Part 25 in a Series
“The rest of the day I devoted to my tools. I carved a mallet head out of a spruce chunk, augered a hole in it, and fitted a handle. This would be a useful pounding tool…I sharpened my axe, adze, saws, chisels, wood augers, drawknife, pocket knife, and bacon slicer. The whispering an oil stone makes against steel is a satisfying sound…A pile of logs. Which ones to start with…I scribed the notches on the underside of the end logs…To make a notch fit properly, you can’t rush it…The four notches rolled snugly into position over the curve of the side foundation logs beneath them…The cabin is growing. Twenty-eight logs are in place. Forty-eight should do it, except for gable ends and the roof logs. It really looks a mess to see the butts extending way beyond the corners, but I will trim them off later on.”
Dick Proenneke’s journal from Spring 1968, in “One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey.” At age 52, Proenneke built a cabin at Twin Lakes in what is now Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. He lived alone there for 30 years. Proenneke died in 2003 at age 86 in California.
The cabin is growing
On June 21, Ginger wrote home from Seward: “Due to bad weather and lack of funds we didn’t get to our cabin till a week ago.”
Spring came late that year. An inch of snow fell in Seward on June 1, but it melted quickly.
“Leaves are budding and grass beginning to grow. Even had 6 sunny warm days in the last two months – must have got up to 60 last week. That’s really hot. After about two hours of sunshine people begin talking about the nice warm spell.”
She met a man from Petersburg who thought Seward weather was great. It sun never shines in Petersburg, he told her.
On one of those sunny days the couple set up their wall tent at Driftwood Bay and got organized.
“John fixed me up the prettiest kitchen…you ever saw,” Ginger wrote, “wood range, complete with warming oven, 15 Blazo boxes stacked 3 high with a big mahogany plank from the beach for our counter and even a kitchen sink and a pretty blue rug on the floor. All in a U shape for convenience.”
Like the summer before, while they worked on the cabin they lived in that 12’x14’ white canvas wall tent. It had a low ceiling. They considered that space near the ridge pole as wasted.
“We put up a loft 3’ high…for storage – to hang all kinds of things,” Ginger wrote. “There was a stump right where we wanted to put the tent, so John cut it off at the right height and went to the beach & found a shaped piece of plywood just right for the table – probably the table from a sunken boat.”
This season they brought out two chairs, and a single mattress to set up as a combined sofa-bed with storage underneath.
“So -- we’ll be living in style,” Ginger wrote her parents.
Before they left the site last season, they had considered remaining there over the winter in the wall tent. What they saw when they returned in June 1971 no doubt assured them they were correct to leave. The equipment and supplies they left under the cabin over the winter survived undamaged.
“But a few things we left behind the beach, they didn’t do so well,” Ginger observed. “The wall tent floor – a heavy wooden thing, was upside down & across the pond. All my canning jars were on top of it – I found about 6 out of 100 or so. The shakes (for the cabin roof) John had stacked about 6’ high with weights on top were scattered all over the pond.”
They had left their anchor arrangement set up. The tire used as a float now rested in the pond. The cable and rope once attached to it were high up on the beach half buried under rocks and boulders.
“All I can say is,” she wrote, “there’s been some bad storms.”
Unlike last year, this summer John would have help with the heavy work. A friend from Seward agreed to stay with them to help assist in building the cabin and look after the place when John and Ginger made trips to Seward for work or supplies. Ginger didn’t have the strength to support John with that kind of labor.
Last season she was pregnant and then had a miscarriage. John struggled alone, spending more time trying to move heavy loads than doing construction. He insisted Ginger rest and attend to less physical activities. She worked on household chores, the garden, feeding the animals, and other needed activities. She also read many books.
Their friend would be of much help. Someone also had to care for their animals and the garden when they were gone. They were both grateful for his assistance. He had much to do with their success at Driftwood Bay.
The couple already had two goats ready to go but still staying with Penny Hardy at Lowell Point – a female they named Nanny, and her kid, Billwinkle. Ginger and John planned to buy more goats and other stock that summer. They built a goat shed – drift plywood for the roof, cedar shakes for the walls.
