When he published the story of his 1918 - 1919 Alaska experience with his young son, American artist Rockwell Kent called it a “Quiet Adventure.” That was half the truth. He focused on the wilderness with its fierce awe, inspiration, and healing qualities. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” Henry Thoreau had written in “Walden,” and Kent strove for that ideal. He needed solitude and time to produce his art. But beneath the surface there was his “Not-So-Quiet” adventure. He felt unappreciated in the art world and longed for fame and success. He contemplated suicide. Due to his affairs, his marriage had been in trouble for years. On Fox Island the relationship deteriorated. He wrote pages and pages of letters late into the early morning hours to both his wife and the other woman. He urged them both to join him in Alaska, hoping that one of them would. Then he worried that both might decide to come. How could he handle that?
To complicate matters, mail service was so slow that it took weeks for letters to reach their destinations. The Spanish Flu swept the world and had reached Seward. World War I raged when he arrived in August and he had to register for the draft. He quickly learned the difficulty and dangers of a round-trip winter crossing from Fox Island to Seward in an 18-foot dory with a loaded 100-pound, finicky 3.5 horsepower Evinrude engine. He not only feared for his son’s life, but stressed over what would become of the boy if he himself died. He had never felt so isolated in his life. To his credit, he used all this negative energy to produce not only beautiful paintings of Resurrection Bay and what later became Kenai Fjords National Park, but also a classic and inspiring book. He also made sure that his son and the old Swede pioneer who had welcomed them to his island would have a special Christmas.
It is Christmas Eve in Alaska – 1918
On a small island in Resurrection Bay, about twelve miles from Seward, Alaska, a New York artist cleans his make-shift cabin converted from a filthy goat shed. He hangs his canvasses from the rafters, folds and moves aside his easel, decorates the roof timbers with dense hemlock boughs, and hauls in a day’s worth of wood for the stove.
Rockwell Kent (1882 - 1971) – painter, illustrator, adventurer, writer, political activist – had settled on Fox Island with his nine-year-old son in September, a guest of 71-year-old Lars Matt Olson, who raised fox and goats there. Rockwell Kent’s fame would come later. For now, Kent, who had already ventured to the coast of Maine and Newfoundland, seeks peace from a troubled marriage and a world at war.
At thirty-six, Kent has not been able to earn a living as an artist. He has many talents as an architect and carpenter, and can put food on the table and a roof over the heads of his wife and four children. But that takes precious time away from his art. As frigid winds buffet the mountain peaks and glaciers surrounding his island, and a world at war seems on the brink of destruction, Kent faces his own personal demon. Perhaps in wilder he will find himself and in himself he will find his art.
As Christmas approaches, Kent is determined to surprise Olson with a special celebration. The Swede doesn’t observe Christmas and expects the holiday to pass as any other day. Kent also imagines how he can make Christmas special for his son. He has little cash, and the mail steamer with gifts and letters from New York is behind schedule. It probably will arrive in Seward too late for a Fox Island Christmas. Kent will have to improvise.
As he plans the holiday celebration, Kent jokes, “I’ve given up the idea of dressing Olson as Santa Claus in goat’s wool whiskers. Santa Claus without presents would move us to tears.”
Kent’s son has already been told not to expect any gifts.
For Olson’s present, Kent draws a picture of the Swede as the, “king of the island … striding out to feed the goats while [his] favorite, Billy, rearing on his hind legs, tries to steal the food.” Young Rockwell’s simple sketch for Olson depicts the old pioneer with his cabin in the background surrounded by all his foxes and goats.
It is Christmas Day on Fox Island – 1918
Kent sets up a nine-and-a-half-foot spruce tree, all dripping wet, attaches some candles and places on its tip a cardboard and tin foil star. While his son plays outside, Kent hangs sticks of candy, lights the candles, and distributes the surprise presents under the glowing tree. As winter’s early dusk quickly turns to night, and Kent looks upon the beautiful scene he has created out of life’s routines, his son, with Olson in tow, opens the cabin door – and both the boy and the old man stand in awe. They enter speechless, and the two adults drink a solemn, quiet toast.
The Kent’s give Olson his presents – the pictures – as well as a painting Kent has done, a kitchen set and a pocket knife. The old Swede is overcome. This is his first special Christmas since his childhood. Kent’s son, who had expected nothing, gets a book, two old National Geographic magazines, a pocket knife, and a broken fountain pen. The youngster sits on his bunk looking at his presents, “as if they were the most wonderful gifts in the world.”
As the cold darkness envelopes the cabin and the tree glows cheerfully, the trio sits down to a feast. The Kents dress in clean, white shirts. Olson wears his Sunday pants and vest and a new flannel shirt with a gold nugget pin attached to his silk tie. He has even shaved and unevenly clipped his hair.
Kent’s hand-printed menu lists olives and pickles, spaghetti a la Fox Island, beans a la Resurrection Bay, murphies en casserole, cranberry sauce, plumb pudding magnifique, sauce a la Alaska rum, nuts, raisins, bon-bons, and home-sweet-home cider.
After dinner Kent extinguishes the Christmas tree candles to save them for another day. Olson bids them good night and returns to this cabin. Father and son tumble into bed.
They rest during those awkward days between Christmas and New Year’s. Routine chores, play, and work occupy most of their time. Kent’s art continues to satisfy him, “Today I made so good a drawing,” he writes on Dec. 29, “that I’m sitting up as if the flight of time and the coming of morning were no concern of mine.”
It is New Year’s Eve in Alaska – Almost 1919
Olson visits the Kents with a gift – a pan of goat’s milk. Kent plays his flute and sings. “What a strange performance here in the wilderness,” he writes. “A little boy, an old man, listening as I sing loudly and solemnly to them without accompaniment.”
As winter turns to spring, Kent realizes his stay in Alaska is almost over. He reflects on the adventure he and his son have experienced.
“It seems that we have both together by chance turned out of the beaten crowded way,” he writes in his journal, “and come to stand face-to-face with that infinite and unfathomable thing which is the wilderness; and here we have found OURSELVES, for wilderness is nothing else.”
Rockwell Kent left Alaska in late March 1919 and moved to Vermont where, using his journals and letters, he wrote and illustrated his first book, “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.” A New York show of his Alaska art succeeded and his career was launched. He finally obtained the fame and success he craved. He would go on to lead an exciting, adventurous, creative and extremely controversial life.
Despite his many later travels and achievements, Kent always recalled that Alaska Christmas with special fondness. In later years he excerpted the Christmas chapters from “Wilderness” and published them in a small volume called “Northern Christmas”(1940). He would never forget how he had created something memorable from life’s routines. “I suppose the greatest festivals of our lives,” he once wrote, “are those at which we dance ourselves.” Rockwell Kent suffered a stroke in March 1971, while sitting in his favorite chair at his home in upstate New York signing copies of a special edition of “Wilderness”published in 1970. He died ten days later in the hospital three months short of his 90th birthday.
Doug Capra wrote the forewords to 1996 reprints of “Northern Christmas” and the 1970 special edition of “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.” He’s currently writing a book called “That Infinite and Unfathomable Thing: Rockwell Kent’s Alaska Wilderness.” A draft of the book is appearing online as Capra follows Kent’s Fox Island experience day by day from 100 years in the future. You can learn much more about both the “quiet” and “unquiet” adventure at https://rockwellkentjournal.blogspot.com/