Spirit of the Rivers
spiritoftherivers.org or call 920-793-7214
John and Kate Miller (below)
celebrating a very successful year (above)
|john torrison president||
Spirit of the Rivers
Year End Newsletter 2015
To make a bronze plaque level donation or order a personalized paver visit
spiritoftherivers.org or call 920-793-7214
May—R.T. “Skip” Wallen with
John and Kate Miller (below)
December —holiday party at the studio
celebrating a very successful year (above)
That's It For Now
A Short and Perilous Voyage on the Eskimo-built schooner Good Hope, 1928.
Amos Burg as told to R T Wallen, Juneau, Alaska, circa 1983 © RTW 2015
Years ago Amos and I were out in my canoe for a day’s paddle. The sound of the horn on Sentinel Island Lighthouse rolled across the mirroring sea from six miles away. The water lay smooth in the breezeless air, a rare, brassy-calm Southeast Alaska day when one could see a herring dimple the surface a hundred yards distant, and an Arctic tern swooping down to snatch a minnow met its perfect reflection rising from the deep. We landed on a rocky islet to stretch our legs and enjoy the smoked salmon we’d brought along for lunch. Kelpy, odors hung over the exposed rocks. Landing a canoe over rocks armored with barnacles as sharp as shark’s teeth and eager to shear wood and canvas requires care and a bit of art. Mindful of the flooding tide and of my vulnerable craft, I lifted the bow and walked the canoe in hand over hand along a gunwale to clear the barnacles, and carried it well up into the goose tongue and other sea grasses. When safely above tidal reach, I set it down and rolled it over. As I returned, Amos, who had been watching me, asked, “Aren’t you going to tie the canoe down?”
“It’ll be OK”, I said, surprised, “the tide can’t reach it.”
This did not satisfy Amos “I tie my canoe down,” he said, “even if it’s in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.”
He and a companion, Fred Hill, had made an epic voyage by canoe in 1928, from tidewater Juneau and Skagway, portaging over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the Yukon River and floating down the Yukon, 2000 miles to St. Michael on the Bering Sea. At least that was the plan. Amos’ canoe, a wood and canvas eighteen footer named Song o the Winds, had carried them safely most of the way, while Amos shot 16mm black and white motion picture footage of the Yukon and life along its shores, likely the first motion pictures of the great river. Then, on the lower Yukon, at the village of Russian Mission, the adventurers got wind-bound by a sudden storm. “We had the canoe 35 feet up a sloping bank above the river, maybe 200 feet from the river. The wind got under it and rolled the canoe over and over down the bank, and it landed upright in the river. The bow was smashed. It could have been repaired, I suppose, but I left it with the Eskimos at Russian Mission, and we hired an Eskimo with a boat and motor to take us down to St. Michael. He was the only one with a motor. His name was Matthew. I can’t remember his last name right now. On the way down, Matthew pulled out some dried fish and handed it to us. ‘My momma told me to take good care of you boys.’ ”
At St. Michael, the two companions found that the ‘Government Boat’ which, would normally have made the 200 mile run along the coast of Norton Sound on something of a schedule, stopping at the villages of Unalakleet and Shaktoolik and crossing Norton and Golovin Bays to Nome, was ‘broken down’. They hired the schooner Good Hope and her Inupiat Eskimo captain, Captain Paul Ivanoff, to take them to Nome for $10 apiece. Captain Ivanoff was “slender, poorly fed, very busy. The 75-foot Good Hope had been built by Eskimos on the beach at Unalakleet.” It’s plan, according to Amos, had been traced out in the beach sand with a stick. “She was a plucky vessel of uncertain safety, cobbled together of driftwood and of boards and timbers washed up from the wrecks of schooners and ships. When these people take on an enterprise, they throw everything into it.”
She had a diesel engine. To start it, a blowtorch was used to heat the top of the engine. Since only eight inches of clearance separated the top of the engine from the deck above, the ceiling was frequently set afire, so someone had to stand by with a bucket of water.
