The mine entrance gaped like a dark, open wound on the wooded Alaskan hillside.
It sloped downwards for a few yards then disappeared into a dark vertical shaft that was surely deeper than I could imagine.
I pulled back, shivering slightly in the cool breeze of a sunny summer’s afternoon in Juneau, Alaska.
Rubber boots, broken bottles, rusted cutlery and various garbage littered the ground outside the mine. They looked like they had been there since this mine was abandoned.
I came to this lonely place not because I knew I’d find it there but because I was wondering why a little red ribbon would be tied to the branch of a cottonwood bush beside the Perseverance Trail.
The trail starts off from the town of Juneau and brings you to wild country that about 60 years ago used to be a gold mining camp. One minute you’re sipping coffee at the Heritage Coffee shop on Franklin St., and minutes later you’re outside town, walking on a gravel road that follows the course of a raging river. You can follow several offshoots from this trail. One brings you to the summit of Mt. Juneau, the peak that beetles above Juneau town. Walk another and you end up in a Salmon Bake campground. Follow the trail without deviating and you start climbing through dense forest stands and soon start to hug the side of a cliff. A waterfall appears round the bend, noisily cascading down a narrow gap between the rocks. You pause to rest and, gazing at the panorama of mountains and blue sky behind you, note how the leaves of the aspens ripple like silver in the wind; how blue bell-like flowers peep from the sides of the cliff; how the mossy undergrowth under the pines is so lush and green and carpet-like (and could a bear be hiding behind those giant boulders there?); how there are very few hikers the further you go on this trail. There’s one, maybe two, then it’s just you. Occasionally a rider slides down the gravel on his mountain bike. Veer just a few feet from the trail and you can get lost and never be seen again. Time and time again it’s happened in the Alaskan wilderness.
The putative end of the trail is the boggy meadow called Rainbow Basin where most of the gold mining was done. It is now overgrown with vegetation, but this valley used to ring with the clang of machinery and the shouts of men as they tried to extract precious gold from the rocks. There are still signs here warning you that there are poisons imbedded in the soil, unfortunate residues of all that mining activity.
I noticed the little red ribbon sticking out from the branch of a cottonwood. I knew that this marked the beginning of an unseen trail leading to some interesting sight. I followed this ribbon, which pointed me to another and another. Pretty soon the ribbons led me through basically the bed of a stream. After fifteen minutes of trudging through terra incognita, I stumbled on the mine shaft. Briefly I toyed with, and immediately rejected, the idea of entering the mine. If some accident befell me there, chances were no one would know. Ribbons aside, the trail I followed was non-existent. No other hiker showed up at the mine. Nobody knew where I was going. They would not know where to look, because there simply was no path to follow. I’d be royally lost, Alaskan-style.
This was one of those days in Alaska when you feel nature singing in full cry and you feel glad to be young and strong and alive. The bluest of skies spreads above you while the joyful sound of rushing water accompanies you on your walk. A vista of snow-capped mountains and glinting rocky cliffs unfolds before and around you, and dense stands of pine and spruce lend the cool, breezy air the perfume of their resinous exhalations. Birds sing and white fritillaries catch the sunlight on their wings. You almost wish a bear would amble in sight (this is why you bought a bear bell at that tacky shop) but, on second thought, better not. The day was already beautiful and glorious as it was.
There is a section on the trail where you start to make a descent from higher country. It is above the Salmon Bake park ground. This is the place by the river where tourists go to have barbecued ribs and salmon, quaff beer and maybe pan for a little gold. I’ve been there twice before. In this place I discovered that there is nothing like the taste of fresh-caught salmon grilled in mesquite or hickory. Nothing -- not your canned or frozen or smoked varieties --compares with the taste of salmon caught off the bay just a few hours before you eat it. I was partial to fatty salmon belly, not unlike bears. By this time of the hike, I was tired, sweaty and hungry. As I started my way down the incline, I caught a whiff of grilled salmon in the air. The smell propelled my hunger to overdrive. I must go down to the salmon bake before it closed shop!
In my haste and with my nose up in the air, I forgot to look down and notice a root sticking out from the ground. What happened next was a painful and surprising lesson in physics and physiology.
My boot caught on the root and I fell down like a log. So caught unaware was I that I did not have the time to cushion my fall with my arms. My chest slammed on the ground full on. The impact caused the air to rush out of my lungs so suddenly that I could not breathe at all. I thought that I had broken my ribs and that my lungs had collapsed. I lay there on blessed Perseverance Trail, struggling to breathe and unable to stand up. I may have passed out for a few seconds.
“I’m a goner,” I thought dimly. And all because I wanted to eat grilled salmon.
Then I heard voices.
“Are you all right man?”a guy said. Three hikers had come down from the trail. Just in the nick of time. He helped me to my feet. I squatted on the ground, trying to catch my breath. One, two, three.
“I’m okay. Just had a bad fall,” I gasped.
The hikers turned out to be crewmembers of a Holland America ship that was in port beside my ship, the Dawn Princess.
“Are you sure you’re all right? Do you need anything?" the guy asked.
I took rapid stock of my chest and my ribs. Sore, but intact. And I was breathing.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks. I’ll just rest for a while here.”
The hikers left me and soon I was alone again. I sat on the same root that caught my foot. All thought of grilled salmon deserted me.
This fall was part of the deal of all this hiking through this Alaskan countryside, I thought. It could have been worse. I could have fallen in the mine shaft, if I had chosen to explore it minutes earlier. I could have fallen down the cliff, or been sucked down the chute of a waterfall. It was all about choices. The ones you make determine your fate and state of being in this world.
Sometime later I read of the discovery of the remains of a hiker who was lost and had starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness. Even as I pitied the hiker his fate, I understood the impulses that impelled him to be with nature, in the wilds of Alaska.
I was glad, even if it took a month for my bruised lungs to heal, that I walked on Perseverance Trail on that sunny summer’s day in Juneau, Alaska. It takes an injury like that to make you realize how precious and beautiful and unpredictable life, and nature, can be.