Part I in a Series
“A cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it.
“Where does the story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it.”
From “The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit.
People disappear in Alaska
It had been years since I’d thought about them – John and Ginger Davidson and their son, little four-year-old Jesse, and the couple’s open-entry homestead in Driftwood Bay located at Day Harbor about 25 miles from Seward, Alaska – around the corner of Cape Resurrection. John used his real first name, John, in Seward, although his family and friends called him Jack. People in Seward knew Carolyn Higgins as Ginger.
It was eight months in planning before they left the Quonset hut they occupied in Seward for their new home. John began a journal on March 14, 1970. The journal skips to April 4 when Ginger begins writing. She tells us that on April 1, 1970, they hitched a ride aboard the Starlight, a 45-foot fishing boat owned by a man named Bill. He and his crew were on their way to the fishing grounds. Everything past Thumb Cove was all new to the couple, so Bill gave them a guided tour as they left the small boat harbor, passed Humpy Cove, and slipped by the Fox Island Spit into the El Dorado Narrows.
They stopped at Sea Lion Rock, a favorite tourist viewing spot today. Ginger calls it Lion Island. Bill fed them breakfast, lunch and dinner that day, and helped them unload a mass of supplies and equipment to shore – one trip at a time with the couple’s 14-foot boat.
After dinner on board the Starlight, John and Ginger motored to shore and Bill and his crew left. Thus began the homesteader’s battle with the spring tides as they fought for days to haul all their supplies up past the high-tide line, set up their tent, and make it as comfortable as possible. April can be quite cold and wet on the Alaska coast. That spring was a test of John and Ginger’s perseverance and mettle. They passed.
I call them The Last Homesteaders – which is probably somewhat presumptuous – but maybe not. They were certainly among the last of a group of brave souls. The obstacles they faced during that spring, alone on that beach, would have sent most would-be homesteaders home quickly. But they survived. They persisted. They endured. And this was a time with no personal computers or iPhones, no GPS, satellite phones, or specialized tech gear and safety equipment. And frankly, what was available they couldn’t have afforded anyway.
John and Ginger not only survived through most of the 1970s. They flourished. They thrived. Between 1975 and 1977, while John McPhee wandered Alaska living with and studying those who had “come into the country,” this young couple challenged the wilderness and created an authentic life for themselves and their son. With their sweat and tenacity, they built a comfortable homestead along the Gulf of Alaska’s rugged coast.
I came to Alaska in 1971 and got a job teaching at the Adak Naval Air Station located about 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Aleutian Islands. During World War II, it had been a military base for the Army Air Corps with 90,000 troops. The U.S. Navy took over operations there in 1950 as the Korean War and Cold War progressed. The next year I went to teach in Seward.
By that time John and Ginger had begun to establish themselves at Driftwood Bay. During the next few years, I met them a few times at gatherings and parties. I didn’t know them well, and I wasn’t closely connected with their group. Most were a few years older than I. Some called this group the “long-hairs.”
This was the time of the hippie invasion. It happened all around the country, especially after 1968 when the movement ventured out of San Francisco and other parts of California. And it came to almost every town or city in Alaska in one way or another.
In the July 27, 1970, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a letter to the editor writer listed everything he liked and disliked about that city. His dislikes? Number 1, the hippies. Number 2, their women. In the August 7, 1970, issue another letter to the editor asked 21 questions about hippies, including, “Why does the state give them food stamps,” “Why do we let them squat on our property,” and, “Why do we let them bring drugs into our state.” That same year, a graduate of the University of Alaska published an article in a scholarly journal titled “Toward Soul: The American Hippie as German Romantic.”
By late 1969 these hippies had found their way to Seward. The town was still recovering from the devastation of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake that had destroyed most of its economy. With their jobs gone, many left Seward. Those who stayed worked hard to attract business and industry to get the town back on its feet again. On March 17, 1970, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner ran a story calling Seward the town, “too tough to die…while smoke still rolled from shattered buildings, Seward residents began the long fight toward reconstruction.”
In 1968 a group of East Coast scallopers chose Seward as their port of call – an initial boost to the shattered fishing fleet. That helped some, but scallops are an elusive product with many regulations to protect stocks. Then the Alaskan Steamship Company left the Port of Seward. Town leaders fought hard for economic recovery and diversity.
In 1970 the state selected Seward for a technical school for adults called the Skill Center. It’s now AVTEC – the Alaska Vocational Training Center. The University of Alaska established their Marine Science Institute in Seward. Oil had been discovered on the Kenai Peninsula, and the industry had found more on the North Slope. Plans began for a Trans-Alaska Pipeline. “So in spite of a somewhat dismal economic past,” the Fairbanks paper wrote, “the future looks as bright for Seward as it does for all Alaska.”
All this doesn’t mean there was no stress in towns like Seward, and that can divide a community. Things can get ugly, and that’s what happened.
The youth movement of the 1960s just added to all the stress. It’s a complicated story including, but not limited to, a group called the Citizens of Progress; those fighting against that group; the police chief; the mayor, who was the local high school English teacher; a drug problem in Seward; and a relatively small group of “long-hairs” who were considered hippies and the source of the drug problem.
