive coal reserves. Much to my amusement the name stuck.