They made kelp pickles – “unbelievable good,” Ginger wrote.
They harvested fiddle head ferns and lived off their canned moose meat and highbush cranberry jelly.
“Most everything else is store boughten,” Ginger noted.
John had been spotting seals that June, especially a few hauled out across the bay.
“We’d really like to get one soon,” Ginger wrote. “Going to try to use the fat for soap. The last batch I made using regular fat is great…better than most regular stuff for dishes & baths. Soon I’ll have a chance to try it on clothes.”
By early August the couple was back in Seward. They had intended a short trip, but it was salmon season – the silvers were running – and they couldn’t turn down the work. John again got a job at Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods while Ginger canned salmon at Seward Fisheries.
Mac Eads, John’s boss, let the couple stay at the company’s garage in exchange for some night-watch work. Eads also gave them the mattress they brought to Driftwood that season as well as a ride back to the site on the company’s tender, the Anna A.
Ginger wrote: “I’m not sure whether or not Whitney or Fidalgo would approve but they’re in Seattle and only Seward people work here. Anyway, we were here yesterday at 6:00 am & the Anna A was almost empty & ready to go with several more boats coming soon. So John went to work & I went down to the cannery at 8 – made about $70 between us for a long day’s work. Slept in the Whitney-Fidalgo’s garage (another fringe) & John got up at 4 this morning to work. If the Anna A doesn’t come in soon I’ll work again. This waiting around is (the) typical situation.”
That free ride saved John and Ginger both time and money. It would have taken them many trips in their skiff to haul all the food and supplies out to Driftwood. They purchased little meat since they had all that moose. They planned to hunt seal, sea lion and other game to supplement the moose meat. It was only August, but already time in Alaska to prepare for the cold and snow.
“Hopefully October will be our last trip to town before winter sets in,” Ginger wrote.
The big news in Seward was the August 4 bank robbery. Within a few hours after the heist, the town police and more than one unofficial armed posse roamed the area and blocked the road out of Seward. Three young men had stolen somewhere between 100 and 150 thousand dollars while forcing customers to lie on the floor.
“Brandishing two sawed off shot guns and an automatic pistol,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Minor wrote, “the trio escaped from the Seward Branch of the First National Bank of Anchorage in a stolen car.”
By the next day, 25 state and federal law enforcement officials searched all along the sea shore and mountainous terrain. Two of the robbers were from Anchorage, the other from Fairbanks. The oldest was 22. Witnesses described the trio as long-haired hippie types.
The local newspaper, the Seward Phoenix Log, had its office right across from the bank and missed the story as it happened. It took them quite a while to live down the friendly jokes about the big scoop they missed developing right under their noses.
Ginger related the story to her parents as it had circulated around town: “Seward bank was robbed last week. The first time ever. But as usual the robbers were dumb & got caught 2 days later & they found the money stashed in a nearby cave. Can you imagine – only one road out of town – one small airport and ocean & mountains everywhere else. Everywhere you look, cops, planes, road blocks -- & even a helicopter buzzing after them. All very inefficiently. They were finally caught eating lunch at a local café.”
That description of the thieves as hippies, didn’t help some of the hard-working long hairs in town.
“We cut wood together and things like that,” Fred Moore recalled about John. “One time he got some scrap wood or slabs or some cull lumber from the sawmill that was operating at the time and they wrote him a receipt for it, they had to do a receipt for everything they sold and for the customer. They just wrote ‘hippie’ – and…that upset him for a couple of days.”
It’s no wonder. After the bank robbery, the description of the robbers enforced the myth that all long hairs or hippie types were druggies and/or criminals. Many old timers like the Eads brothers, however, viewed the more responsible long hairs like John with more respect and helped them out.
Ginger had more friends in the hippie crowd than John, and she tended to dress the part. Having danced at the Flamingo as a “Go-Go” girl when she first came to Seward – a fact that all her friends knew – Ginger seemed to have less concern about what people thought of her. John walked a finer line.
