In honor of featuring writing more geared toward entertainment than news, the Alaska Commons will be featuring certain fiction pieces from Alaska authors. If you have a piece you’d like to suggest or recommend, please send an email to email@example.com.
And now, please enjoy “The Forgotten Mine.”
It was by pure accident that I stumbled upon the forgotten mine.
I was a land claims lawyer, living in Juneau Alaska and working on historical records for a proposed mining development in that town. I was researching current claims and records of surveys of the area surrounding our development when I happened to discover an irregularity. You see, Alaska is a state whose property is held largely by federal and state interests, and most of Southeast Alaska belongs to one or the other. What I found was a narrow strip of land nestled within a historically productive stretch of glacial moraine, perfectly adjacent to nearby state and federal lands yet not included in either. This platte lay along a steep mountain bluff, in the middle of a stretch of creek that ran from the lofty ice fields to the teal green oceans of Juneau’s coastline.
Curious as to how such a potentially productive stretch of land could remain unclaimed by private or government interest, I began researching the parcels history further.
Through careful investigation of archived information, I learned that the plot had once had a private owner and that there had been development of the claim. The original owners (four brothers of apparent Spanish decent) had all been declared legally dead during the 1900’s, the eldest brother being 32 at the time of death. The bodies were listed as “missing or unrecoverable” and the premises described as “abandoned.”
The brothers were well known in the area, according to a local obituary that I uncovered. They came from a family of seafarers, their forefathers having been a part of Malaspina’s exploration of Alaska a hundred years earlier. Enrico, the eldest, moved to Juneau at the age of 18 from California and quickly proved himself as a skilled trapper and reliable deckhand. A few years later, his three brothers joined him, and they quickly set themselves up as fur traders and gold panners.
They staked claim and established a homestead near the mouth of the creek, south of the now forgotten mine. From this locale they ran trap lines and panned for gold in the narrow gorge. Six months before they were declared legally dead, they made a substantial sale of gold and silver, followed by the purchase of some heavy mining equipment. After that, no sales or tax records exist for them. For 60 years, the land lay untouched as there were no heirs to the property and the area was far removed from the bustling hub of Juneau’s downtown square.
Interestingly enough, efforts had been made to survey the area when land was divided up during Alaska’s move to statehood but the forgotten mine was somehow omitted. This did not appear to be an accidental act, as the boundaries were surveyed and lands parceled by a very reliable and well known professional surveyor.
I became very intrigued with the history of this forgotten claim and delved deeper and deeper into unraveling its mystery. Most adventurers would have grabbed their gear and dashed head-long toward the tract, but I was a lawyer and a scholar, and felt that gathering reconnaissance was my best course of action.
I began looking further into local folklore regarding the gorge and its shear rock cliffs. Tales from the local Tlingit Natives told of a “cursed valley” located somewhere in the general vicinity, although accounts varied widely as to where. In most examples, the stories warned of ghostly mountain creatures, usually resembling abnormally large mountain goats or deformed and malnourished blue-haired “glacier” bears. The creatures, whatever they were, were only found within certain reaches of creeks and rivers running through narrow cut gorges.
The tales were hard to validate, as the details varied widely, and the few scholars who had catalogued and interpreted such tales passed them off as “boogey man” type stories; the kind intended to keep young children from wandering off into dangerous mountain passes.
A few local stories also existed from the early days of trapping and panning. Strange tales of malformed creatures getting snared in traps or of camps being broken up by rampaging beasts that “appeared from and quickly disappeared into the frozen mountain mists.” Most of these tales were written-off as drunken camp tales or scare tactics to protect lucrative trap lines.
Only one image existed to corroborate these tales, and it was so archaic and poorly preserved that it offered little hard evidence. Taken during the late 50’s, it showed two local trappers holding up some mutilated creature, rabbit like in form except for the grotesque, oversized, hoofed hind legs, large vampiric teeth, and tiny black beaded eyes set in deeply recessed and furrowed sockets. Being a scholar and an already established skeptic, I found it hard to believe that the image could be anything close to authentic. Yet, staring at that garish creature sent chills rippling down my spine. Outside of these outlandish tales, very little circumstantial evidence existed as to what may have happened to the previous owners of the forgotten mine. The only real telling evidence came after I studied the field books of the surveyor in charge of laying out the boundaries during the act of statehood.