Amos had mentioned that the ‘Government Boat’ had broken down. He said, “Of course the Good Hope was broken down too, but the Government didn’t know that. ” It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no good, and with the government boat out of commission, the Good Hope’s Captain and crew “all wore smiles. They were bursting proud of their vessel and now she would be carrying mail and passengers to Nome. Captain Ivanoff zoomed overnight to fame.”
“Well, we were on board. We boarded the previous night. The Captain had given us a box of grape nuts and about half a can of Carnation evaporated milk between the five of us passengers. There was Father O’Riley and a pioneer woman from Nome and Fred and I can’t remember the rest of them. Time went by. It got to be noon the next day and then later, and we were all pretty hungry. Father O’Riley and the Pioneer Woman formed a committee and went up to the wheelhouse to ask for something to eat. Captain Ivanof replied, ‘What about those grape nuts?’”
“When we left St. Michael about midnight, I was apprehensive about going out in the open sea in this boat. In fact, I did not take any pictures of her because I never figured we were going to make it across anyway. But the only alternative to get to Nome was to swim. Aboard the Good Hope we’d maybe get at least part of the way dry. I went to my bunk, and just as soon as we began to encounter seas, water came squirting through the seams above me. So I went out to look for the pump, and I found it in sections! The Eskimo crew had been working on it but had not fixed it or put it together. The lifeboat could only hold about three people and I’d already had an experience in it, and when I’d jumped in, water had squirted up in little geysers from between the floorboards. Here was an example of an Eskimo joke: Painted on the side of the tiny life boat was: LIMIT: 12 Persons.”
“I went up to the wheel house to see how things were. You know, it was so dark on deck I could not see. I carried a lantern up and when I went in the wheelhouse all I could see in the shadowy circle of dim light it cast were the bodies of about ten Eskimos sleeping on the floor and everywhere around the wheelhouse. It was the crew, and also just people who had jumped aboard. If they could pay, that was allright, but if they couldn’t, they went anyway.
“There was no compass. I asked Captain Ivanof how he knew where he was going? He said, ‘I steer by water. ‘ Well, he was steering in the troughs of the waves. He knew which way the wind was blowing. Of course, this made it all the worse for rolling. During the day he had shoreline observations. Next day we could see Unalakleet in the distance. Then we had problems getting over the bar. The Captain could not find the channel, so he charged the bar five times! Full speed! It was not easy on the boat. Or the passengers. After the fourth charge he said, ‘We’re really in no hurry to get there. I’m just trying to find the channel.’”
“That’s how we got to Unalakleet. Captain Ivanof came aft and said we’d have plenty to eat when we reached Shaktoolik. His father owned a store there. But the only thing we got there was a slab of beluga meat. We were getting kind of sick from lack of food and because there was a bunch of walrus heads laying around on deck for the tusks to rot free.”
“We put in to Shaktoolik to deliver mail and at 6 PM we set forth into the rough waters of Golovin Bay. Blowing up. In the churning seas at dusk, whatever we’d eaten of that beluga whale went over the side. We got into Bluff. Old mining town. No people left now. But there were two little girls playing on the beach. Later I read in Alaska Magazine something about a girl growing up in Bluff. I wrote asking if this were one of the girls I had seen, and you know, I got a letter back from both of them. Their father was a big German with a beard or a German with a big beard.”
“We had trouble with the engine and so now were under sail. Got into Nome roadstead in the morning. A woman who was a great sourdough said, ‘You boys don’t know anything about the North,’ and she threw away our aluminum pots and pans and gave us some cracked pottery. She called it Chippendale.” (I think this was one of Amos’ jokes, probably something he used in his lectures.)
Safely delivered from the hazards of Norton Sound and the Good Hope, hungry and somewhat shaken, Amos and Fred boarded the Bureau of Indian Affairs schooner Boxer in Nome. Amos returned to his home in Portland, and from there sailed into a lifetime of adventure, exploration, and filmmaking. I don’t know the fate of his companion, Fred Hill. The schooner Good Hope, according to Amos, later fell apart near Goodwin Sands.
