There are a lot of stories in Southeast Alaska about lost gold mines, and lost, sunken ships full of gold, but I want to talk about more obscure lost treasures.
Perhaps the most obscure is one right here where I live. It’s already provoked treasure hunters to dig up the area like maddened gophers, leaving gaping holes in various hillsides. I was the one who buried it, over 20 years ago, but I left no notes or a map to remember where it was.
The treasure: A bottle of home-made liqueur, which is probably deadly now, if it wasn’t from the start. The treasure hunters: My nephews in their 20s who were marooned here with sparse entertainment and no access to alcoholic beverages one winter. They became so desperate that they took to quoting their dad’s favorite movie “The Mountain Men,” yelling, “If I don’t get some whiskey I’ll die!”
Taking pity on them, I told them about The Lost Liqueur. If nothing else it kept them busy for days digging in the pale light of a winter sun, like something out of a Robert Service poem. Sadly, the bottle was never found and remains lost to this day to haunt the fevered dreams of alcohol-deprived souls forever.
Another lost treasure was one I learned about after my entire family — including aunts, uncles, cousins, and unofficially adopted members — spent weeks camping out one summer on the islands across from where we live. There, to our delight, we found an entire rock shelf full of geodes, or the holes where others before us had excavated them.
Geodes in this area tend to be formed by minerals, over time, dissolving into bubbles of volcanic rock and are similar to thunder eggs. But whereas thunder eggs have a jasper rind enclosing an agate core, the harder to find geodes generally have an agate rind with a hollow core crowded with crystals.
To me, geodes fit in the “don’t judge a book by its cover” category — they’re the Wakandas of the rock world. To look at them in situ they simply look like ugly, rusty bumps in the rock. But when you excavate them and cut them open, inside you’ll find a scintillating world of sparkling crystals. As soon as we opened our first geode we were infected with geode fever. My brother Robin tells me that during that camping trip to the islands he loaded up an entire bucket full of them.
After we got home and talked about our find, a local fisherman shared with us the story of a lost geode treasure. Decades ago, one man found a huge shelf of untouched geodes. He carefully freed them from the rockbed, filling half a dozen (or more) five-gallon buckets. He carried them into the woods and left, intending to come back at some point to retrieve them. The fisherman said that for whatever reason — untimely death, leaving Alaska, whatever it was — he never returned to get them. They remain on one of the islands to the north of us, buckets and buckets of whole, uncut geodes. They’re probably buried now under moss and windfalls, never to see the light of day.
Then there’s the obscure lost treasure that could turn out to be as fabulous as the one in “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson that my mom read to us when we were kids.
According to the book “The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580” by Samuel Bawlf, after raiding Spanish treasure ships and loading their gold and other valuables into his hold, Drake sailed to Alaska in search of the Northwest Passage. This part of his voyage was top secret and the details in maps and journals about it were deliberately obscured or kept from the public for political reasons (a common procedure with royal maps of discovery). To this day, people believe in the cover story of a California landfall, writes Bawlf.
The true purpose of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe was so well concealed, Bawlf explains, that what was lost along with it was the fact that Drake left behind some men in two small, maneuverable boats in Alaska to find the Northwest Passage. They would sail home by that route while he continued his circumnavigation of the globe in his ship, the Golden Hind.
If this is true, who knows how far the men got before they realized there wasn’t an entrance to the fabled passage in Southeast Alaska? Perhaps they waited for Drake to come and get them. He did attempt multiple times to return, but due to escalating tensions with the Spanish, Elizabeth I kept him close to her side in England. She did send a man named Cavendish to follow up on Drake’s discoveries, but he shipwrecked off the coast of North America.
In any event, the question arises, how could Drake convince some of his men, who were tired after battling storms and Spaniards for months without good food or water, to keep searching for an elusive passage no one really knew existed, instead of returning home with the others?
Interestingly, it appears that Drake didn’t return to England with all of the Spanish treasure he was known to have pirated. What if he gave some of the treasure to the men he left behind, as an incentive for them to find the passage? After all, the treasure would do them no good in the wilds of North America, and their small boats would not allow them to follow Drake’s route home — their only hope to profit by the treasure was to find the passage over the top of the continent and then either meet up with the Englishmen searching for the passage on that side, or sail home on their own across the Atlantic.
If that is the case, since Drake’s men never made it back to England, it is a tantalizing (if remote) possibility that somewhere in Southeast Alaska there may be a lost treasure of Spanish pieces of eight and other valuables just waiting for someone to find it.
• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.