With some effort I was able to procure copies of the survey field books, but even these records were incomplete, alluding to unmentionable passages detailed further in the surveyor’s private log. This led me to delve deeper.
With quite a bit of diligence, and at great personal expense, I was finally able to get my hands on the professionally licensed surveyor’s private journal. Here I found subtle notes and passages that set my mind into chaotic overdrive.
The survey crew had indeed passed near the site of the mine and homestead, but had deliberately surveyed around it, choosing to ignore the area in question along the state and federal boundary.
The field books mentioned an impassable stretch of creek nestled between a sheer granite wall on one side, and a treacherous, rocky, spruce-covered ascent leading to a prominent mountain peak on the other. These books did mention that an abandoned homestead and a nearby cave entrance were both visible along a narrow deer trail that meandered along the mountain ascent, but no efforts were made to include the area in the survey. It wasn’t until after I procured the personal log that the story was fully told.
The professional surveyor, leading the crew on the initial survey, had gone into the narrow gorge and did, in fact, investigate the homestead. Initially, he did not inspect the cave (for reasons even he was afraid to mention). It was obvious that what he had found just along the creek and amongst the remains of the house had horrified him deeply, and led the field crew to openly protest making a trek through the choking gorge.
The surveyor described the scene in great detail. The area was cloaked in an unnatural fog that hung close to the ground. It was fiercely cold and hard and heavy to breath. Along the creek, littered amongst the white granite boulders typical of the area, were various skulls and bones of assorted sizes and types. Otter, rabbit, deer, and even small bear skulls were easily identifiable in the mix, yet the author also mentions a littering of bones that were unlike anything he’d ever seen. Just reaching the house was a chore, and it offered little additional information.
The walls had been built up out of granite rocks, plastered together with mud. The wooden roof and floors had both collapsed, the latter revealing an underground cellar that had been ransacked by local animals. The surveyor had tried to push further, driven by curiosity to explore the cave that laid a hundred or so yards upstream of the house, but his nerves were getting the best of him. As he peered past the house and through the fog, he describes the presence of a powerful wind that quickly picked up and of a preternatural howl that echoed down the rocky gorge. He alluded to seeing “creatures in the mist” darting low and close to the nearby cavern, but initially chalked it up to shaky nerves. He also mentioned the impact the gorge had on his crew, particularly an old chinaman who became particularly panicked and babbled incoherently in a mixture of “broken English, mandarin, and canton Chinese,” repeatedly muttering something about “the Old and Deep Ones” in all three dialects.
The survey leader decided to pick up their path by going up the rocky deer trail, with the intention of finding a way up the opposing steep granite cliff at another date. After leaving the place, the writing in both accounts became more organized and professional, with only a few hints of fear or mania mentioned, as if proximity to the cave alone brought on mental strain.
The remainder of the day’s work went relatively well, although the surveyor’s personal log mentions a distinct feeling of “malicious eyes” following them for the rest of the trek. The curiosity of the principal surveyor was obviously piqued, especially in his private accounts. Several weeks later he went back, this time on his own, to the site in order to find a path up the opposite side.
Here the journal takes a major change in tone; something seen or witnessed by the surveyor must have clearly shaken the seasoned outdoor adventurer. His entries after that solo trip become more sparse and spread apart, being written in shorter and choppier sentences. Several times he mentioned “the eyes in the windows” and “the howling that haunts him in his dreams and nightmares”. His last entry was only a few sentences long, and mentioned his shattered nerves and the need for longer and warmer days. Shortly thereafter he and his wife left for Seattle, eventually retiring to Florida.
Being a scholarly man of the rational positivist tradition, I found myself fascinated with the effect this locale so obviously had on a man familiar with the remote Alaskan wilderness.
