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.
Between and after the military stints, Kornec worked in underground mines in Butte, Marysville, Helena and elsewhere in Montana—a total of seven or eight mines, he says. (When he recalls events, he's fuzzy on the years; "a few years ago" could be 30.)
He's spent most of his life right here.
He witnessed the Mike Horse Mine's heyday, in the 1940s, when it employed more than 250 people; the blowout of the metals-laced Mike Horse Dam in 1975, which contaminated the Blackfoot watershed; and the legislature designating the area a state Superfund site in 1991.
He's often called "the mayor of the Mike Horse," he points out.
The DEQ staffer who brought him cookies, Shellie Haaland, an upper Blackfoot reclamation specialist, says Kornec has served as an unofficial consultant as the state works through the reclamation. "He truly is the history of that place," she says, "and so few of those people remain."
Kornec is also among the few who know the origins of the name "Mike Horse": In the late 1800s, a miner camped here, and in the morning he cooked bacon. A bear smelled it, Kornec explains, and lumbered into the camp, spooking the miner's horse. When the horse took off, it kicked over rocks revealing chunks of lead. When the miner later staked his claim, he named it after his horse, Mike.
'Nuggets you wouldn't believe'
Inside Kornec's front door there's a white bucket. He tells me to remove the lid and stick my hand into the murky water.
I dig up what I say feels like mud.
Kornec cackles. "That's concentrate." He says it contains gold, silver, lead, zinc and a little osmium.
Kornec and a business partner still mine Kornec's claim. He doesn't share many details of the small, exploratory operation because he doesn't want a "big splash in the paper" and "crazies coming in and causing a whole bunch of problems"—especially with gold and silver prices at record highs. But he agrees to show it to me.
There's not much to it, just a drift—a tunnel into the side of a mountain—and a couple of small buildings. Out of the locked-up drift flows a small stream of water, which, Kornec says, "is probably the best water in the whole Blackfoot Valley—they said in order to bring this water up to standards to drink in the big city, they would have to add pollution to it."
The buildings are framed with timbers taken from the forest. They house mucking machines, trammers, ore cars, slushers, drill cores and other equipment. Kornec says he has everything he needs to process metals into bars. He's most eager to show me a concentrating table that he says is capable of separating microscopic metal particles. Later, inside his house, he'll fire up his generator, plug in a VHS player and TV, and play an hour-long video about this Micron Mill Wave Table. It's essentially a shallow tub of water that creates small waves, which separate metals by specific gravity, avoiding chemicals altogether.
"The key thing is that we don't want to get involved with acids or chemicals. We know how to do it, but if you can stay away from it, the better off you are...In the long run, I'm probably a better environmentalist than [most self-described environmentalists] will ever think of being, because I respect Mother Nature. I don't believe in open-pit mining and tearing the mountain down. There are other ways to mine besides that."
Kornec is wary of claim jumpers. Years ago, he tells me as we stand 50 feet from the opening of the drift, he was helping a friend identify the pay streak on a claim near the Nevada Creek Dam, over the mountains southwest of Lincoln. One morning, he was working by himself out in the open when some "son of a bitch shot me from the edge of the clear-cut, right through the fucking hips." He was seven or eight miles from civilization, he says. His friend and his friend's two sons got Kornec onto a cot, into a camper and, eventually, to a hospital in Butte. He says he bled so much that doctors pumped 21 pints of plasma into him. They told Kornec he had to show them that he could move his feet, if only an inch, and if he couldn't, they were going to cut off his legs.
"And I said, 'Bullshit! I come into this world with two of them and if I leave, I'm going to have 'em on there!' That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, to make those fuckers move just a little bit."
Bullet fragments remain in his body, he says; doctors X-rayed him after surgery and said he lit up like a Christmas tree.
Kornec abruptly returns the conversation to the place where he was shot: "There were nuggets there you wouldn't believe. Some of them were over three ounces, and you couldn't drop them into a fucking pop can."
That was 40 or 50 years ago, he says; he's not sure. He says it was also the last time he saw a doctor.
"The only kind of medication I take is an Alka-Seltzer for a sour stomach. Very rarely do I take an aspirin or anything like that."
He attributes his good health to fresh air and clean water.
The view from above
Kornec's home, sided with weathered, blue corrugated steel, used to be American Smelting & Refining Co.'s office. He thinks it was built in 1939. Years later, after the building was abandoned, Kornec says he laid big timbers under the house, attached it to Lulu, and skidded it up the hill to its current location. (He doesn't just name wildlife: Lulu is Kornec's nickname for his Cat, the big, yellow tractor parked in front of his house.) Now the house is perched right above the Mike Horse tailings pond, among the last remaining structures in a district that once teemed with miners. The old Mike Horse town site is long gone.
ASARCO operated the Mike Horse Mine from about 1945 to 1955. It would eventually lease the property to the Atlantic Richfield Co. in the '60s. ASARCO built a tailings pond buttressed by an earthen dam. In June 1975, at the peak of the spring runoff, the Mike Horse Dam, itself partly constructed of tailings, blew out, washing 100,000 tons of fine-grain tailings laced with silver, gold, zinc, lead, cadmium, iron, copper and arsenic into Beartrap Creek and the upper Blackfoot River, devastating fish and other aquatic life for miles. In 2008, the state and feds announced a $37 million settlement with ASARCO and Atlantic Richfield Co. to remove the Mike Horse Dam and the tailings behind it. The first step is to identify a place to bury the tailings somewhere in the Blackfoot Watershed. That's what Shellie Haaland has been working on. She says the DEQ and Forest Service will release an analysis of all the repository options within a few weeks. A comment period will follow.
