- Historic Sites
The Way To Alaska
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
In the wide waters of Dixon Entrance, where the long Pacific swell comes in, we met a liner, perhaps the Admiral Dewey , on her return voyage. She was ablaze with light. “Ships that pass in the night,” my log says. “Does anyone there wonder what men and what thoughts are in this old schooner with a lantern flickering at her masthead?”
I find a few notes on my shipmates. The cook was morose and talkative; that is, he talked to himself. We would hear him through the galley bulkhead, his voice rising and falling in fervor and intimacy. We called him Frenchy; I don’t know why. One night he let me in the galley. He poured some coffee beside the stove and said that in Seattle he walked all night, all over the city, thinking. He thought about the world, how it was drowning in delusion and darkness and couldn’t find the light. My log approves him as “a man against the world, as all men should be.” He was already beat, back there in the careless 1920’s.
The three other seamen were Rowley, Gibbs, and a Swede we called Donkey—he claimed to understand the donkey engine. Rowley was just out of the army and wearing GI pants and wrap puttees along with a two-ply logger’s shirt and a corduroy cap. He was dirty, lazy, boastful, and lying. My log notes that the captain called him “’a damn hoodlum’—which he is.” That was the night when the captain found the wheel seesawing in the empty shanty and Rowley tending a coffeepot in the firebox of the donkey engine. Rowley wanted to go gold hunting in Siberia. He had heard of a bonanza there, and with that vague objective he was heading north. I agreed to go with him, for the sake of conversation in the night hours.
Gibbs was as solid and steady as the mast that grew like a spruce trunk through our fo’c’s’le. He was older than the rest of us, thirty perhaps. One midnight when I relieved him at the wheel, he stood for a while in the shanty door. It was a clear, still night with a moon just past the full. Above the gleaming waters rose dark mountains, and the moon gleamed again on their icy summits. Half to me and half to the mystery around us Gibbs repeated, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, they see God’s wonders in the deep.” I find pasted in my log a card he gave me: A TIP JOIN THE I.W.W. Educational Meetings Every Thursday Evening Seattle Hall 512½ Second Ave. Seattle, Wash.
The other side is more emphatic. GET A KICK OUT OF LIFE JOIN THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD
Gibbs was a surprising man. One night he startled me by quoting Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy,” his steady voice keeping those rhythms above the creak of the steering gear.
Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you— Ye are many—they are few.
I wanted to say something about Shelley, living at Villa Valsavano in the gnarled old olive groves of Tuscany, not knowing that his words would be repeated under the mountains of Alaska—a name he never knew. But Gibbs had begun talking about money, the myth of money, the printed paper that won’t feed a man who is hungry, or warm a man who is cold. The things produced by human toil are real, he said, but money is a myth perpetuated by the few in order to control the many. Then he told me he had been a homesteader on the Peace River above Edmonton, until a forest fire burned him out. (I could see him winterbound in his cabin, sitting by the stove with his black hair freshly combed, reading a Bible and a book of poems while the snow piled up outside.) Since then he had worked in sawmills and on lumber wharves—up and down the coast from Vancouver to San Pedro. He had joined the Wobblies in Seattle, and he sometimes spoke at street meetings. Again I had a picture of him, standing bareheaded in the drizzle on Western Avenue, holding out his big square hands and promising that in the coming revolution the poor would inherit the earth.
The Swedish donkey-man I dubbed “a Puget Sound roustabout.” He was methodical and self-contained, except for one angry encounter with the cook. We had finally crept into Spruce Inlet, about thirty miles south of Juneau, in the long northern twilight and tied up to a wharf beside a sawmill. Out in the harbor was our twin, the four-masted Skykomish , with a high deckload of lumber. We were to transfer to the laden vessel, leaving the Snohomish to be loaded by some Indians with the help of the donkey engine.