Having exhausted information from all of the written accounts, I made up my mind to visit the forgotten gorge on my own. I would take a small crew with me, so that my observations might be verified in earnest by other logical minds. For this endeavor, I chose a local geologist, a professional peer who also worked for the mines and was an expert in area rock formations. I also called upon an old college acquaintance, an anthropology professor with tenure in Pacific Northwest savage culture.
To help with gear we hired a local panner. He was a stout, older man who claimed to have visited the outflow of the gorge early in his career. Something about the place had come across as queer to his superstitious senses, and whatever treasures he had uncovered had scarcely been worth the effort and the aura of being there. For a hefty sum he agreed to take us to the valley (using his skiff as transportation) and help to haul our gear on our voyage to the accursed homestead and forgotten mine.
With our expert crew assembled, and all the proper gear and provisions procured, we set off on a bumpy boat ride north of town to the land of legends.
As we rode out across Lynn Canal, the ride became an increasingly treacherous one. Winds from the north howled down upon us, stirring up large, rolling waves that threatened to pitch the small skiff straight into the sky. We kept as close to the shore as we dared possible, slowly making our way onward and northward. Eventually the coastline made a hard shift, and we found ourselves nestled in a small protected bay at the mouth of a narrow basin.
A low thick fog hung close to the rocks and water, and a dead silence pervaded the air. Here, there were no eagles and no ravens. There was no sign of life at all beyond the dense moss covered rocks and twisted spruce.
We maneuvered through the fog towards the meandering flood plain where a shallow bubbling stream merged with a wider, slower, snaking river. We proceeded cautiously up the river channel, bumping over sand bars and steering around woody debris, the basin narrowing the entire way. Suddenly, the topography swept upwards, and we found ourselves at a second stream intersection. This one was wide and shallow, barely ankle deep in most places, and came roaring down through a narrow gorge beset with a high granite wall to our left, and a high running, rocky, spruce-covered hill that terminated into a prominent peak to our right. The fog hung thicker and heavier than it had in the small bay; so thick that it muffled the sound of our outboard and an otherwise roaring stream.
We anchored our skiff just upstream in the main river channel, along a narrow gravel bar just below a deeper eddy. It was the only place in the whole area that afforded us a safe and secure tie up without placing us in fast currents or on top of the large white granite boulders that pervaded the basin. We unloaded the necessary gear, leaving our overnight supplies behind in the skiff.
We first wanted to stake out the area, visit the homestead and opening to the cave, and determine whether it was worth a prolonged stay before we set up a base camp. With our steadfast assistant at the helm, we picked our way up the rocky stream bed. It was a slow and difficult task as the channel split and meandered wildly. The flow was never deep but it was swift and the rocks were large and jagged. The stream made a sudden sharp turn to the right, hugging tightly to the hillside that towered directly next to us. The channel narrowed and deepened considerably, and we were forced to wade hip deep across the high current to a narrow cobble beach just between the steep rock wall and the singular channel. There, we caught our first glimpse of the ramshackle cabin.
It was erected on the same cobble shoal that we now stood upon, just halfway between the deep channel and the steep granite wall, only a hundred meters from our current position.
The fog was oppressive, completely obscuring the view of the gorge any further upstream, and clinging to the rocks and cabin like a vaporous mold. The air was incredibly cold, crisp, and still. A low howl suddenly pitched and fell, like a great wind blowing down the chasm, yet the air around us never stirred. The eerie zephyr shook our nerves, the guide physically jumping at the sudden break in silence, and the hairs on my arm stood on end.
We stood in terror for what felt like an eon before we slowly picked our way towards the abandoned tenement. As we carefully advanced, I began to notice the littering of skulls and bones mixed in amongst the cobble and gravel. I pointed them out to my geologist friend, who stopped to bend down and investigate. The anthropologist, anxious to investigate the hovel and regaining his fortitude, moved ahead of us. Our guide, now possessed with a nervous and piercing stare, stood steadfastly still. His eyes were intently glued to the top of the towering wall to our left, his hand on the holster of his pistol, not a single muscle twitching.
