The Way To Alaska

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I went around the deckhouse, ducked under the door, and stepped down into the fo’c’s’le. It was dark and clammy and smelled of damp straw mattresses. There were eight empty bunks and a bare mess table. I threw my bag into an upper bunk dimly lighted by a glassed porthole. Then I went aft to the cabin. A voice answered my knock, and I said, “Seaman reporting.” The door opened and I handed my slip to a stocky, gray, unshaven man in a flecked gray undershirt with suspenders dangling from his trousers. “Keep out of the cook’s way,” he said. “It’s hard to keep a cook on this run.”

My log, I find, says little about things that would interest me now, over a half century later. After observing that the schooner tugged at her lines like a mind tied to tenets in a classroom (in 1923 I was enjoying a grudge against college), it says “Worked by for two days, mostly cleaning out the hold, and in the Wednesday morning rain I steered out behind the Canadian tug Coutli .” During those two days the other three seamen came aboard, and I would like to know what wary things we said to each other at that dim mess table and how my shipmates struck me at first sight. Instead of such reporting the log remarks: “Every vessel outward bound is a microcosm, a small, uneasy world seeking its own destiny.”

Memory, however, has held on to the plain facts ofthat rainy Wednesday morning. Fuming and churning, the Coutli came alongside. She whistled, a big blast from a small craft, and Captain Olson came out of his cabin. The Coutli threw us a heaving line, and we hauled up a big hairy hawser and made fast. Probably because I was wearing my baggy Admiral Line sweater, the captain said to me, “You take the wheel, Slim.” I immediately ran back to the pilothouse while the tug whistled again.

On the raised deck astern the wheel was enclosed by a slant-roofed shed—except for a wide front window it looked exactly like a privy. As the towline stretched out, water rained from it onto the gray harbor. Then the Snohomish began to move, and I pulled on the old steering wheel. We crept by some anchored ships in Elliott Bay, past a big gray battlewagon heading in to Bremerton, and on up Puget Sound. My job was to follow the tugboat, and with that six-inch towline I couldn’t have done anything else. Off Point No Point we were overtaken by the Admiral Dewey . As she swished past us, “modern, fast and commodious,” two sailors at the bow beckoned me aboard. I waved them on. They would be in Juneau long before we were beyond Vancouver Island, but I wouldn’t have traded places.

Years later I put a schooner and a tugboat into a story. I named the tug Samson , but she was just the Coutli , a battered little workhorse with her stern in white water and a smudge from her funnel. The Coutli carried four men, a cook, and a captain, just like us, and I soon knew them all by sight. On that small craft there was no place to go. When they came out of their messroom, they stood in the stern, staring at their tall-masted burden. We stared back. Day and night, for two thousand miles, we were just three hundred feet apart, and we never even waved to one another.

Captain Olson lived a solitary life in his cabin. The cook carried his meals aft on a tray, and every morning I filled his lamp with kerosene and trimmed the wick. He kept a neat cabin, with a pile of old Capper’s Farmer magazines on the floor and some limp clothes on a line of sail twine. He always stood on deck after supper, feet apart in the chill wind and a pinch of snuff under his lip, scowling at the Coutli . Every time they threw coal on the fire, we had a rain of soot and cinders. I suppose he was thinking that with all that smoke they had warm quarters and could dry their clothes. Our main heat was in the galley, and the cook lived there; his bunk-room opened off the pantry. We had a donkey engine on deck, and we kept a fire in the boiler. It gave us hot water and a place to warm our hands after a cold wheel-watch.

Two men to a watch, we spent four hours on and four off. The daytime watch meant two hours in the pilot shed and two hours poking around with a scraper and a paintbrush; at night it was two hours steering and two hours lookout—looking at the Coutli ’s riding lights through the rain and once in a while at the glimmer of a Tlingit village under the mountains. The only instruments in our wheel house were a dry compass and a marine clock that chimed the halfhours—which the wheelsman answered with taps on the schooner’s bell. The lookout station was on the bow, but we generally stood the watch beside the donkey engine or in the pilot shanty with the wheelsman.

Captain Olson had been in the Lighthouse Service, he told me, and sometimes the Snohomish must have seemed as stationary as the Blind Channel Light. With a tide against us in the narrows the Coutli labored, the towline stretched out, and the mountains stopped moving. For four hours you could hear the same waterfall. At other times the tide swirled us through. In the tiderips we came charging after the Coutli , our topmasts tossing and the towline under water.