In 1986, just in the nick of time, with Amos on his deathbed, I projected the 1928 black and white film in his house on Douglas Island and took notes as he narrated it. Film and notes now reside safely at the Oregon Historical Society, along with others of his films rescued from the refrigerator-sized safe that leaned, propped up, among the Sitka spruces in his yard.
One day in Juneau I met a woman, Fortuna Hunter O’dell, then perhaps in her 70s. I asked about her unusual name and she said she was named for Fortuna Ledge, the tiny town on the Yukon River, where she had grown up. Remembering that Amos had mentioned Fortuna Ledge in his descent of the Yukon, I asked her about it. Yes, she, as a little girl, had seen Amos and Fred when they stopped there in 1928. She remembered Amos as: “Oh, so handsome!”
As to the romantically named Song o’the Winds, Amos said he left it at Russian Mission, and that may be the case, but he also told me that it was stowed aboard the Boxer when she departed Nome in 1928. Amos read my notes on his trade of a .30-30 rifle for two King Island Kayaks when they called at the island after leaving Nome. (see following story) I had recorded him as saying that Song o the Winds was stowed in the hold of the Boxer. He did not make a correction. Amos died in Juneau, aged 84, in 1986 so there is no way now to know if his canoe survived.
However, I tie my canoe down now, even in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
By the men who moil for gold,
The Arctic trails have their secret tales,
that would make your blood run cold.
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
but the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the Marge of Lake LaBerge,
I cremated Sam Magee.…
Of course the cremation episode takes place in the winter when the lake is frozen.
I took this shot in September, some weeks before freeze up.
Sailing down Lake LaBerge, Sept 1977. The lake is linear, north-south and about 40 miles long. Wind often blows from the north in the morning, from the south in the afternoon so in a canoe one wants to get as far as possible with a fair wind, and then put onto a sheltered beach rather than trying to buck the big rollers that can kick up quickly. I don’t know if Amos and Fred sailed or paddled down the lake. It took me two half days to cover the 40 miles with a tarp rigged as a bowsprit sail.
Amos’s negative of the Good Hope is in Juneau and not accessible for the story. I do have a shot and information on the Boxer, mentioned near the end of the story.
On 14 May 1920 the Navy transferred the wooden sail training ship BOXER to the Department of the Interior for use by its Bureau of Education in Alaska.
The Department of the Interior obtained BOXER for use by its Bureau of Education in Alaska. Funds for installing an engine and repairing the ship were included in the Interior Department appropriation act approved 24 May 22 and the ship began operations in May 1923. Every summer BOXER, now an auxiliary schooner, carried a heavy tonnage of supplies and equipment, teachers, doctors, and nurses from Seattle to remote settlements on the Alaskan coast and adjacent islands as far north as Point Barrow. For many settlements the annual visit of BOXER furnished their only means of communication with the rest of the world. On her southward voyages she brought out teachers and doctors whose terms of service had expired and carried for Eskimo herders reindeer meat that they wished to sell in the States. On 14 Mar 31 the Secretary of the Interior transferred these functions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and at the same time a larger replacement ship, NORTH STAR (see IX-148) was ordered. In early 1941 NORTH STAR was ordered to the North Atlantic for patrol duties as a Coast Guard cutter and BOXER was reactivated to carry out Alaska supply duties during the emergency. NORTH STAR was returned to the Interior Department at Seattle on 15 Jun 45 and, while undoubtedly a welcome replacement for BOXER and other temporary vessels used during the war, was quickly found to be too small and old for postwar Alaska resupply service. Two larger vessels in succession continued this service until 1984.
The lower half of the map, coincidentally, shows where Lynn’s path and mine almost crossed in the 1960s. She was doing anthropological research in the village of Tununuk, while I was on Nunivak Island near the village of Mekoryuk with the Fish and Game Department, capturing musk oxen to translocate to the mainland.
That's it for now
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