Oscar, a raven, keeps George Kornec company, and Kornec feeds him baloney and bread. Freddy the chipmunk visits, as does a pine squirrel that likes peanut butter so much that Kornec named him Skippy. Kornec names just about all the critters. Steller's jays congregate around the big wooden birdfeeder outside his door. Hummingbirds zip around a feeder beneath his eaves. Occasionally a mountain lion lies under the back of Kornec's old red pickup, and bears come to pilfer birdseed. Kornec insists the best way to shoo away bears, by the way, is with a broom: "They're scared to death of a damn broom," he says.
Kornec, who might just be one of the last hermits in Montana, lives with his best friend. Spunky is a 13-year-old collie with a knotty white mane and a hoarse, muffled bark, as if he smokes. But that would be Kornec, who lights his filterless Liggett Selects one after another, often using a red Coors ashtray on his kitchen table. The laminate wood table looks like it was taken out of a bar, as do the three black vinyl chairs. A lantern and five or six flashlights sit on the table, because only a generator powers Kornec's house. The walls are yellowed from smoke. A wood-burning stove stands in the corner. There's a wooden radio and an old refrigerator, but no phone. The kitchen faucet connects to a hose that runs straight into Beartrap Creek.
"I've drank it all my life and it hasn't killed me yet," Kornec says.
Kornec is a lifelong miner. He's lived alone here for decades, on his small mining claim in the mountains between Lincoln and Rogers Pass, about 100 miles east of Missoula, purposefully unencumbered. He's one of the last small-time miners toiling in the mountains long after Montana's mining boom busted.
"I'm content up here in my private little world," he says.
Still, he gets visitors. When I first met him, back in March, I was tagging along with a Department of Environment Quality staffer who brought him chocolate-chip cookies. On a recent August visit, the propane man from Lincoln rumbled up the dirt road to top off Kornec's tank. And then an old hunting buddy Kornec hadn't seen in years popped in with his grandson to say hello and drop off a bag of birdseed. Earlier, a couple of 20-somethings in a white pickup conducting road surveys for the Forest Service had gotten turned around and found themselves on Kornec's claim; we'd left Kornec's gate, with a big "Road Closed" sign on it, open.
"I guess our maps are a little off," the driver said. "Maybe you can help us. Do you know these roads very well?"
"Real well," Kornec replied.
Mayor of the Mike Horse
Kornec has a wiry build, slick, silvery hair and glassy blue eyes. He's often profane. He calls himself ornery, and sometimes that's true, as when he derides the state and federal governments' multimillion-dollar reclamation of the Mike Horse Dam, which is unfolding right below his mining claim. He says it's "a mixed-up mess." But mostly Kornec exudes the carefree air of a new retiree, even though he still mines for precious metals and his friends and family describe him as the toughest, hardest-working person they know.
He has a quick smile and an easy, gravelly laugh. He speaks with a drawl and swallows laboredly between thoughts. He tells jokes like a grandfather, which he is; when he goes to the bathroom he says he has to go to the "little girls room" or "water the daisies."
Kornec calls himself "a young buck," although he turned 79 at the end of August. He refers to Lincoln (pop. 1,013) as "Lincoln America," as if it has a mining legacy akin to Butte's. When he lit a cigarette once in his kitchen, he chuckled and said, "I guess it's all right if I smoke, eh?"
He says his mother was a shirttail relation of Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker on "All In The Family"—"That's probably where I get my line of bull. I fuckin' inherited it."
He doesn't drink.
"The only bad vice I got is cigarettes, and I enjoy the hell out of them. I know a lot of fillies, but I don't have room in my world for a filly. I tried that twice and it didn't work."
He was born in Wallace, Idaho. In the late 1930s, when he was four or five, his family went on a three-day journey in his father's one-ton Model T truck. They relocated here, in the Heddleston Mining District, which the state calls the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex, an area that holds the headwaters of the Blackfoot River. The family lived in a cabin. Kornec attended high school in Helena, returning to the Mike Horse area on weekends. Before finishing high school, he joined the Air Force, and later served a stint in the Army, a total of seven years in the military. He fought in the Korean War and tells of covert, late-night missions and trips into Manchuria and Russia.