From the middle of downtown to out the road and the southern reaches of Douglas Island, hundreds dot the landscape Juneauites call home. Yet most may walk past them routinely and not know they exist, but they are why Juneau is here.
They are the lost mines.
“You can walk the public trail, then veer off just slightly, and they’re right there,” said Brian Weed, a local who has found and explored hundreds of abandoned mines in Juneau over the past three years. “But they’re disappearing fast.”
Weed is writing a book about the mines of Juneau, but it won’t be a history lesson. Rather, it is planned to be an adventurer’s guide to finding what’s left of the industry that built Alaska’s capital city during a period of “gold fever.”
He has a week on, week off work schedule, so he spends half his days trekking through Devil’s Claw, over fallen logs and across streams searching for remnants of mining operations that may have ceased more than 100 years ago.
“It’s not about me. It’s never been about me. It’s about sharing the history of mining here with Juneau,” Weed said.
That’s why Weed regularly posts on a number of Juneau-specific Facebook groups and his personal profile before he goes out, hoping others will tag along.
Tom Hanna, a rock enthusiast from Juneau, joined Weed at the Auke Bay trail head just off Glacier Highway near the Auke Bay Bible Church for one of those hikes Friday morning.
The majority of the hike would be on the main trail, which Weed pointed out was originally built as a wagon road to carry material to and from the mines and bunkhouses in the wilderness.
“A lot of mines aren’t far off the public trail, you gotta remember, a lot of trails are here because of the mines,” Weed noted.
Less than five minutes into the hike, Weed stops to explain how a rusted metal piece of stamp mill equipment had fallen off a wagon years ago and remains to this day. A few minutes later he stops again, this time to point out a different piece of equipment.
Searching for Juneau’s lost mines has taught him a lot about the way things used to be.
“This is the adventure of finding out what was here,” Weed says, veering off the trail to cross the semi-frozen Spaulding Meadows in search of a small cluster of half-sunken equipment.
He uses a GPS application on his phone to help find his way back to sites when he goes for follow-up visits to take a new set of pictures, study a bit more or just enjoy the tunnels again.
But the GPS system isn’t exact — usually it gets him within 50 feet, but that’s assuming the coordinates are right (which isn’t always the case).
“That’s part of the adventure — finding your own way to the site,” he says, as the duo spreads out looking for an orange marker near an abandoned and decayed cabin.
Weed and the regulars who often hike with him don’t mark a trail to the spot whether it’s a mine, abandoned building or some other remnant of a time long ago.
Doing so would cause well-worn trails to form in the mostly pristine wild, and the last thing he wants to do is damage what’s left, he said.
“We don’t take anything and we always try to make the sites look the same as we found them so other people can enjoy them, and enjoy the feeling of finding an undisturbed place,” Weed says.
After pointing out the sunken equipment, the foundation of a large cabin now largely hidden by trees and an old wagon road nestled behind a thick growth of underbrush, Weed is ready to move into the tunnels.
Along the way he points out quartz boulders that sit as reminders of the mineral wealth in the area, and it’s not long before he reaches a trench where miners opted to search for gold and other minerals by mining out of ditches dug from above ground, rather than blasting away through the rock below.
He smiles a bit because the tunnel is close, but without his direction Hanna would walk right over it — literally.
Just before that happens, he veers off the trail and down a short, steep hill to the right. Less than twenty feet from the trail above, he points out a small hole about two feet by two feet that serves as the only remaining entrance to an approximately 200-foot tunnel that crosses directly under the trail above.
“Some of these tunnels are going to be gone soon,” Weed said. “Give it another 20 years and you won’t be able to find them or get inside.”
Weed says the growth of the rainforest underbrush and cave-ins are the biggest culprits behind the demise of the tunnel entrances.
Before exploring the Lower Gold Knob adit, Weed and Hanna trek further up the mountainside to find the upper tunnel. This one is a bit further off the trail, but still within a stones throw. Nestled next to a water fall, the tunnel’s entrance had caved in, so the descent inside requires a rope and helmet.
Stretching back nearly 800 feet, it’s the largest tunnel system being explored Friday. Every so often the grey slate walls are interrupted by pockets of quartz which would have been pulled out to be crushed as prospectors searched for gold decades ago.
The tunnels Weed explores most often are usually smaller, not like commercial operations where large machinery could drive inside.
“That’s why I’m writing my book — to show people why Juneau is here,” Weed said. “People wanted to strike it rich, and they wanted to do it on their own. That’s why they got their own land and started these little mines.”
After updating his digital album of photos inside the mine and making a few mental notes on the conditions inside, Weed pushes back down the trail to the lower tunnel.
This one is smaller, and the entrance doesn’t require a rope to climb into, but it is also one of the more dangerous tunnels to explore.
“Don’t touch the walls, don’t touch the wood,” Weed cautions before crawling into the tunnel, flat on his stomach. Inside, the reason is made clear: the decades-old wood pilings near the entrance to the tunnel are still supporting an unmeasurable amount of weight.
“Have you ever gone skydiving, or ridden a motorcycle really fast?” Weed asks, describing the reason for his caution when exploring Juneau’s underground past. “It’s a calculated risk where you don’t take chances.”
Once past the picturesque entrance, the short tunnel’s walls are lined with much more distinct streaks of quartz that almost have the appearance of tiger stripes. Old dynamite boxes and even some of the sticks that were used to shove the explosive into the walls’ crevices remain.
Despite finding countless relics in the hundreds of mines he’s explored, Weed says the memories and pictures are what he treasures most.
“Close your eyes and remember the feeling looking down the tunnel, and seeing the tunnel’s snaking curves and wooden supports,” Weed said after the hike. “That’s more valuable than any trinket I could take and put on my shelf.”
Finished with the second tunnel, there’s now a decision to be made: the final tunnel is a ways off the trail and likely partially filled with water. As the sun dips below the mountainous horizon and temperatures drop further below freezing, Weed and his companion decide to at least see the entrance.
After nearly 30 minutes of pressing through underbrush and dodging thorny growths, Weed stops and listens for the stream. This is only his second trip to this mine, but he knows he’s close.
“If you’re ever hiking and you get lost, just go down hill or follow the direction of any water that’s flowing, and you’ll eventually end up by the ocean and be able to get where you need to go,” he advises.
Shortly after, he finds the two tunnels. One is caved in, and he hasn’t dug a way inside yet. The other is blocked by rocks he put in front of the entrance the last time he visited.
“You don’t want to get into a tunnel and find out a porcupine has made its home in the entrance,” Weed warns. He says another reason for covering the entrance is to keep a bear from moving in, though those aren’t the only reasons.
“I want other people to feel like they’ve discovered something when they find it,” he adds.
As he moves the rocks away from the entrance a few fall inside the tunnel and splash into the submerged chamber. Regardless, Weed decides to trek through the knee-deep icy water and explore the short tunnel. Hanna follows. Neither are wearing waterproof gear.
Inside, six-feet-wide quartz veins line some of the walls, and another section has the vein running the length of the ceiling. But the tunnel is short, so Weed and Hanna are soon pushing back through the brush and down the hill five hours, three tunnels and numerous memories later.
As he emerges from the trees into the open of the Spaulding Meadows, an older couple enjoying an afternoon snack during the clear day stop to ask why he’s so muddy.
He explains that he just finished exploring the abandoned mines. The woman is skeptical at first. After all, she’s been hiking these trails 50 years and never knew the tunnels were there. But after she recognizes Hanna as someone she knows, her eyes widen and fill with excitement.
A smiling Weed later says, “It goes to show, even if you’ve lived here a long time, that doesn’t mean you’ve seen everything.”