Visit www.adventuremine.com for more information. The Portfleets offer discounts on tours of 10 percent to Michigan Tech alumni, 20 percent to Michigan Tech students.
An Excellent Adventure
by Marcia Goodrich
With its shadowy entrance leading into a hillside deep in the woods, the Adventure Mine brings back memories of Snow White. But a tour of this old underground mine is much more than a fairy-tale escapade. It also offers lessons in history, mining, geology, and even biology.
Starting in 1850 and for seventy years thereafter, miners hauled millions of pounds of copper out of the Adventure Bluff. The region's copper business has since gone bust, but the Adventure Mining Company is enjoying a second life as a Keweenaw Heritage Site. Part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, it now attracts history and mining buffs, casual visitors, and tourists in search of something different.
It lured its current owners, Victoria and Matthew Portfleet, to tiny Greenland, Michigan, about five years ago. Victoria had earned her bachelor's in surveying from Michigan Tech in 1999, and Matthew completed his Tech degree in mining engineering in 1998.
"I'd always had a fascination for mining when I was a kid, and when I was a student, my friends and I did a lot of hiking and exploring the old mine sites," says Matthew. "Vicky and I were up here, debating what we wanted to do in life, and then the Adventure Mine came on the market.
"We talked it over and decided it would be a fun thing to try—you don't see too many mines for sale."
The mine gives Matthew a chance to put his mining degree to work in a family business. And despite the seven-day-a-week work schedule in the summer, "it's an adventure in its own right," says Victoria.
The Adventure Mine offers three tours that cater to visitors' varying levels of fitness and grit: For an introduction to the miners' world, try the hour-long Trammer's Tour. The ninety-minute Prospector's Tour takes you farther and deeper into the mountain. And if you really want an adventure, try wrapping yourself in harness and rappelling eighty feet down a ventilation shaft during the three-hour Miner's Underground Tour.
The Portfleets also held the inaugural Miner's Revenge Mountain Bike Race last summer. It drew more than a hundred cyclists who pedaled up a ski hill, threaded their way through a narrow tunnel, and skidded down a steep bluff. "It was very technical," says Matthew, by way of understatement. "Everyone gave it rave reviews."
The tour guides are well-versed in history and geology, both of the Adventure Mine and of the copper-mining region. Many are Tech students, who appreciate the chance to work and live near Houghton during the summer. This day, computer science undergraduate Brandon Benedict leads a group on the Prospector's Tour. The tunnel descends gradually into the hill. Step by step it gets cooler and darker. The basalt walls glisten with water droplets, a mist hangs in the air, and on a hot summer afternoon visitors are grateful for their jackets. Turn a corner, and it's black as pitch. Fortunately, headlamps are provided.
Benedict leads the way, telling stories about the mine and the miners and offering insights into the unique geology of the region. A bat flutters about, unnerved by the visitors' presence. They are nothing to be afraid of, he assures the group. "Hamsters with wings," he calls them.
"Bats like to hang out in the stopes," says Benedict as the tour descends farther into the mountain. "It's warmer there." Stopes are the large caverns in the mine, dug out years ago for their copper. Keweenaw copper is nearly pure, he explains, and miners followed veins of the red metal wherever they led. "The main rule was, you go where the copper goes—all for a buck a day." He points out a big chunk of tarnished green metal still embedded in the wall; any copper that was too difficult or dangerous to extract was left behind.
Mining copper was a tough way to make a living. Benedict demonstrates how miners pounded holes for dynamite: one man held a three-foot-long bar called a drill steel against the wall while two others hit the end with sledge hammers by the light of a single candle. If a miner was working alone and his candle went out, sometimes he had to wait until the next shift arrived to find his way out.
The visitors leave with a deep appreciation for those who moved ton after ton of rock for a dollar a day. You wouldn't want to work there, they agree, but the mine is a great place to visit.