Part 7 in a series

“I have gone a-fishing while others were struggling and groaning and losing their souls in the great social or political or business maelstrom. I know too I have gone a-fishing whiles others have labored in the slums and given their lives to the betterment of their fellows. But I have been a good fisherman, and I should have made a poor reformer…. My strength is in my calm, my serenity.”

John Burroughs quoted in “Our Friend John Burroughs” by Clara Barrus

My strength is in my calm, my serenity 

For his new job with Alaska Fish & Game, John Davidson had to supply his own personal equipment. While awaiting his April start date in Juneau, the Alaska weather surprised him – temperatures 20-30 degrees, always raining or snowing.

“For some reason it doesn’t bother one too much,” he noted.

He wrote his parents asking them to send his down sleeping bag and his books on mammals, astronomy, and animal tracks. He also wanted his fly reel, line, and box of flies. He would write his brother Paul to send his rod. As always, John carried a camera with him to document his adventures. 

He went ptarmigan hunting with two schoolteachers, one from his Uncle Roy’s church.

“We walked a few miles from Juneau on an old gone mine trail that followed a valley high into the mountains,” he wrote. The area looked “very much like the Rockies at Denver at 14,000 feet.”

By May, John was on a float plane out of Petersburg to Kah Sheet Bay on the south end of Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska. There he helped manage a fish weir gathering information about Dolly Varden and steelhead as they swam downstream to the ocean.

“Last night was the first catch of steelhead in the trap. It took 11 large steelhead in about 1 ½ hours. Three weeks preceding and since we haven’t taken a thing. No one can guess why we caught so many in a short time.”

When work was slow, he had plenty of time on his own not only for exploring the area but also for projects.

“I am putting a lot of hours on my muzzleloader but it’s coming slow for I’m starting it from nothing. I had to make a workbench with a table vice and a forge before I could work on the gun,” he wrote. 

Unlike modern rifles which load from the breech, a muzzleloader loads by pushing a projectile and powder charge through the gun’s barrel. For the forge bellows he used part of an old air mattress and a used charcoal fuel bag. 

“The metal is mostly coming from an old abandoned caterpillar on the island near here. I am having a lot of fun working on it.”

Sometimes work dominated his days.

“Last week we had a heavy rain fall which brought the water up 2 feet and had us working almost 24 hrs a day keeping the weir clean. It’s made of 2” sq. wire and picks up all the dirt coming down steam. The wire is on 3 foot square frames that can be removed for cleaning. These frames are the whole way across the steam keeping the fish from going up or down. The only way through is into the trap box through a funnel the fish can’t get back out of.”

By the end of May he expected to be working out of Ketchikan for the rest of the summer, perhaps as a deputy game warden keeping an eye on sport fishermen.

“It should be interesting and I will see a little more of Alaska.”

Since that last big rain fall the weather had been beautiful, and he hated to leave Kah Sheet Bay. About this time, John learned he was accepted at Evangel College, and arranged a ride out of Alaska at the end of the season that would stop in Dallas first, allowing him to visit his brother, Jim.

By the middle of June he was settled in at Hood Bay on the western shore of Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago – about four miles south of Angoon.

“Things are back to normal again with me and the woods -- away from civilization.”

He worked in Juneau for a week before flying to Hood Bay.

“I had less to keep me happy in town than out here and I get $210 a month more by being here.”

John didn’t consider himself a hermit, but he had less attraction to city or even small-town life than for wilderness solitude.

“Hood Bay is not as scenic as Kah Sheets Bay…but the facilities are better here,” he wrote “The cabin has 3 rooms downstairs, kitchen, workshop and lab for working on fish, and we sleep upstairs. We have (a) diesel generator which provides all the (electricity) we can use.”

While searching the cabin – always looking for a project to work on – John found all the parts necessary for hot and cold running water with a shower. The equipment had been laying around for two years, and no one had bothered to install it.

“I learned a lot about heating by doing it,” he wrote. “The water pressure comes from a 55 gal. drum about 20 foot up a tree. There’s a gasoline (engine) to pump water up to it. I put a coil of tubing in the oil stove which heats up a 30 gal. hot water tank the same size you have at home. It gives all the hot water we can use.”

