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

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In the spring of 1909 I was transferred to the Steamer "McArthur," Captain Rhodes commanding. The party was ordered to Cook Inlet to carry on triangulation, plane table surveys, tide observations - in general, what were known as combined operations.

During the summer there was much fog at the entrance but in the upper reaches the weather was exceptionally fine, and Mt. McKinley, Mr. Foraker, and other peaks, distant 100 to 125 miles, showed up each day, clearly defined. Mt. Spur and the range across the inlet from our camp seemed only a few miles away. Moose were quite common on the east side of the inlet. While making observations at Moose Point, a small cliff a couple of hundred feet high, