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Reminiscences of Alaska by Capt. Thomas J. Maher, C&GS

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GULF OF ALASKA

Strong gales were frequent during the fall across the Gulf of Alaska and the "Patterson," returning to Seattle, often had to heave to. On one occasion an owl, exhausted, alighted on deck. It was placed in one of the large whaleboats under the canvas cover. Later, a young eagle alighted. It was placed in the same boat. As the gale moderated, the ship again got under way. The cover was removed from the whaleboat. There was just one bird - the eagle. The owl had been there, but only a few feathers, some claws and a beak remained.

When under way and off watch, or after a day's field work, chess, whist, cribbage, or pinochle were the principle source of amusement. Poker was taboo, as there were instances which resulted in hard feelings, a bad situation in the restricted and confined quarters of a number of men, though I understand later, when I had command of the "Explorer," that some of the crew maintained a little game in one of the coal bunkers, but as my cabin steward kept me pretty well informed concerning losses, my inspections seemed to be anticipated and I never discovered anything.

Fog, haze and rain squalls frequently interrupted observations over lines twenty to forty miles in length and while waiting at the instrument during these periods, there was much time to observe natural features generally overlooked or not noticed. For about one and a half hours I observed the antics of a bear and two cubs at a creek bed distant about five miles. The mother was busily engaged in clawing something and the cubs annoyed her. She shoved them back repeatedly. Finally she got on her haunches, gave one a clout, sending it back a few feet. The other one got similar treatment. Such ignorance may still prevail and should be considered under some Point 4 program to introduce modern educational methods among mother Bruins. Think with horror of the possibility of developing ... cubs suffering from an inferiority complex!

The bald-headed eagle always fascinated me. At this time this bird was quite common in Southeast Alaska. Their nests, generally located in the tops or upper reaches of the tall hemlocks or spruce trees, appeared to me to be as large as hogsheads. In the vicinity of the Anguilla Islands, along the shores of Bocas de Finas, there seemed to be a nest about every quarter of a mile. These birds lived principally on fish. It was claimed that they were destroying deer and this I believe was the reason for putting a premium on their destruction. I have never seen eagles bother deer, though I have seen them hover over lakes where geese bred. In moving from place to place on these lakes, the old geese would keep the goslings close to shore beneath over-hanging branches beyond the reach of eagles, which require room to maneuver when landing or in taking to the air. Mines were in operation and there were rumors that professional hunters were employed to deep the messes supplied with fresh deer meat. These rumors, I believe, were never investigated but such hunting might account for the reduction in the number of deer. Deer and eagles lived in that section for perhaps a hundred centuries, yet only within a few years did these birds become monsters warranting extermination. Could it be possible that the bounty was the fundamental reason behind the attempted destruction of this king of birds? Affording the hunter a target as large as a barn door, within easy range from a launch along shore, without any possibility of reprisal or risk, shooting them meant easy money. There is a story concerning the Seattle waterfront of early days, when saloons and cribs supplied the shipmasters with men and shanghaiing was not unknown. One boardinghouse keeper could not keep his contract with the shipmaster. He was short one man, so he shanghaied his own father. Anything for an easy buck! The breed is not extinct. They shift from one shady occupation to another. Why, some day there may be a bounty on San Francisco's famous pigeons. The old hardy breed of officials may have gone the way of the pioneers, and the pigeons, somewhat careless in their habits, may fail to recognize a fastidious mayor or supervisor and then they will be classed as dangerous, predatory, disrespectful creatures.

Having been used to the flat lands of the East Coast and its comparatively quiet waters, I was greatly impressed by the magnificent scenery of the Inside Passage to Alaska, which afforded a panorama of grandeur, the memory of which has never been effaced, creating a longing to see, once again, one of nature's great masterpieces. The high mountains, the narrow deep channels, the currents and swirls in Active Pass and Seymour Narrows, the whirlpools and tide rips at Ripple Rock (a feature of the past), the currents in Peril Straits and Sergius Narrows, beautiful Wrangell Narrows, Mendenhall Glacier, majestic Mt. Edgecomb, seen when approaching Sitka - here we have nature's handiwork at its best.

During my first few trips I marveled at the skill of the pilot in conning the ship at full speed through thick fog, turning and winding in narrow channels, depending solely on echoes from the adjacent hills and an occasional glimpse of some shack, boulder, crooked tree, sand patch, colored cliff or other natural object, to check the ship's position. Lights, beacons, foghorns, buoys or other aids were few and far apart in those days. Here was a display of piloting of a type which can never be acquired in the classroom or academically, a skill of a past era, a lost art, which is well described by Commander Fitzhugh Green in an early issue of the "Proceedings of the Naval Institute," an article which could be read with profit by young and old. Our pilot was not skillful in navigation which depended on astronomic sights, as he was quite slow in figuring even a noon sight, but his seamanship was superb. I might mention that the junior officer stood watch on the upper bridge. As there was no canvas dodger, the only protection was to snuggle against the mast. The pilot and senior officer stood watch in a glass-enclosed wheelhouse. Superior intellect.

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