Part 13 in a Series
Frightful currents and winds
On Sept. 3, 1928, American artist Rockwell Kent wrote to a friend:
“They strike me as needlessly timid about the sea here (in Seward), continually talking of frightful currents and winds in a way that seems incredible to me and would, I think, to a New England fisherman. Olson says that in winter for weeks at a time it has been impossible to make the trip to Seward. Well, I’ll believe it when I try and get stuck.”
Rockwell Kent in “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska”
On Friday, April 3, 1970, within three days of their arrival at Driftwood Bay, Ginger and John lost their boat. Escaping its mooring in the ebb tide, it wandered out to sea. From the mountain above their cabin site, they observed it float away.
About noon on Thursday, April 9, the vessel Starlight returned with Capt. Bill & Company – their affectionate name for the man and his crew who first dropped them off. Bill had been fishing in Aialik Bay – unsuccessfully – when he got the feeling that the Davidson’s needed help. John and Ginger didn’t want to get away from the homesite this early on, but they appreciated Bill’s thoughtfulness and decided it would best to return to Seward since they did need a new boat.
In Seward on Friday they bought a 20-foot skiff with a 30 hp Johnson engine for $450.
“A practically impossible deal,” Ginger wrote, especially because another buyer was also after it. “Pete, the guy who sold us the boat, held it for us because we needed it more than the other guy.”
The next morning, they ate breakfast and listened to stories with “Happy Jack” and Pete, followed by help launching their new boat for tests.
“We gathered all our stuff during the next several days,” Ginger noted, including fishing gear and a huge, five-week-old puppy.
Bill sold them a cable, “for practically nothing,” and his deckhand, Leigh, loaned them a winch. With those items they would begin constructing a derrick used to haul logs and other heavy items up the hill behind the beach to their cabin site. That hand-cranked machine became an important part of their life.
“So many good people in Seward,” Ginger wrote.
At their Seward cabin the puppy soon found all the doors, some food, and took immediate possession of the sofa.
Early Friday morning, April 17, the couple faced a glassy Resurrection Bay and some light rain. Weather like that can be deceiving if you don’t know what’s happening out in the Gulf. They delayed the journey home only to buy a pair of oars.
“All went well till we got past Humpy Cove and the spit on Fox Island,” Ginger wrote from Seward two days later. “Then the water got terribly rough.”
This is the spot guides often tell tourists on boat tours of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park – “Soon you may begin to feel ‘the motion of the ocean.’”
Even with “glassy” water along the Seward shores, storms out in the Gulf of Alaska produce large swells that crash against Cape Resurrection and increase as they enter the El Dorado Narrows. For the Davidsons, this experience was an early warning of the dangers they would face in the future. And for us, it is an insight into what might have happened seven years later on August 2 when they headed home with three-year-old Jesse.
“The swells got higher and higher and we could see a storm coming in,” Ginger wrote. “We tried to land the boat at the pass so we could walk over, but between (the) slippery rocky shore and rough water we gave up rather than harm the boat. So we went on cautiously.”
It was a 25-mile trip by water from Seward back to Driftwood Bay.
The pass over the mountains was always an option.
One side of the trail began in a spot only ten miles from town and took them on land to within a short distance of the homestead. Over the years, they maintained the trail and used it often.
Sometimes they arranged for a pickup at the El Dorado Narrows and hitched a boat ride back home. At other times – especially after Jesse was born – John dropped Ginger and their son off at the El Dorado trailhead and took the boat himself around Cape Resurrection to Day Harbor. On this April day in 1970, John and Ginger decided to move forward cautiously.
“I was busy mixing our reserve gas tank when I looked up and saw a high wall of water coming at us,” Ginger continued. “Just at that moment John turned the boat around.”
Swinging a boat around in waters like that is tricky, and it shows John’s skill. If you don’t get it right, you can get “pooped,” or hit broadside by a wave that will flip you over.
“We decided to go back to town rather than camp out in Humpy Cove, since we were poorly prepared to camp out in the rain. We had left Driftwood Bay in such a rush the week before we forgot about the things we’d need for the trip back.”
The reason the Davidson’s came to Seward that August was because Jesse fell and broke his collar bone. It was a rushed trip under stress. By this time – seven years later – Ginger and John knew more about preparing for these trips, and no doubt had extra food and emergency equipment. But now several animals back at the homestead needed tending, a garden needed harvesting, and other tasks required daily attention.
In their early years at Driftwood Bay, they had some company who would assist John with heavy construction and could sit the place when they were gone. This helped especially in summer when the couple came to Seward to work for needed cash. But after January 1975, that help was no longer available. Ginger remarks in her journals how much they appreciated this individual’s assistance.
“As soon as we got back (to Seward) we went to the Harbor Master’s office and read the weather report.”
Trying to emerge south out of the El Dorado Narrows, they had run into 30-40 knot winds with swells up to 14 feet. It was a wise decision to return, and they were gratified to learn their new boat and engine were seaworthy.
