Part 28 in a Series
“Peering at a wilderness from a tramway station…is not a wilderness experience; the sense of wilderness is not achieved by standing at its threshold, but by engaging it from within.”
Joseph L. Sax in Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks
The Sense of Wilderness
“This winter has been quiet, as the chain saw broke down, first thing,” Ginger wrote June 1973. “John didn’t spend much time fixing it before he decided to cut wood by hand. Mostly we already had enough, but we sawed up a few trees with the one-man crosscut.”
John finished also built a permanent door for their cabin.
“It’s solid,” Ginger wrote, “3” thick plank we ripped with the chain saw last spring with a 12”x14” window…It stands in the kitchen, yet. Decided to get some proper screws in town to hang it with. We could have nailed it.”
John accomplished other projects on his winter list. He built a small wood cookstove for the back of their newly purchased 1952 two-and-a-half-ton Ford truck with plans to add a 7x 8-foot camper to its bed. That would give them a place to stay while working summers in Seward without spending money for housing or depending upon the generosity of friends. He had made a three-quart wooden pitcher and started making barrels, while designing a special portable saw to rip lumber efficiently, using a bandsaw blade and an old chainsaw engine.
The Davidsons lost another boat that year, the letters say, but nothing about how it happened. They decided next time in town to buy another skiff. In the meantime, John decided to build an 18-foot umiak – an open skin boat used by the Yupik and Inuit.
“Should be good for hunting as it can be towed,” Ginger wrote. “We’ll use our small engine on it mostly. It will be covered with rawhide with seal & sealion.”
The first skins sat in the cabin in a lime solution. They had problems removing the hair from the hides.
“It smelled pretty bad, too,” John wrote in May 1973, so he tried again. “The hides this spring sat a little longer. Again, much of the hair wasn’t ready to slip, and the new hides rotted.”
“We are surely doing something wrong” Ginger admitted, “but can’t find any information specifically for sea or sea lion. The hair doesn’t slip easily like a dear or goat hide.”
John’s workshop was yet to be built, so he worked in the cabin, and the umiak took up most of the house.
“When finished, we’ll have to take the front window out to get it outside,” he noted.
“O yes, the umiak still sits in the cabin – unfinished,” Ginger wrote.
More than ever, she seemed anxious and ready for John to build himself a separate workshop.
By March, as supplies got short and the couple made plans for work in Seward, they had a visitor.
“Among the people that I hung around with,” their friend, Jim MacKovjak told me, “John and Ginger were kind of heroes. They were doing what all of us dreamed of doing.”
In 1973, John was 29 and Ginger 27, older than many of the young seekers attracted to the back-to-the-land movement. They balanced on the edge of the baby boomer generation as they worked with those near their age at the cannery and on fishing vessels.
“Quite a few teachers work there part of the summer.,” Ginger wrote. “There are no strict ‘class’ lines in Alaska – at least not in Seward.”
They also worked with many younger squeezers – those in college or still in high school. The Davidsons had transcended that initial seeking stage. By 1973 they had found each other, decided upon a purpose in life, settled down and started building a farm with plans to have children. Ginger and John pursued those goals with dogged determination while demonstrating a commitment, perseverance, and maturity that even those only a few years younger but less settled in life admired.
“When I knew them at first, they were living on Nash Road,” MacKovjak said, “In a Quonset hut and kind of making their plans for Driftwood Bay.”
John first came to Alaska in 1967. His brother, Jim, told me that when “Jack” visited his brother in New Mexico in 1968, he already had plans drawn up for a cabin in Alaska. MacKovjak worked at the Bear Creek weir the year after John, and later at sea on several vessels. Before leaving Seward, in March 1973 he visited Ginger and John at Driftwood Bay.
MacKovjak learned that Gene Holmstrand, captaining the Southland, was headed to Prince William Sound to fish for shrimp. MacKovjak had worked on the Southland before and asked Gene if he would drop him off at Day Harbor.
“I went to the little grocery store in Seward and looked around for what they might need,” MacKovjak said. “They really didn’t get any visitors in the winter. I figured that they didn’t have any fresh vegetables or fruit and they would appreciate stuff like that.”
Among the surprise items he selected was a one-pound chunk of Cellophane-wrapped chocolate found in a wooden barrel. John and Ginger were happy to see him. As they unloaded the box of groceries, Ginger found the chocolate.