Ignoring our primitive-minded guide for a moment, I joined in the examination of the bone litter. Most of the bones around us were small and rodent-like, with the occasional otter skull or fragment of antler intermittently scattered about. There were a lot of them for such a small area. Had this been on a hillside it would have been good evidence for a bear cache, but on such a long, narrow, hard to reach stretch of gravel bar that seemed unlikely. It was possible that they had washed down from farther upstream, but as we dug down through the gravel and sand veneer we found the bones to be more and more prevalent, suggesting long periods of deposition between seasonal flooding of the narrow plain. Our investigation was abruptly interrupted as our anthropologist colleague called out our names. We quickly ran to join him at the door frame of the collapsed hovel.
It was a simple, one room cabin. The floor and ceiling were indeed collapsed. The large, rough cut beams that had made up the joists and rafters lay scattered around the dug cellar, slowly rotting and covered with a thick and garish moss. Based on the arrangement of the remains, it appeared as though the whole of the roof and floor had collapsed from the center down. From the appearance, a massive weight must have come to rest on the roof’s center, so that the large hand sawn boards (many of which were 4×4 and even 6×6 in size) had caved in under immense strain. The shelters door lay at the top of the pile. It was an equally large and heavy door, joisted together from the same 4×4’s found in the ceiling and floor, and was marked with deep furrows patterned in a way that resembled incredibly large claw marks. The hinges had mostly rusted away, but one of the plates on the frame was badly mangled, like the heavy door had been torn away.
The inside walls, at least the portions we could see through the rubble and moss, also showed signs of clawing.
The windows, two on the north wall, one on the east wall (over what appeared to be the remains of a dangling kitchen counter) and one on the south wall by the door, were also clawed and raked. Large, heavy wooden shutters had once covered these windows to keep out the cold winter air, but they were all now either busted into pieces or laying on the ground several feet away from the house. The entire area smelled of death and decay and of ancient lurking evil, and a chilled air began to set into my skin, causing my joints to ache and scream.
As we stood there surveying the scene, a guttural wail erupted from behind us, followed by a succession of sharp, cracking gun shots. We whirled aroun,d only to come face to face with that dense fog. It had crept in on us from behind as we studied the collapsed house, and was so thick that we could scarcely see an inch through it.
My geologist friend tried to push through the fog toward the gunshots, where our guide had once stalwartly stood. But just touching the fog produced a chilled sensation so intense that it nearly frostbit the fingers, even through layers of clothing suitable for the seasonal climate. The fog crept slowly and diligently, pressing us back against the south face of the house until we had to make our way around the western wall. By now the fog was completely around us, except for a narrow path that led between the west wall and the granite cliff. At the end of the path lay that gaping maw that was the forgotten mine.
It was like some arcane hand was guiding us towards that fearsome chasm. We had little choice: die in the cold or at the hands of whatever unseen beast had seized our guide, or venture towards the cave and further investigate the source of this unholy terror seeping in around us.
We pressed onward toward the cave in spite of our cold rigid joints and increasingly shaky nerves. Every fiber of my body said to turn and run, yet the curiosity of my mostly rational mind mocked the fear that I was experiencing. It felt like some prehistoric memory was calling out from every cell in my body, instinctively warning me of untold horrors to come, but my strict stubborn upbringing and disciplined positivist mind worked feverishly against that deep instinctive fear.
As we approached the mine, the rocks around us grew increasingly large in size, and many appeared to be rough cut approximately squared angles. A narrow path emerged in the rocks around us, which steadily grew in size and oddness of shape. My geologist friend was the first to remark on the nature of the rocks, mentioning that the geometry was oddly wrong for naturally sheared granite. It also occurred to us, as our wits and nerves slowly returned to us and conversation resumed, that the cave was much further from the stream than we had originally thought. We walked the smooth path until it finally terminated at the entrance of that unwholesome opening. The mouth of the mine was a full 50 meters high, and equally wide. At first glance it resembled any other naturally occurring chasm that might be found anywhere in the world, except for the fact that the large boulders along the face of the cliff appeared to have once been strategically stacked. Some great quake must have scattered them long ago, reopening the cave.