Responsible for the couple’s nutrition – Ginger took charge of the garden and groceries, especially emergency food for water crossings. That trip in the cold August rain began her climb up the learning curve for future trips. She decided for future crossings to carry lots of chocolate. (It) really picks you up after sitting out in the cold a couple of hours.”
We can learn much from this near tragic experience. As the mariner in the family, John Davidson was no irresponsible risk-taker. He was more than familiar with traversing water in small boats and kayaks. He was a quick learner, and eventually understood Resurrection Bay, Day Harbor, and the Gulf of Alaska as well as many experienced mariners.
“He knew these waters,” retired Coast Guardsman, Fred Woelkers told me. “He was a good mariner.”
Fred had a homestead at Driftwood Bay and knew the Davidsons well. But on that fateful day in 1977, John and Ginger may have miscalculated the danger in their need to return for care of their animals and other daily responsibilities. In Alaska, one can still do everything right and run into trouble.
Back in Seward that same evening, they filled his 50-gallon fuel drum, and set it in their truck, and retreated to their cabin. At about 11 that evening an earthquake shook the town. The next morning Ginger and John at first blamed the earthquake when they found their boat half sunk and some of the lines broken. Further observation showed the lines had been purposely cut.
They frantically bailed until they found someone had drilled a one-inch hole in the vessel’s bottom.
“Had we arrived an hour later the whole mess probably would have been under water,” Ginger wrote, realizing it was luck that they returned the full 50-gallon fuel drum to the truck.
For it surely would have sunk to the bottom. John plugged the hole by carving a cork from a stick.
But who would drill a hole in their boat? And why?
Ginger had a pretty good idea. “We knew the mayor of Seward had just made his first attack on the ‘hippies.’” Note that Ginger put “hippies” in quotes, indicating the danger of trying to define the term.
“He may not have physically drilled the hole in the boat,” she continued, “but he had proclaimed open season on hippies in the last council meeting giving any redneck in town both moral sanction and legal support for any action against any person with hair slightly longer than the current style.”
If anyone could identify a “real” hippie, it would have been Ginger. She had observed them at Oz commune in Pennsylvania.
Marco was a “hippie,” or not. Maybe Laurel. But Ginger knew that John wasn’t one, and neither was she. Not that she was necessarily ashamed of the term. It was just too vague. Ginger was not one to jettison her countercultural values. But she was intelligent enough to understand the negative connotations associated with “hippie” and the possible consequences of those connotations – like a hole drilled in their new boat and the lines slashed.
Everyone with long hair different values wasn’t a hippie. It’s almost certain this incident didn’t change Ginger’s earlier comment, “So many good people in Seward.”
For the next seven years, the Davidsons found much support from many in town, especially the old timers. In the 1970s there were still many elderly residents from early territory days who recalled their personal struggles, and who probably appreciated a tenacious and courageous couple like the Davidsons.
But times had changed.
After a few years of some ugly politics, the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake had brought Seward people together.
With the economy and reconstruction under better control six years later, perhaps some of that togetherness started to wear off. Especially when combined with the oil boom that would result in the construction of the Alaska Pipeline and a dramatic change in the state’s demographics. Along with the “hippie” invasion, Alaska became flooded with people seeking high-paying jobs.
Even though pipeline construction was held up in court, needed supplies arrived by ship in Seward, were transferred by truck and rail north, and stockpiled. The canneries always need workers during the different seasons. Tedious as it was with long hours, the cannery assembly line paid well. Ginger occasionally worked there.
The divide between newcomers and old timers in any community can present problems. It had happened at least once before in Seward – between 1915 and 1923 during the construction of the Alaska Railroad.
Things can get ugly, and that’s what happened now.
The youth movement of the 1960’s just added to all the other stress. It’s a complicated story including 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” by some and the source of the drug problem.
John Davidson took his vandalized boat in stride. He may have been angry, but as his sister Mary would say, he just flowed with it.
“John wouldn’t be slowed down,” Ginger wrote. “and after letting Knighten know about the incident” – their friend Keith Knighten – John notified the police. Due to that incident, the Davidsons left for their Driftwood Bay home on April 18 an hour behind schedule.
While Ginger and John relaxed a bit at their homestead in Day Harbor through May, exploring Killer Bay and Safety Cove – Anchorage Daily News reporter, Slim Randles, came to Seward. Conflicts always attract the press, especially if its out-of-town issues to distract from their own town’s battles. Since long before Anchorage grew into Alaska’s population center, Seward and the city along Ship Creek have gone at each other’s throats – sometimes with humor, at other times with knives. It’s a long story – perhaps for another time.
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” is published in the June 2021 Cirque magazine. Earlier parts of this series can be found online at sewardjournal.com. People who knew the Davidson or who have photographs, information, or letters, can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.