Fred Moore recalled; “One time I was living on Nash Road – they may have been living next to me at the time, and John was looking for work and needed to get a haircut and I cut hair. So he approached me about giving him a haircut. But he was really conflicted – he wanted the hair short enough that he could get a job but long enough that he wouldn’t be out of place with his hippie friends. So, finally I cut some off – and it wasn’t quite enough, not enough to get a job, so I cut some more off. So, finally we settled on just what he wanted.”
In Seward John and Ginger befriended a surveyor and thought it possible he would give them a price break to survey both their homesites. That was one reason they spent more time in town earning money working that summer and fall.
Under the Open-to-Entry program homesteaders couldn’t purchase their land until it had been surveyed, and they had ten years to do that. Often groups of homesteaders would get together and hire a surveyor to take care of all their nearby property at the same time, saving money on travel and expenses. It’s most likely this early survey of the Davidson homesite didn’t happen. Later they probably went in together with other Day Harbor homesites.
As the salmon processing subsided Ginger and John headed back to Driftwood. They planned to have the cabin roof up by mid-September using lumber John had purchased, but he decided on thicker and stronger lumber he’d cut himself.
There was another reason he made this decision. West Coast warehouse and longshoremen had been on strike for months over the right for exclusive jurisdiction over handling container cargo at freight stations near the ports. Lumber and other materials were expensive and difficult to obtain in Alaska. John could save money and use his purchased lumber for other projects.
The couple bought two used chains saws for only $125.
The 1941, two-man model, didn’t run, but it came along with “many, many spare parts,” Ginger wrote, enough “to fix the other one four times. This will save ware & care on our small saw.”
Using two steel rollers from a boat wreckage he found on the beach, John built a jig to easily produce the cedar shakes.
“We tried it already with our other saw & it works great…we made cedar window-sill with it already.”
While in Seward, John also bought two outboard motors for $125.
“These prices seem too amazing to you,” Ginger wrote home, “but altogether – saws & engines it’s over two thousand dollars-worth of equipment. John can fix them if they break down & we have plenty of spare parts by now.”
One can sense the excitement in Ginger’s descriptions of their progress with cabin construction. Their dreams had merged when they met during the summer of 1969 and married that December. Now, in the fall of 1971 – nearly two years later – that dream materialized as the cabin rose. The couple knew for certain now that they’d be spending their first winter at Driftwood Bay.
“It’s just beautiful,” Ginger wrote. “The logs run anywhere from 7” in diameter to 17” with the average being about a foot. We’re chinking with paper mache made by boiling newspapers to a pulp for about a day. The cracks between the logs are almost non-existent, so the thickest chinking is about 1/8” thick.”
As September merged into October and November, Ginger and John were anxious to move into their new home. Their friend was building a small cabin nearby for himself, but on rainy days he stayed with them in their wall tent.
“And it’s too crowded,” John wrote – but John was more than grateful for his friend’s support “in helping me move logs around.” John wrote: “It took us 3 days to cut the ridge pole, move it to the cabin and get it on. The front end is about 20’ off the ground. I think the log weighed well over a ton.”
For John and Ginger, the finished cabin was only the first step in a larger dream. They already had plans for a barn and a workshop for John. They would soon add more livestock, chickens and geese.
The workshop idea excited Ginger, and she joked about it. All of John’s many projects dominated every room in ever place they lived. For her, it was a small inconvenience for his perseverance, energy, and mechanical skills.
She contributed to their new life by reading and studying to learn more subsistence skills. She enlarged their garden planned a nutrition program to keep them healthy.
“In spite of the rough country,” John wrote, “in a few years I think the place will look like a farm.”
To be continued
NOTE – A source tells me the woman in the photo last week standing in front of John and Ginger’s truck is Linda Graham, and the man is Brian O’Riley, a good friend of John’s. The photo was taken about 1976 near the corner of Nash Road and Salmon Creek Roads “about where the Eads Auto car sits on top of the tree trunk.”
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.