Part 17 in a Series
"To forge a new life from the inhospitable rocky terrain of steep mountains was a considerable endeavor. It was a continual learning process – the mistakes were many, and the work was hard, but the satisfaction made the task worthwhile."
Dave Miller in “Our Back Bay Ways.” Alaska Magazine, July 1976.
To forge a new life
“It is May,” wrote Sheila Nickerson in “Disappearance: A Map.” She subtitles her 1996 book, “A Meditation on Death & Loss in the High Latitudes.” The month of May is not quite spring in much of Alaska, Nickerson wrote, “but still a time of potentially cruel weather, especially in the tumultuous arc of the Gulf of Alaska, the place where the North American and Pacific plates meet and violence is upheaved in tectonic battle.”
Ginger and John Davidson were dropped off at their homesite on April 1, 1970. The eastern Kenai Peninsula – Day Harbor and Resurrection Bay – represent the far western arc of the Gulf of Alaska.
Someone once asked John why he settled a piece of land so distant and desolate as Driftwood Bay.
If you don’t want to be around people, he responded, you’ve got to find a place where people don’t want to live.
As the idealism of the 1960s evolved into the disenchantment of the 1970s, John evolved along with it. Interviews with his siblings, his letters home, and the memories of some who knew him in Alaska, indicate he craved adventure, solitude, and independence. Those elements made up is character. He probably also came to realize that to maintain his integrity, he required a healthy degree of freedom from a chaotic, and what he called, a “sick” world.
Ginger, too, had her independent streak, a preference for solitude, and a disenchantment with society.
After they met during the summer of 1969, ideas for some type of commune situation spread among their friends. Ginger had worked with Marco, John Uriarte, and others at Thumb Cove to build a cabin. John Davidson may have occasionally participated and mentions that group in a letter home. On a map he drew, he labels Thumb Cove as the location of his closest neighbors once he settled at Driftwood Bay.
Perhaps, Marco thought, the cabin at Thumb Cove could become the center of a smaller community of like-minded residents unlike the failed Oz commune in Pennsylvania which had been too large, too diverse, and too chaotic. That may have worked for Ginger, but John was not the commune type. After they met, Ginger’s plans merged into his dream of an intimate family homesite – a quiet, refuge along the rugged Gulf of Alaska coast.
A small bay just inside Day Harbor provided them both an opportunity to make the life they imagined a reality. For Ginger, it was probably as much her love and respect for John himself as much as it was the place. For John, finally finding a soul mate like Ginger gave the experience and his life meaning. Before the two seekers met, there had been only their individual lives – from the moment they landed on that Driftwood Bay beach, they began to see and then build a future together.
“It is a place of earthquake, young mountains, and volatile glaciers,” Nickerson wrote, “a place where the pressure of frozen millennia breaks in blue ice against a stormy sea, a place where exquisitely sharp peaks throw back the weather that tries to move inland from the sea.”
Some of the later homesteaders at Day Harbor wondered why John selected Driftwood Bay for his homesite. It didn’t have the protection of the small cuts at the head of the bay like Anchor Cover – where Dave and Bonnie Miller settled.
“In 1972, I came to Seward,” Dave told me, “with the intention of staking OTE land (Open to Entry) that the State of Alaska made available around Blying Sound, including lower Resurrection Bay and a few areas within Day Harbor and eastward to Puget Sound.”
By that time the Davidsons probably had a comfortable cabin up and the beginnings of other structures.
“I met John within a few days of arriving in Seward,” Dave said. “We seemed to hit it off immediately and had the same goal of living in the wilderness. After several conversations about land in Day Harbor, he encouraged me to stake land on the east side of Day Harbor in Anchor Cove, chiefly because this northwest facing cove was very protected from storms in the gulf. For John, gulf coast storms were a constant menace because Driftwood Bay is open to the east, and mooring a boat year-round is risky to say the least. I heeded John’s advice.”
Dave and his wife, Anne, still spend summers there.
Driftwood wasn’t the safest anchorage with the weather and all the driftwood floating in. The best land for building stood high above the beach. Many fine logs washed in, but how would he get them up the hill along with everything else?
While looking for a place to stake, Davidson had visited Day Harbor in a friend’s vessel and noted the marshy land and dead spruce at the head of the bay. Probably with all the talk around Seward about the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, John wanted a place, he later told friends, that wouldn’t be hit by a tsunami. Difficult as his site was, a cabin on a hill above the shoreline was perfect protection.
Another early explorer of Day Harbor is Fred Woelkers. “The first time I went out there was in the winter of ‘69,” he told me, “but I was still in the Coast Guard. I got out of the Coast Guard in the dead winter of ’70 and I was out there…I just had a camp…I hadn’t actually staked land or anything. I had a hunting camp. I was commercial seal hunting back then, in the winter, and trapping for otter.”