“She went on and on about it,” MacKovjak said, “and she said to me, ‘You eat this shit?’ I thought she was serious.”
That was Ginger, according to others like Cathy (Gerber) Cooley, a good friend of hers in Seward. Ginger could be outspoken, often with irony or tongue-in-cheek, leaving people unsure at first how to take a comment. She’d visit Cooley and her two children in their trailer at Bear Creek to do laundry when in town. The two had many long conversations.
“Ginger was very upfront about her thoughts,” Cooley recalled.
She found it hard to explain what she sensed as John’s occasional discomfort around people, and observed that it sometimes became an issue between him and Ginger. He didn’t want to come to town any more than he had to. Ginger, on the other hand was more social and needed the occasional company of other women. Cooley recalls talking cheese making with Ginger and remembers the large cheese wheels she sold to local merchants.
That first night at Driftwood Bay, MacKovjak slept downstairs in the cabin living room. John and Ginger climbed up the ladder to their loft bedroom. In the middle of the night, MacKovjak heard giggling coming from the downstairs kitchen. He didn’t get up, but he could see that the couple had come downstairs and were munching on the chocolate. It didn’t take them long – between the laughter – to eat the entire one-pound block.
MacKovjak asked John why he settled a piece of land so distant and desolate as Driftwood Bay in Day Harbor.
“If you want to live alone you have to live where no one else wants to live,” John responded.
“By 1973, when I was out there, things were pretty comfortable,” MacKovjak recalled. “The cabin was done. John had rigged cables and winches to log all these logs off the beach, He even had some mahogany logs. They were hauling coal and John had a forge. He made hinges for the doors. He actually made a folding pocketknife. John said he didn’t want any books about philosophy or how to be happy in life. He just wanted books about how to do stuff.” He even taught himself how to make…his shoes.”
“Jack was always learning things,” his sister Mary recalled, “figuring things out…he was the one that did things when all the rest of the kids were just talking about stuff but never got around to it.”
His ability to design, problem solve, and build almost anything transcended those some call being handy.
“Handy doesn’t do it justice,” Mackovjak said.
John craved working creatively with his hands combined with the solitude and a wilderness existence lifestyle.
“And the state open-entry land program just played into his hands…John Davidson was easy-going…a real nice guy,” MacKovjak added, “and Ginger was just all for it there. One of the first things John did when he went out there was take off all his clothes and said he wasn’t going to wear any clothes until Ginger made them for him.”
John perhaps said that with a shy grin, and Ginger most likely laughed it off. But it didn’t take her long to respond.
Weeks before MacKovjak arrived, Ginger finished her quilt project. The large, braided rug was a work still in progress.
“I’ll be glad when it’s done for when the workshop moves out of the house,” she wrote.
She planned to put the rug in the living room.
Ginger made jeans for John, “One pair complete. Three pair half done. Made a pair for myself this year, too.”
By May the umiak still wasn’t finished. John and Ginger had been working on a fishing boat. Martin Goresen’s herring tender, the 60-foot Violet, towing 100-foot barge. Goresen had four crew and eight herring squeezers.
“The galley was only meant for 4-6 & we stuffed 8-10 in,” Ginger wrote.”
The Davidsons wanted to take their kayak along, so Goresen suggested they arrive early.
“The rest of the squeezers were flown out the day work started,” Ginger wrote. “So we had nearly a week to fool around in Prince William Sound.”
They paddled up to Columbia Glacier among the ice flows and watched the ice calve. The passed seals hauled out on growlers and ice bergs, some sleeping, others groaning.
“Probably fat from too much herring,” Ginger wrote.
They spotted a wolverine on land near the glacier.
“We in the kayak, he on the beach 20 feet away. Never knew we were there, beautiful animal. A wolverine up close is a real treat. Most people have seen them only in traps.”
Once work began, they both stripped herring eggs.
“Ginger is fast and I had to keep up with her so we made good money,” John wrote. “The fish were many and big, so we had good pickings.”
Ginger added: “Another good part about the job was that we were fed and housed for free. Of course, there were 4 other guys in our room, but the food was excellent. Meat three times a day, also there were 4 Japanese on board. They stay in the ‘Tokyo Hilton.’ – hat was the room with a window. Had good time, talking about Micky Mouse one day.”