By the middle of July, John had moved to the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula.

“It seems that I am (always) sent to a new location a few weeks too late,” he wrote home. “The red salmon run was just coming to an end as I arrived and there’s nothing to do but sit around and fish. Next week I am going to check some lakes out with a canoe for a little change. Last week I took a day off and hiked 12 miles each way to a lake to fish for rainbow trout. On the way I saw quite a bit of game and none of it seemed to have any fear of me at all. I walked within 30 feet of a cow moose and calf, they looked at me then went on eating. Later I sat on a stream bank resting and a black bear came out of the grass 20 feet across the stream and looked at me for a few (minutes). Then it climbed a tree to get a better look at me. The fishing was good too at the lake.”

Summer tourists to Alaska often visit fish weirs that are not too remote. John met many of them at the Russian River.

“I find a lot of the people are somewhat disappointed with Alaska. Mostly with the fishing and lack of communications and transportation. Most of the people read everything about Alaska they can find before making the trip, but they can’t realize how large the state is until they get here.”

Nor the high prices for everything, he could have added. In 1967, the average cost of a hamburger lunch in Alaska was $1.25. John was used to that, but many tourists were surprised. And many had high expectations of how easy it would be to catch a fish.

“They pull up to the camp ground, fish for a day when the salmon run is low, and then say they could have fished 5 miles from home and caught all they wanted. I have heard this statement from people coming from New York to California. They must think fish will jump on a bare hook up here.”

John probably left Alaska in late August. His next letter is dated Sept. 28, written from Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri. He bought himself a motorcycle.

“It’s very cheap and efficient transportation,” he wrote. “It’s a fairly big one, a year old, it cruises at 65 or 70 and is said to be able to do 75 mph…The bike gets 60 to 70 miles per gallon.”

About this time, his brother Paul says, John wiped out coming around a curve. He called Paul for help. Paul patched John up, put the bike in his pickup truck, and took his brother to his home to recover. But that was John, Paul recalled – often living on the edge.

Perhaps John felt somewhat obligated to at least give Evangel College a try. Attendance was part of sibling tradition in the family. Perhaps family members both encouraged and cautioned him, knowing his aversion to the classroom.

“You’re right,” he wrote home. “I am having a rough time with several of my subjects. As a matter of fact, German is the only one that I am doing any good in. A’s on the first two tests.”

That wasn’t surprising, since he had spent his Air Force service in Germany.

“Trig isn’t too bad but Alg. and Eng. Give me a bad time. I don’t have the background (necessary for either) of them,” he wrote. “I had to write an English paper today and my head feels drained. I can’t collect my thoughts. So busy.”

As many of John’s letters demonstrate, though his spelling was erratic, he was a good writer. But he probably didn’t think so himself. He did keep a journal during his kayak trip across the country. But he didn’t seem to enjoy writing, and he sometimes says that in the letters. Sitting still and writing long letters – and some of them are several pages – was a task for him. The handwriting shows he’s working fast, probably to get the done so he could move on to some activity more interesting. But there are obligations in life, and John most likely felt it his duty to keep in touch with his parents and siblings. They were a close family.

He struggled with most of his classes at Evangel College, but he did work at it. His social life suffered.

“I haven’t had time to get to know many girls yet because I have to do about twice the studying some people do for the same classes.”

But he was not yet ready to surrender. After all, he was paying for his education out of his own earnings and what he might get from the GI Bill. About $450 of his Alaska earnings paid for the first semester, and the state still owed him $600.

“Once I get going I think I’ll do ok,” he assured his parents.

He probably didn’t last the first semester. John loved the wild solitude he found in Alaska, and the pay was better than in the states. But it wasn’t the money. Perhaps he’d return. But that would have to wait until summer, or at least spring for work with Alaska Fish & Game. For now, perhaps he felt he needed a break. When John decided to give college a try, he wrote that he regretted it would mean missing the ski season. Now, with time to relax and think about his next move, he decided to move west.

By the time the snow fell, he was in Aspen, Colorado – a ski bum, washing dishes in a restaurant to earn some money.

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 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 capradr@yahoo.com.