With the help of electric light, we cautiously crept into the mine. The walls were scarred with marks of chisel and pick, and after about 50 feet in the ceiling swept down quickly into a smaller cave that split off into multiple mining shafts. Here we found the first of the man-made support beams, put in to reinforce the walls and ceiling from cave-ins. The rusted remains of mining tools lay scattered haphazardly around at the mouth of the main shaft.
The anthropologist noticed a small leather-bound journal perched atop a large boulder. It had a thick stiff binding and a large strap secured with a heavy steel lock. We examined it together while our geologist friend quietly examined the walls of the shaft. We heard him whisper our names and so we proceeded to join him. He was standing a further 50 feet into the mine shaft, where the rock formations changed dramatically. Standing there we caught our first glimpse of the wealth that lay hidden in this remote and forgotten place.
A vein of gold and copper, as wide as two fists, ran haphazardly through the granite and stretched lengthwise down the shaft. We followed it a good 60 yards until it terminated in a most unusual way. The granite common to this area abruptly ended and some wholly new type of rock took over.
My geologist friend was completely baffled by this new geomorphic feature, it was unlike anything he’d ever seen or heard of in any part of the world. It wasn’t unlike obsidian: black as coal, completely smooth to the touch, although much harder and more deeply translucent. The rock was littered with metallic flakes that reflected light like billions of tiny stars.
Shining the light through the substance produced an eerie effect, like shining a light into the darkest hole of the cosmos. The shaft was only about 10 meters wide, and perfectly cylindrical. Every few meters, bands of gold, copper, and even silver spiraled through the darkness. The anthropologist soon discovered pictographs etched into the glassy surface.
They were Tlingit in nature, depicting many famously known characters such as Raven, Eagle, and other folk lore stories. The shaft began to creep downward, and the floor flattened out into a series of long narrow steps. The corridor snaked to the right and with every few steps the pictographs became more primitive, archaic, and crude.
These new stories were unlike anything found in Tlingit or Haida culture. Although roughly etched, they ornately detailed the story of a great war. Giant lumbering beasts emerged from the ground through large cylindrical chasms, devouring villages and kidnapping women and children. The pictographs were interspersed with writing, etched in the stone and embossed in gold and silver. Our anthropologist couldn’t read or identify them as anything found anywhere in North America, and only hinted that some letters resembled incredibly ancient forms of the Chinese alphabet, while others appeared to be Sumerian.
The story unfolded as desperate villagers prayed for relief to long forgotten gods who slept in far flung constellations. Apparently these elder gods heard their pleas, and empowered the villagers so that they might drive the horrors back into the dark recesses of the world. Temples were erected at the opening to the caves, and grotesque acts of sacrifice and star worship kept the monsters sealed away in their dark and icy tombs. None of these rituals resembled anything surviving in what I knew of recorded Tlingit culture.
Suddenly, the corridor widened into a cave. Light trickled in from an unknown spot in the ceiling, which appeared to be made of normal granite, and illuminated a smooth wall of that black cosmic rock at the opposite end of the cave. Set into the wall was a door, perfectly round and at least 50 meters wide. The door was inscribed with a spiraling inscription in that lost tongue of ancient men. Five round holes perforated the door’s interior forming a perfect pentagram. One of those holes was situated at the base of the door, at eye level.
We crept up to that monstrous door and that terribly lonesome hole. It was covered with an eerily iridescent frost. I scrapped the thick hoarfrost away with a blade from my pocket, shining the light through the thick, cold, crystalline glass hidden underneath.
Why I ever did such a thing, or what drove us to press so deep into that hellish place, I will never know or understand.
At the exact instant the light hit the glass; a freakish howl erupted within the chamber. My blood boiled cold and my heart seized in my chest. In total terror I dropped the light and froze in place. The light bounced and rolled, aiming itself back towards our point of entry. Behind me I could hear some creature snarling and blubbering in the darkness.
Out of the corner of my eye, the anthropologist made a shaky move, pulling a small pistol and bolting madly in an effort to escape. Shots fired as he ran, but his footsteps fell silent before he made it halfway across. The creature lurking in the darkness had snared its panicked victim. Something deep within me snapped, and I whirled around ready to fight or run as necessity required.
