The Way To Alaska


Before leaving the Snohomish we had to rig the cargo gaff for loading, and it took longer than we expected. When we finished, Donkey was hungry. Out of the galley came the cook, transformed in his hat and overcoat and carrying a straw suitcase. He had locked up the pantry and was ready to board the other vessel. But Donkey demanded food. He threatened the cook with a piece of hatch batten, and Frenchy stepped back into the galley for a bread knife. It was a cat-and-dog fight, all snarling and spitting. Frenchy won, as usual. We went ashore to the Northern Lights Café, the only night spot in that one-street town, and ate sandwiches and pie with the tide slapping at pilings under the floor. The only Alaska towns I saw were built on tideland at the foot of sheer mountains. There were no roads to these coastal towns; each one was like an island.

When we left the Northern Lights, the twilight was gone and stars glimmered in the dark still water. The Coutli had gone whistling off somewhere to load bunker coal. We got cur gear and pulled off in a skiff manned by a silent Indian. It was unaccountably impressive, oars creaking, cigarettes glowing in the dark, a few lights showing the lost little town, and from somewhere the steady roar of a waterfall. No one said a word while we crossed the black harbor and groped along the schooner’s bow. With seabags on our shoulders we climbed a rope ladder onto the deckload.

The fo’c’s’le, buried in lumber, was like a cave. We stumbled down the makeshift stairs, our feet loud in the ship’s stillness, and found a lantern hanging from the foremast. Gibbs struck another match and turned up the flame. As we peered around, something stirred in a corner bunk and a low voice said, “Cheero, mates. Give us a cigarette?”

We had a stowaway. He was from Glasgow, he said, by way of Montreal, Whitehorse, and Skagway, and he wanted to get into the States. He had lost his “papers” in Juneau and had bribed an Indian to put him aboard our schooner after she was loaded. I wondered how he had got to that blind inlet and why he chose such a slow passage to the U.S.A. Actually it was a shrewd choice. The U.S. Customs had never searched a lumber barge at the end of a towline.

Next morning the Coutli came, with Captain Olson aboard. We hauled up some pantry stores and took the towline. The tugboat’s whistle saluted the encircling mountains, and we started homeward. From shore came the snarl of the sawmill and the snorting of the steam engine. The first slingloads of lumber dropped into the Snohomish ’s hold. A month later the empty Skykomish would arrive back at Spruce Inlet, and the laden Snohomish would tie on to the tugboat.

The Skykomish , with her deckhouses walled in lumber, was more somber than the Snohomish , and the laden schooner moved more slowly than the light one. We were not a happy crew. Four men could not combat the gloom of that creaking old vessel. We had no jokes, disputes, quarrels, or arguments, no card or crap games. We never raised our voices. But we had a refugee, and that drew us together.

Our stowaway called himself McKillan; we called him Sandy. He was a small, quick-moving, watchful man, perhaps twenty-five, with narrow eyes and a stubble of blond beard. There must have been some hazard behind him, but he never spoke of it. To keep out of sight of the cook and the captain he lay in his bunk all day. At night he paced the deckload like a prisoner. At first we resented him, an intruder in our gloomy fo’c’s’le, but he soon became our common cause. We shared our meals with him, gave him cigarettes, told him when to crawl out of his hole and when to keep under cover.

One night, off Porcher Point near Prince Rupert, our towline parted in the tide-swept channel. We shouted, but our voices were lost in the mist. The Coutli kept going, straight for Seattle, and we were drifting toward the reef. At that excitement Sandy came across the deckload. “What’s up, mates?” he asked.

“Lost our line,” I began, when Gibbs warned: “Get out of sight, Mac. Here comes the Old Man.”

Sandy ducked into the pilothouse, where I was tugging at the heavy wheel. Captain Olson came to the doorway. “Ring that bell,” he said without looking in. “Keep ringing!” He went forward while I yanked the bell cord.

Ahead of us the Coutli swung around, her whistle banking off the mountains. She churned alongside of us, and a line slapped across the deckload. While they fumbled for it Sandy stepped outside. Spraying a flashlight past him, Captain Olson said, “God damn it, Slim, get back on that wheel.” Sandy slipped in beside me while they hauled up the new hawser and snubbed it around the foremast. (Our bollards were buried under ten feet of lumber.) With a short whistle blast the tugboat took a strain on the line, pointing us away from Porcher Ledge. We were under way when the fog closed in. Then the Coutli slowed to half speed, and Sandy crawled back into the buried fo’c’s’le.

On the last morning, with the hills of Seattle looming through the rain, Donkey brought him a bucket of shaving water, and Rowley, who had forgot the gold of Siberia, offered him a partnership: they could get an old trawler and smuggle Chinese into the States from Vancouver at fifty dollars a head. Sandy agreed that was a good deal, but he had other fish to fry. He just wanted to get ashore in the States.