Diving Alaska's Historic Ellamar Copper Mine

Four—Down the Rabbit Hole

On one of our next dives, Ken and I split up to explore the blasted rock face of the Glory Hole in both directions, checking along the north side of the cliff for the presence of a second indentation that could mark another horizontal tunnel that might lead us to the main shaft. Ken explored along the 30-foot contour, still within the green glow from the surface, while I swam along the mud at the base of the cliff about 20 feet below him in near total blackness.

I started at the scrap iron drop weight, which sat where we’d left it at the top of the Anthill. Two feet off the bottom, our cave line ran to the right in the direction of the broad, dead-end tunnel with its intriguing breakdown passage. I moved toward the cliff, turning left as it came into view so that I swam away from the Picture Window tunnel, keeping the stone face to my right.

A few pieces of junk had slid down this side of the Anthill, and I was surprised to see an intact Johnson outboard motor, probably a 1960s vintage two-stroke, lying partially buried in the muck. Just past that, a large piece of corrugated metal roofing material half-leaned against the rock face. I passed it, my light moving back and forth along the cliff. I could make out a pitch-black shape nestled against the already-dark face of the rock.

I was learning what it meant here to see something even blacker than the regular darkness that encompassed everything—either a giant boulder, or an opening. I swam closer, and could make out a circular indentation in the cliff face. It was the mouth of another tunnel.

I looked at my gauge. The water depth was about 50 feet. I did some quick math, adding 15 feet for the earthquake upheaval, then—subtracting?—for the tide. Sixty feet maybe, not right for either the 75 or 100-foot level tunnels our old blueprints showed. Maybe the miners gauged the depth of each level from the surface of the shaft, which lay some distance up the hill above the beach. Would that make this the 75-foot level? Too many variables for a direct comparison, working it through in my head underwater.

I unclipped my reel and looked around for a tie-in. I was back in the mudhole, with no visible rocks that would hold a tie-in. The outboard motor was too far away and too far down in the dark zone to make a good tie-in. I swam 10 feet or so to the top of the Anthill—the dim green light of the surface just visible in front of me—and found a steel bed frame lying upside-down in the mud. I shook it. Rust flakes came off in a coppery cloud, but the structure was solid. I took a quick loop with the line, then turned back toward the newly discovered tunnel entrance, my heart beating with the thrill of discovery.

My sketch showing the volume of debris dumped into the Glory Hole in the 1970s

Once again, the blacker-black of the underwater tunnel opening loomed in the rocky cliff face. A bit like Alice in Wonderland, I finned/tumbled into this flooded “rabbit hole.”

Unlike the relatively cavernous entrance of the first passage we’d found, this opening wasmuch smaller and gave me the feeling of a space that had been carved only as large as needed for a man to pass. It did not seem to be a drift, where ore was removed from the rock. There was deep, soft silt on the floor, and I stayed as close to the ceiling as I could without dragging the back of my rig through the clinging tendrils of the soft orangey-brownish goop that grew from the overhead.

Algae? I thought, Those would need light for photosynthesis. Leaching minerals of some kind? Bacteria? My last biology class was a long time ago, but I could tell this stuff looked icky. Was I swimming in seawater, or aquifer, or something in between?

To check the width, I stretched both arms out, and before I could straighten my elbows I felt the hard rock of the passageway brush against each hand. So maybe five by five—I thought, Those old-time miners were short bastards—reduced by a foot or more of muck on the floor. Hardly side-mount conditions, but definitely tight considering the silt and the creepy algae or mineral precipitate or whatever the hell this orange shit is that covers everything.

I started finning through the narrow tunnel. Several thoughts entered my mind in quick succession. One was that my buddies didn’t know where I was, and if I got stuck or ran into some other difficulty, the only chance I had of being found—or finding my own way out—was the thin nylon line I had attached to the bed frame just outside the tunnel’s entrance. I realized that following this passage to the end, alone, unplanned, was a dreadfully bad idea. I’d have to turn around. And to do that, I’d either have to find a tie-off for my reel or hold onto it and risk tangling in the line as I tried to rotate on a horizontal axis. Nothing in sight but silt-covered tunnel walls: No tie-in here.

I stopped, hanging motionless, suspended in this flooded tunnel. Carefully, slowly, I began to make a 360-degree pivot turn. With the reel clenched in my left fist, I concentrated on keeping the line taut and clear of my fins as my axis changed. If the line got a belly in it and looped around a fin or light head, it would be a major bitch to try and sort out an entanglement in such cramped conditions.

What little visibility I’d had quickly turned to almost nothing. The flashing LED on my loop winked at me through the haze. Soft deposits that clung to the roof and walls of the tunnel billowed ahead of my light. My only sense of direction came from the tension on the line, invisible now in the drifting murk. The 80-cube bail-out cylinder clipped under my left arm clanged on an outcropping of rock hidden under a mound of orange goo.

A gentle tug, and I could feel my body move slightly in what I hoped was the general direction of the bed frame tie-off. I gave a little half-kick and felt the line grow slack. The right direction. A few turns on the reel, then I started back in toward the opening.

After what seemed like a very long swim, I reached the tunnel entrance and back-tracked to the ascent line. A few minutes later and I was on the surface once again.

Sketches of the 75- and 100-foot levels, drawn by a government geologist in 1910

After dinner that evening back on the boat, Ken and I spread the old mine diagram on the galley table and tried to puzzle out what we’d found. The 1910 drawing showed two tunnels intersecting the walls of the Glory Hole—one at 75 feet and another, offset slightly from the first, at 100 feet. They ran roughly parallel—one on top of the other—terminating at the main vertical shaft about 200 feet back up the beach. Below these two passages, and also terminating at the shaft, five more tunnels spanned out in different directions, branching and interlacing in a spider web of adits, rises, drifts and ventilation shafts.

Judging from its orientation and size, I guessed that the narrow Rabbit Hole tunnel I’d found on my solo dive was either the 75- or 100-foot drift. Probably the 75, assuming that the massive amount of fill had blocked the entrance to the deeper passage. Neither Ken nor I could place the larger passage with the breakdown tunnel; it just didn’t fit with what the diagram was telling us. Fascinated, we planned two separate exploratory dives—one into each of the mystery passages we’d discovered—Picture Window and Rabbit Hole.