I leaned into my backpack cushioning a jagged wall of the long-closed mine and listened. Somewhere water dripped. A moan echoed from the tunnel’s abandoned timbers straining under the weight of the world above. A falling rock clattered.
I was alone in the middle of the night nearly a quarter-mile below ground, evidence of cave-ins all around, and not a soul knew where I was. The copper mine I was exploring had been abandoned for more than 30 years.
If something happened, how long before anyone found me? Would time have meaning where there is no light? The dread was unbearable and I turned my light back on.
Far above, my bicycle hidden in the bushes, it was nearing midnight, which this far north in summer was just two hours past sunset. I had ridden 20 miles from my college dorm room in town. Then, waiting for dusk so I could sneak across an open field past the “Keep Out - No Trespassing” signs, I lifted rotted boards capping the mine shaft and dropped out of sight. After descending the first few hundred feet, I paused to catch my breath, relieved that I wasn’t going to get caught. I was alone. Really, really alone.
All to find a rare but worthless rock found in this mine on a remote reach of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Arching off the “U.P.” is the Keweenaw Peninsula, jutting like a stony finger 75 miles into Lake Superior. Here, hundreds of mines once were bored thousands of feet deep chasing copper-bearing ores. But only in this one spot did a peculiar assemblage of billion-year-old rocks have just the right combination of chemicals – primarily copper, zinc, and arsenic – that were mixed over eons to form the heavy, metallic blue-silver mineral, mohawkite. A rock found nowhere else on Earth but here in its namesake Mohawk Mine.
When you hold a piece of mohawkite in your hand, the weight is what you notice first. It’s heavy like lead. Yet if dropped, it shatters like ice. Its color is not leaden gray but sparkles silvery across a rough surface. Where exposed to air, it weathers to blotches of color– unique compounds in shades from tea green to turquoise.
What circuitous paths carry us from here to there. I wouldn’t have been underground if I hadn’t decided to go to college at Michigan Tech, located in Houghton on the Keweenaw Peninsula. I was 19 and majoring in geological engineering. The school was 500 miles from my depressing hometown of Flint and the farthest I could get away and still pay in-state tuition. It’s not that I wanted to be a geologist or an engineer. I didn’t. It’s just that I couldn’t think of anything better to do. And I kind of liked rocks.
To get a general idea of where in the mine’s miles of tunnels I most likely would find mohawkite I had studied yellowing mine maps in musty file drawers at the college library. It appeared that the mine’s 11th and 12th “levels” were richest in mohawkite.
A level is a horizontal tunnel extending from the mine’s shaft. In the Mohawk Mine, every hundred feet deeper a new level was blasted out in two directions following the erratic seams of copper ore. Where a level interrupted a quality copper deposit, it might open into room-sized excavations, even breaking through into the next level above.
The mine’s shafts (there once were six, the first dug in 1899) are 8 feet wide and 18 feet tall, penetrating the earth at a 54-degree incline, matching the dip of the ore-bearing seam. At that steep angle I could just barely clamber down the shaft’s jumble of rocks, maneuvering hand-over-hand while holding my flashlight, all the while trying not to bang my bare head on broken timbers. In some places I was able to clutch the rusted iron rails that remained, once used to ferry miners up and down and hoist out millions of pounds of copper ore.
For the few decades it lasted, the Mohawk Mine made more than $15 million in profits and employed more than a thousand workers. Dirty, dangerous, unhealthy work, to be sure, but compared to what? How else could you make a living in the early 1900s in the U.P. wilderness where winter can bury you in 300 inches of snow?
I slowly descended the mine’s shaft, keeping count until I reached the 11th level. All the U.P.’s old copper mines are shut down now, like this mine since 1932, and slowly filling with groundwater. It was said by my fellow geology students, who had talked to people who supposedly knew whereof they spoke, that the Mohawk Mine, which went down nearly 3,000 feet, was flooded with water at about 1,500 feet. I was still a few hundred feet above that so drowning was the least of my worries. Just to be sure, I threw a rock as far as I could down into the dark mine shaft. It flew for a long time, then bounced and rattled into the void. No splash.
I explored a few hundred feet of the tunnels. Despite my flashlight’s anemic beam, there it was, silvery traces of mohawkite glittering in the reflected light. Some was exposed on a tunnel wall, once blasted by dynamite, flat as a tombstone, and impossible to fracture with a hand pick. Other mohawkite-laden rock glistened in veins from lips of broken ledges, fallen rock, or discarded mining rubble.
I couldn’t imagine spending my working life entombed in this rock crypt. Men once lived and died here. Blasting and cursing filled the air. Now all was silent. As I chipped and banged away with my rock hammer, filling my flimsy Boy Scout backpack with the best chunks and slivers until it strained at the seams, the echoes felt creepy. Like I was alerting spirits that I was there and up to no good. Old cave-ins sealed access to some of the tunnels, chilling reminders that the slightest thing could trigger a pent-up cave-in.
That’s when I rested, sitting on broken rock, and turned off my flashlight to save the batteries. That’s when the world turned dark as death. I jumped as if shocked when a cold drop of water landed on my bare neck. The air I sucked in tasted old, dank, and stale. What the hell am I doing down here?
Certainly, getting a bag of mohawkite was one reason. But how many rocks are enough? I made that perilous trip back down into the mine twice more, exploring other levels, collecting more rocks. Each trip, I would struggle back to the surface, canvas pack straps biting my shoulders and pedal down US-41 in the dark to my college dorm with 25 or so pounds of rocks poking into my back.
It’s not like I could brag about my stunts; that would have gotten me expelled from college (and drafted: Good Morning, Vietnam!). I don’t know. Why do we do anything when we’re young and trying to figure out how to grow up?
Earlier that year of my mining adventures I had gone steelhead fishing on a remote U.P. river. I had to slog through several feet of snow drifts to reach the river bank. The sun was out and thawing chunks of ice raced by in the current. At the mouth of the river where it plunged into Lake Superior, I watched the flow disappear under a sheet of unbroken ice. Far offshore and barely visible was the end of the ice and open water of the world’s largest lake.
I leaned my fishing rod against a leafless shrub and, still in my chest waders, struck out alone. A half-mile later I was standing on the very edge of the two-feet-thick ice shelf. At my toes stretched 50 miles of empty water. Small waves lapped the ice, their irregular splashes the only sound. Wind from the U.P. wilds blew against my back and it dawned on me that if an ice floe broke off with me on it, I would die an ugly death.
I found no epiphany that day on the edge of Lake Superior’s ice sheet. Just relief at surviving. Like after going down in that mine. Doing it for the thrill.
Was it really that simple? Or might it have had something to do with the crushing insecurities of youth? Courting danger to compensate for fears about a terrifying future? Burdened with still having something to prove.
Like so much that we accumulate over the years, most of those hard-earned rocks of mohawkite became dead weight and got buried in a hole along the way. Yet not all. A few chunks sit on shelves in my house today. They’ve been wrapped, packed, and unbundled in a lifetime of moves from here to there. Their original burnish of blue‑silver is dulled with tarnish. But every now and then, I’ll chip a corner off one to see again that fresh sparkle of raw mohawkite. Its naked glint will carry me back to adventures of my youth, alone in the depths with nothing but a cheap flashlight, and all life’s terrors and wonders luring me ever deeper, curious, driven to check out just one more level.
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