Though Woelkers knew the fjord intimately and had a professional maritime background, John and Ginger Davidson were the first modern homesteaders out at Day Harbor. Ginger calls him “Freddie” in her journal. He got to know the couple early, helped and advised them, and became a close friend. The Millers also became friends with John and Ginger. They visited each other and sometimes hunted and fished together.
Fred Woelkers remembers meeting the Davidsons in the late fall of 1970 before he left for a trip Outside in December. By that time, Ginger and John were most likely heading back to Seward for the winter where they worked for cash and planned and gathered materials for building in the spring of 1971. It had been tough, those first few months at their homesite.
Ginger and John had two tents. They installed the small one right away. The large 12x14 foot wall tent would have to wait until later. After they secured their supplies and equipment up beach, safe from the next high tide, they found a possible location for a cabin on the hill. It had the right slope open to the sun, and a beautiful view of their small pond, the ocean, and the mountains. It was ideal, but they wondered how they’d haul up all their supplies and the logs they’d need for the cabin.
By the first week in April, this part of Alaska gains nearly six minutes of sunlight a day, about forty minutes each week. John and Ginger vowed to stay up that first night until 9:30 for the next high tide.
“We were both acting like babies,” Ginger wrote in her journal. “John whined he was hungry, tired & cold. His feet were freezing & he wanted to eat and go to bed.”
They managed to cook some rice and beans on their Coleman stove. After dinner, they gathered their sleeping bags and other needed supplies from the piles above the high-tide line on the beach. Stumbling in exhaustion over rocks and brush, they made several trips hauling the stuff into their small tent. Ginger returned three times to pick up the items they had dropped along the way.
“When we finally got to bed,” she wrote, “it felt so good we almost cried.”
Perhaps because they knew they’d have to be up again before the next high tide.
After breakfast on the second day, Thursday, April 2, they searched for a wall tent site in the lightly falling snow. Between the first hill and the little pond it went up, and by evening it had a wood floor, four walls, a roof, a stove, some firewood, and food. That would be their home for quite some time – so they made sure to make it comfortable.
They still found time to walk their beach that day.
“We found many useful & groovy things washed ashore – bottles, mahogany planks, and buoys with Japanese writing on them,” Ginger wrote.
Later, John bush-wacked and slashed a rough trail from the beach up to their cabin site. They still had the tides to deal with. That evening in the small tent, they devoured a dinner of rice and bacon cornbread.
Ginger wrote: “A light-Coleman, kerosene or carbide – quickly heats our little sleeping tent and we’re always quite warm inside.”
Day 3, Friday, April 3: This is the day John and Ginger lost their 14-foot boat – its tree-tied rope twisted loose by the wind and tides. It was a precarious situation, but they weren’t too concerned. They had plenty of food, and Capt. Bill of the Starlight would eventually show up. It wasn’t long before he did. John set out a few fishing lines but only caught sea stars.
By now they had most of their materials safe from the tides, so they spent the day fixing up the wall tent. Ginger built a kitchen out of Yukon boxes, also called Blazo boxes. They held 2.5-gallon cans of white gas used in Coleman stoves. Homesteaders used these wooden crates for all kinds of projects – as stools, storage shelves, dressers, and cupboards. “Early Alaskan Furniture,” some called them. One source told me his baby crib was a Blazo box.
Fuel cans in the boxes were flattened out and used to roof the cabins.
Later that day, John hauled in other needed items and made a table out of trunks and benches out of his toolboxes. Ginger had the luxury of taking a few naps in the afternoon. That night they enjoyed their first proper sit-down meal of baked kidney beans. There was enough left over so that for the first time they’d be able to have three meals the next day.
Saturday, April 4: What looked like an ominous task – moving more logs beyond the high tide line – didn’t take very long, so they hiked up the mountain. Crossing over to the next beach, they saw a mountain goat. The terrain confirmed that they selected the best site for their cabin. They explored another beach, returning by late afternoon for an early dinner of corn chowder, “a real treat,” Ginger noted.
Too restless to just sit, John hauled more lumber around. Before turning in early for a change, they reorganized the wall tent.
Sunday, April 5: John and Ginger could relax, at least for a time – the early grunt work was over. But in the world of Alaska homesteading, that never meant idleness. A layer of ice formed on their pond as the wind and cold continued. They spent the day trying to establish a fishing line at the beach’s far end, but they couldn’t set an anchor. Ginger explored the many creatures of the intertidal zone.
“We saw barnacles, snails, and millions of tiny muscles,” she wrote. “Good for muscle soup some night.”
They were learning the wisdom of an ancient Alaska Native saying: When the tide is out the table is set.
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 email@example.com.