I, perhaps, sat somewhere in the middle as a long-hair myself. Not really part of the that hippie group, but in many ways, just another young newcomer. I do recall being warned as a teacher to stay away from that hippie group. At that stage of my life, that’s all I needed to hear to entice me to occasionally join with them. As one of my local sources tells me, it was a “nasty” time, but it was part of the context of this story.
After teaching 22 years in Seward, I retired and went to work as park ranger at Kenai Fjords National Park, established as a national monument under President Jimmy Carter in 1978, then in 1980 designated as a national park as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. As I explored the fjords and wildlife, guiding visitors on the tour boats, and working with scientists to document glacial retreat, I thought of the Davidsons almost every time we traveled along the El Dorado Narrows to Cape Resurrection. I never included them in my narration. It was too sad of a story, and I didn’t know how to tell it.
On an overcast day in early August 1977, as sport fishermen competed during the Seward Silver Salmon Derby, John, Ginger, and four-year-old Jesse headed back home from Seward in their small boat loaded down with supplies and equipment. As they left the boat harbor, they no doubt veered east traveling along the coast past Thumb and Humpy Coves and, passing the Fox Island Spit, headed into the El Dorado Narrows toward Cape Resurrection. What happened and where it occurred, no one knows.
People disappear in Alaska.
For years the story of John, Ginger, and Jesse haunted me. I was not in Seward when it happened. I was in Wisconsin getting married to my wife, Cindy. When we returned in mid-August, I learned about the Davidsons. It hit me hard because it brought me back to an event that happened on May 26, 1973.
School was out, and I was working for both the local radio station, KRXA and the newspaper, the Seward Phoenix Log. That morning a 40-year-old father and his four children set out in a 20-foot Army fishing boat from the small boat harbor on an all-day trip.
Sgt. IG Floyd Harper, a Vietnam veteran with 21 years in the Army, had been stationed at Fort Richardson for three months. On this fishing trip Harper had with him his children: Ilse Ruth, 16; Mary Bell, 15; Floyd Leroy, Jr., 13; and Christine, 8. Harper’s wife, Ilse, remained in Seward at the Army Rec Camp.
The boat driver, 18-year-old Pfc. James R. Foster, had only taken a Coast Guard “familiarization” course – “three days of classroom instruction and three days working with the boat itself.” For a charter or rental boat Coast Guard license, which Foster didn’t possess, the applicant had to have 365 days of onboard experience at sea during the past three years and pass a written test.
That evening, the boat didn’t return, and a search began. I was asked to get the story. I drove to the Army Rec Camp located a little over a mile north of Seward, dreading the assignment.
It brought me back a few years, working as a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts to pay my way through college I often covered the police beat. Listening to radio calls, I occasionally arrived at fatal car crashes before the police.
One accident in particular still disturbs me – four young men about my age at the time, tossed from their smashed car and sprawled dead along a narrow, twisting, tree-lined road. I waited for the police, and when they arrived, they asked me, as they sometimes did, if I’d take official photos for their use only. Not for publication.
At other times, as a young and low-ranking reporter, I’d be the one assigned to knock on the parents’ doors tactfully asking for photos of their dead children for an obituary or story.
I hadn’t come to Alaska to do that kind of work again.
As I entered the main building of the Army Rec Camp, I saw immediately the wife and mother at one end of the room, comforted by a group of women. A uniformed man approached me, the information officer, and escorted me to another room. He gave me the facts I needed. I had no desire to interview Mrs. Harper. While researching this story, I learned that she died in 2018. Apparently, she never remarried.
It was later reported that, “when the small boat put out to sea, warnings were in effect for six-foot seas in Resurrection Bay and an estimated 30-foot seas in the open Gulf of Alaska.” The wrecked boat was eventually found on Memorial Day along the edge of the Gulf of Alaska some 60 miles down from Seward. That same day searchers found the boat’s life-raft, with all survival gear intact, on Natoa Island about halfway between Seward and Two Arm Bay where the boat was found.” Their bodies were never recovered.
People disappear in Alaska
They vanish in forests, on the glaciers, and along the alpine meadows. They dissolve within winter blizzards on their snow machines or smother under avalanches while skiing. Their inflatables surrender to river rapids and their boots carry them along trails that evaporate into the wild. Their planes crash into mountains. As Sheila Nickerson writes in “Disappearance: A Map,” “Sometimes a plane, once found, is in too precarious and unstable a position to be approached or too deeply buried. But for now, the bodies are gently covered with crystals of silence and peace. There is no hope, there is no searching. The compass has ceased to spin. There is only the falling snow, the stillness in the sanctuary of true north.”
And some people disappear at sea, like the Davidsons. Like a cup of water scooped from the sea, this is their story – poured back into it.
To be continued.
Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.” In addition to many Alaska history articles, he wrote forwards for two reprints of books by American artist Rockwell Kent. He has written poetry, essays and plays. His most recent play, “A Social Distance” will be published in Cirque magazine this summer. For this story, people who knew the Davidsons or who have photographs, information or letters, can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.