Part 5 in a Series
“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.”
Marcus Aurelius in “Meditations”
dOur inward power: Turning obstacles into fuel
As John Davidson and Jimmy Curnes pushed eastward across the country in their two-man Klepper kayak during the summer of 1966, Carolyn Higgins had finished her sophomore year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania majoring in psychology.
No one called her “Ginger,” that moniker would attach itself to her in Alaska. At this point in her life the “Last Frontier” meant little to her, and the man she would meet there, John Davidson, was too focused on the day-to-day survival of his kayak excursion with Curnes. It’s most likely that during the summer of 1966, neither John nor Ginger had ever heard of Day Harbor or Driftwood Bay.
By October – adding to the adventure’s many delights – the two Air Force vets had endured enough trials and disasters to ascertain the truth of the Robert Burnes poem about “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,” but they worked as a team and adapted, changed tactics as needed, and persevered.
On the Snake River, while shooting some treacherous rapids, Davidson and Curnes lost some supplies and all their clothing except for what they were wearing. On a portage from Kamiah, Idaho, they walked for six days carrying little food due to its weight, having been told they could buy more at their destination – a ranger station. Their feet quickly started to blister. No food was available at the ranger station and the next town was three days away. “At this point,” John wrote home, “we made the decision to hitch-hike to Great Falls…and get to Yellowstone Park.” They got to Butte, but from there couldn’t get a ride, “after a day of standing and walking without eating.” They camped for the night and the next day trudged back to Great Falls.
While navigating the Missouri on July 24, Davidson and Curnes heard on their radio about an expected rainstorm so they pitched their tent for the evening. They tied the “River Pig,” with the camera equipment and all their clothes, to a log less than 100 yards away. A downpour and violent storm hit about midnight. In the morning, everything was gone.
“We found pieces of our boat strewn all over the place,” they told newsmen, and “pieces of our sail and some other things we had been carrying in the boat.”
Curnes’s journal says they eventually found and recovered most of the equipment and got lucky with the cameras, discovering them floating behind some logs in an inlet. “Disaster hit,” Davidson wrote in his journal. “Tragedy but not total,” Curnes wrote. Still, they felt conquered, and if ever there was a point of them giving up, this was it. For a short time they considered quitting. But they had already come too far.
“They gathered up their belongings,” the press reported, “walked and hitched the many miles to Williston, (North Dakota) and decided to attempt patching up the kayak and continue the trip.”
They were discouraged but not defeated. Arriving in town late at night, they sought any accommodations possible.
The local sheriff was most helpful. John wrote in his journal, “After a poor-night’s sleep in the county jail, we started to reorganize.” Without a sail – recalling that violent storm and now even more aware of the power of water, and facing ahead some daunting reservoirs – they purchased a 1.7 hp Johnson engine. That might help them make up lost time without the sail, they thought. Purchasing that engine was a decision they later regretted, perhaps thinking it diminished the purity of their expedition. They put their kayak back together and tested it, but it fell apart – so they ordered new parts from Klepper and had them sent to a town up ahead. Without spray covers, they wore and attached their spread ponchos to the kayak with rope.
In a Montana town, after having spent 12 days without seeing a soul, they were invited to a clambake.
“People treated us well along the way,” Davidson told a reporter. “It was fabulous. We stayed in quite a few homes overnight and were given lots of meals.”
One grocery store owner gave them a free shopping spree worth about $20. That courtesy happened more than once.
Oregon to Mississippi pretty much followed the Lewis and Clark route, which included a 270-mile portage over the Rockies at the Continental Divide.
“We mailed the boat,” Davidson said, “and we walked about half of it. Then we ran out of food, energy and time and hitch-hiked the rest.”
They wanted to make sure to reach the East Coast before winter.
Food was heavy to carry in quantity, and people along the way advised them to use freeze-dried items, so they switched, but it was much more expensive. They caught fish, and Curnes was a good shot. He could nail ducks, getting one Mallard through the eye at 300 yards from their moving kayak. He later shot a mule deer. They butchered, cooked it, and made jerky and pemmican – a skill Davidson notes he learned from the books of Ernest Thomson Seton.
One day they saw a bobcat dragging a faun – the mother deer following trying to fight off the predator. They scared off the bobcat, but the faun was dead. They harvested some of it and left the rest for the bobcat. More roasted meat, jerky and pemmican. For a while they almost complained that they had meat up to their ears. One day Curnes heard something rattling and stepped on the snake twice to kill it.