The path, illuminated by my electric light, was clear, and so I charged ahead at full force. As I approached the exit, the light rolled again and cast its beam across a different part of the cave. There, in the shadow, was the second most horrifying thing I saw that day.
Crouched along the wall, hovering over the shattered corpse of the anthropologist, was the frame of a man I had once known, but only then barely recognized. It was the geologist, or at least it had been. The frame and clothes were familiar, but the face, dear God, the face.
The eyes had glazed over completely white except for the large black irises. All the color in his flesh had gone, except for the blood stained lips, teeth, and chin. Even his hair was tinted white. His skin had wrinkled a thousand years and his nails, which clutched fragments of torn flesh and blood soaked clothes, were otherwise long and white. The glimpse was only a second long, but that ghastly image was forever burned into my mind’s eye, and haunts me to this very day. I didn’t stop though; my body was too worked up into a tense primal fury bent on self-preservation. I tore my way through the cave determined to escape that wretched hole.
I exited the forgotten mine and dashed head long into the fog. Dying from the chill was preferable to being consumed by the beast that now possessed my companions. I ran blindly through the grey darkness, my eyes and lungs stinging from the deep cold. My footing gave way and I landed with a loud splash. I had fallen into the deep channel of the stream and was being whisked downstream at what felt like a break neck pace in my blind and panicked state. My shattered nerves thrashed and struggled violently in the current, gasping for whatever air my near frozen lungs could muster, falling through the current of water and time for what felt like an eternity.
Darkness over came me as I fell, and I had visions of worlds and creatures yet unknown to human existence. Great charnel beasts with rubbery wings circled me in that torrential vortex.
I fell to the center of time itself, where the piping of mad flutes echoes across space immortal. Suddenly. I felt a sharp pain in my hip and a hard blow to my chest, as air and water exploded from my lungs in a concussive blast. My senses came alive as I felt hard gravel take shape across my arms and legs and face. I flailed wildly as my wits returned and I realized my whereabouts.
I was on one of the shallow gravel bars at the place where the stream channel split and meandered. Still blind from the fog and water and mad from my experience in the cave, I crawled cautiously, feeling my way down the channel until by some small miracle I found a rope. I pulled the rope and followed its length until I found the hull of the skiff, which was Indian-anchored nearby. With my last shred of strength I threw myself into the boat, and lost consciousness.
When I regained consciousness, I was in the hospital back in Juneau. Apparently my skiff had been spotted floating along the shoreline of Lynn Canal, somewhere near Auke Creek. The engine was running but not engaged, and my discoverers said I was thrashing and wailing violently in the bottom of the skiff.
Unsure of my own mental state, or the certainty of my experiences, I made no mention of the expedition, my discovery, or the fate of my companions. Surely had I related my tale, they would have immediately locked me away in a mental ward, and for good reason.
Sitting now and reflecting upon it, my mind can hardly grasp the things that were seen, which the mind cannot forget.
I write this story down now out of hope that it brings my mind solace. I have left Juneau, and yet on cold nights, when the winds howl, the images, the fears, the sensations, they all call to me in my sleep. I have tried many means of escape, lived in many houses in many places, tried many drugs, legal and not, all to no avail. I am convinced that the things I saw stalk me in the dark and into my dreams, and that only death will bring me true rest.
As disturbing as the thing that possessed my geologist friend was, it was only a glimpse of things to come. The real terror lay in what I saw through that looking glass in the door. I only saw it for an instance, disturbed by the shrieking howl as I was. But that image is burned into my being, or more aptly, awakened from the very cells in my body through eons of supernatural memory. I saw the things to come, the sleeping ones who were locked away before time memorial. I saw the large, lumbering, apelike things that were frozen in their sleeping tomb.
And in that glimpse, the one on the other side of the window, its eyes…. Oh God those hellish, frozen, lifeless eyes. They were awake…
In honor of featuring writing more geared toward entertainment than news, the Alaska Commons will be featuring certain fiction pieces from Alaska authors. If you have a piece you’d like to suggest or recommend, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.