On the way back, the Violet got held up in a storm. That gave Ginger and John time to again scrounge at an abandoned cannery for three days. Among other things, they found a set of dominoes.
“So we took it to the boat & showed the Japanese how to play,” Ginger wrote. “They never saw anything like it before, but caught on right way. They wanted to buy some to take back to Japan.”
Near the abandoned cannery site, they met the local postmistress.
“She only has the mail for herself and one neighbor to worry about,” Ginger wrote. “She had another neighbor, but (he) was trying to break into her house, so she shot him.”
In one week they each made $500. By 2021 buying power, that came to over $6,000.
Back in Seward, the couple prepared to return to Driftwood Bay, but Goresen told them there’d be another herring run in two days. There was work to be done at the homesite, but they couldn’t pass up the money.
“Today I’m going back to Driftwood Bay with another skiff I just bought,” John wrote.
The boat needed about two-week’s worth of work to make it seaworthy. Goresen gave him some fiberglass and resin to coat the bottom.
“My engines are home so I’m having a friend tow it out for me. He is going that way anyhow on a fishing trip. Ginger will stay in town and work herring some more and I will be coming back to town in a few days to work also. By June we should have enough money for another year if I don’t waste it all.”
John needed three more sealion hides to finish the umiak, so he went hunting.
“It meant fixing the kayak…I keep patching the old Klepper up and still get a lot of use out of it…carrying it over the hill to Resurrection Bay where all the sea lions are, and paddling about 6 miles to the herds, shooting, towing to (the) beach, gutting, skinning and loading meat and hide into (the) kayak, bringing to (the) landing spot, and hauling all over the hill. Even with 3 people, it’s quite a bit of work. The other side of the hill is quite a bit steeper and more rugged than our side.”
With their friend, John and Ginger salted, corned, and canned about 300 pounds of meat. John then paddled to Seward in the kayak for goat feed and garden seed and ended up finding more work. So, he paddled back to the trail head and dropped off supplies that were later carried over the mountain.
While they were back in town working, their friend at the homesite built a smoke house and smoked some of the sea lions they hard corned and salted.
“Turned out real good,” Ginger wrote. “A good substitute for bacon.”
As the summer work ended, John and Ginger began their winter preparation routine.
They were delighted to get word from John’s parents that they planned to visit Alaska in summer 1974.
“We can make more definite arrangements in the spring,” Ginger wrote back to them. “I’m not sure when the best time will be, but may I suggest that if possible you don’t make exact vacation dates until we write in April. If you must, right now late July or anytime in August looks most likely right now.”
The couple had to schedule parental visits around their summer Seward work schedule.
Other Davidson siblings considered coming to Alaska and the couple encouraged John’s oldest brother, Paul, and his younger sisters, Mary and Debbie to visit.
“If Paul is looking to get away from the rat race,” Ginger wrote, “Anchorage isn’t the place to go. The only reason I can see for accepting a job in Anchorage would be as a stepping stone to another location in Alaska.”
The youngest sibling, Debbie, was still attending Evangel College. She considered taking a break – perhaps to earn some money and reflect upon her future.
“We both want Debbie to come,” Ginger wrote. “We think she could make enough money and it would be good experience for her. A chance to be independent in a place where it’s safe & she could always come to us for help.”
As usual, Ginger and John received family Christmas presents early that year and no doubt opened them right away.
As fall turned to winter, Ginger wrote: “I’ve been sewing more – made John a wool jacket. He made himself a denim shirt. The garden did well – 85 pounds of spuds, lots of turnips & radishes. Hope to plant a bigger garden next year. Good blueberry year. Good cheese and milk year. The ducks never did lay again after their first nest hatched. Out of 14 ducklings we got 9 hens, so we look forward to a better year. Three friends are visiting now and will take this (letter) to town. They helped yesterday building & we got lots done.”
The goats represented their main animal stock – for milk and meat.
“We’re building a goat barn now,” Ginger wrote.
It went up quickly with the help of their visitors. The couple became quite fond of their goat herd and had names for each of one, even those they planned to eat.
Jim Macovjak recalled: “John said you had to appreciate an animal that could turn Devil’s Club into meat.”
To be continued
Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.”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.