Kornec was here that wet spring of '75, and he says "everybody's overblown the whole thing." The entire dam didn't wash away, he says, just a side channel. And he believes the tailings settled in wetlands before they reached far down the Blackfoot. As for the water in the dam being toxic, "that's a bunch of garbage...kids used to swim in there. You wouldn't have believed the size of the fish in there. Gee whiz."
In fact, Kornec says, ASARCO should have been praised for building the dam, because back then, most other mining companies dumped mine waste directly into creeks. He believes the tailings should be entombed right where they are. Millions shouldn't be spent trying to truck them somewhere else.
That's just one of Kornec's critiques of the Mike Horse reclamation. He thinks the state ought to hire more mining engineers. He also says it should run the tailings through a mill, as he believes the remaining metals would more than pay for the project. He pans the wide road the Forest Service recently built to access the dam, calling it "Amber's thoroughfare," after Amber Kamps, the Lincoln district ranger.
"All they need is some blacktop and some lines on that sucker."
"I told 'em," he says of the reclamation project, "'As long as you keep it on that side of that gate, that's your world down there. This over here, this is my world.'"
Despite Kornec's carping, Haaland says his freely shared knowledge of the area has proven invaluable. "There's an adit that runs underneath the Blackfoot River," she says, "and we never would have picked it up had George not told us about it—things like that. He's just been great."
'That's the way I like it'
Kornec was married twice, once for 14 years and again for 16 years. He had three daughters. Georgette Quillin, of Kornec's first marriage, lives in East Helena. She hasn't seen George in three or four years; her kids hardly know him. Another daughter, Denise, lives in Washington state. The last time I saw Kornec, he was expecting her and her husband and three boys to visit at the end of August. The other daughter died years ago in a car accident. Kornec has a brother in Butte and a half-brother in Helena. They visit "once in a great, great while," he says. "That's about it."
He says his marriages failed because his wives "liked the bright lights better than they did marriage."
His second wife lived here in the mountains for a while, and he says she mostly enjoyed it.
He says he doesn't regret the breakups.
"Every man has his own thing that he would love to do in his lifetime, and most of them make the big mistake—they'll marry some gal that wants to keep you under their thumb. They have a list on that 'frigerator of honey-dos that'll last for six months. But if you want to go out and do your own thing, you have a hell of time squeezing the short time in to do it. This way, I don't have no female telling me what to do."
Quillin says Kornec's lifestyle is "kind of like being a hermit." "Hermit" is a loaded word around Lincoln, because this is where Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, holed up in a remote cabin.
"Down there in Lincoln they got me nicknamed 'the old mountain man,'" Kornec says. "Some say, 'Well, don't you have any girlfriends?' And I say, 'I've got so many mountain maidens running around out there you wouldn't believe it.'"
He's typically in bed by 9 p.m. and up at daylight. When not mining, he says, he does mapping and other mineral work. He has more than 300 VHS tapes, mostly westerns, war movies, and outdoor films like Call of the Wild. He used to get four television channels before stations nationwide switched to a digital format two years ago; now he gets none. His radio picks up stations in Helena, Great Falls and Missoula. When he needs to make a phone call, he drives his truck down the road to the wastewater treatment plant below the dam—the plant that treats the polluted water still draining out of the mining complex before it pours into the upper Blackfoot. Jesse Cotton, the plant manager, says he sees Kornec at least once a week. Every two weeks or so, Kornec drives to Lincoln to pick up his mail and buy cigarettes and other supplies.
"Lincoln ain't Lincoln like it used to be," he says.
He remembers when there used to be wagon trails and only two bars, and big ponderosas all the way up and down the valley. "Down in Lincoln now, it's just like the rest of the world moved in on it, and they brought all their garbage with them that they're trying to run away from."
Lincoln still has just one gas station.
Winters up here can be brutal. Kornec says that years ago, the temperature reached 72 below zero on Rogers Pass. He says it wasn't uncommon then to see 50 below. Lately, though, he says, winters have been relatively mild. During cold ones he'll burn through up to 10 cords of wood. He had this coming winter's supply already cut and stacked by the Fourth of July.
He says people often ask him how he can live up here with no telephone or television. "And I say, 'That's the way I like it.' I don't have trains going by...and I don't have horns honking and all that crap.
"You stop and think that them people in the big cities, they spend fortunes just to come out here for a couple weeks to see what it's like to get out of the rat race, you know? That's why I don't like it. When I hit the big city, I do what I have to do and get the hell out of it. That's the way I am."
He loathes Missoula, partly because it's a "big city," partly because it's an "environmental haven," where, he says, college kids learn to protest things they don't fully understand.
He can't remember the last time he traveled somewhere farther than Missoula.
Bill Kornec, George's nephew, lives in Lincoln. He says that in a family of miners, George is the only one still at it, and that it might pay off for him with precious metals prices climbing so high. In any case, he says, his uncle has already struck gold.
"George is living a dream life as far as I'm concerned. He lives up there in that cabin, and he gets by just fine. And he's happy and he doesn't have a worry in the darn world. If I was single, that's where I would be. I'd be up there with my uncle."