George's claim 

A reclusive miner was looking for gold. He found the good life.

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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."

click to enlarge Kornec, 79, is one of the last small-time miners toiling in the mountains long after Montana’s mining boom busted. - PHOTOS BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photos by Alex Sakariassen
  • Kornec, 79, is one of the last small-time miners toiling in the mountains long after Montana’s mining boom busted.

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.

click to enlarge Rocks on a bench outside Kornec’s home gleam with metals. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

"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.

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