“It was quite tasty,” he said. “We just fried it.”
Davidson noted that it was “hard to chew because it was bony but otherwise delicious.” They also feasted on rabbits and frog legs.
The weather varied from rain to sun to cold. For one week they experienced temperatures averaging 110 degrees.
When they hitchhiked on the portages, they sometimes found it difficult with all their supplies. Their long hair and beards didn’t help. The press had and been covering their progress quite regularly, so some towns along the route knew they were coming.
Most of the time “people are very hospitable to us and are starting to line the banks waiting to see us,” Davidson wrote home. “We are getting a lot of home-cooked meals. A café invited us to lunch so we’ll eat dinner there.”
Davidson and Curnes passed through Pittsburgh on October 30 on the last leg of their journey.
“No one believed we could do it,” they told the press, “But we never had any doubts.”
A few times they did and were ready to quit, as their journals note, once with empty stomachs in a desolate part of Montana when they ran out of food. But the two adventurers bounced back.
On Friday, November 18, 1966, John “Jack” Davidson and Jimmy Curnes docked the River Pig not far from the Jefferson Memorial on the banks of the Tidal Basin. They estimated their trip as longer than planned, at 4,500 miles. The press described the two as dirty, sunburned and sporting flowing beards and “Beatle” haircuts. Those greeting them included their parents and Arch Moore of West Virginia, a Congressman from Curnes district. It was obvious that both had lost about 15 pounds each. Not counting their equipment, they estimated the trip had cost them $450 each.
“Actually, one of the most difficult rivers we had to maneuver”, Curnes reported, “was the Potomac. It’s very shallow up by Harper’s Ferry and we encountered rocks and debris all along the way. It ripped the patches off the boat.”
When asked what was most significant about the trip, both agreed, “The Finish.”
How did you two get along? Any arguments? The usual tensions, they both admitted.
“It’s difficult to talk to the same person for six months,” Davidson explained. “Sometimes there’s nothing to talk about.”
When on the river, they rarely talked to each other while paddling seven days a week, sunrise to sunset – sometimes at night. On trips like these, sometimes little things could end up in arguments; like one rainy morning when both were having trouble cooking breakfast.
“Dave got pissed off and ate a half can chili,” Curnes wrote. “I had trouble with the cream of wheat.”
Near the very end of the trip, while going through one of the last locks, Curnes wanted to switch roles. He would steer the boat this time while Davidson alerted the lock worker and pulled the kayak through with a rope. Davidson wasn’t used to that job and kept messing up. They argued and, as always, the disagreement soon passed.
“Would you make the trip again?” one reporter asked. “No,” they both answered in unison. They both spoke at once and with little variation. “The work was too hard.”
What were their plans now? newspapers asked. Organizing their photos and slides, they said, getting their story published in magazines, and then off to college. Maybe so. Maybe not. If they’d learned anything from the trip, it was “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men.”
As it turned out, they would take different paths through life. Curnes graduated from West Liberty State College in West Virginia in 1972 with a double major in political science and history.
In the spring of that year John and Ginger–two years into their homesteading at Driftwood Bay–became frustrated with the difficulties they faced along the harsh Alaska coast. They considered leaving Alaska for British Columbia where they planned to buy land and start over. By September they had changed their mind and decided to stay at Driftwood Bay to “make a go of it.”
Meanwhile, Curnes began a career in city government in West Virginia and Colorado. During those years right after his college graduation while Curnes was busy establishing a career, Davidson focused on the demanding job of building a homestead and raising a family.
The men lost contact with each other soon after the kayak trip. Doug Curnes, Jimmy’s nephew, says they did meet at least once between John’s wedding to Carolyn in 1969 and his death in 1977. We don’t know precisely when Curnes learned of Davidson’s death.
Curnes went from research and development for city governments to assistant city manager and eventually city manager. He retired in 2000 and spent a few years as a hospital facilities and safety division manager. Jimmy Curnes died in 2016.
In the fall of 1966, John Davidson returned home after the kayak trip, restless for another adventure. After a brief enrollment at Evangel College – which didn’t suit him – he was off to Alaska in the winter of 1967 to see his uncle in Juneau and find work within the solitude of wilderness.
To be continued.
Special thanks to Doug Curnes, nephew of Jimmy Curnes, who read through a draft of this piece and offered suggestions. Doug is writing a book about his uncle’s and Davidson’s kayak trip.
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 titled “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.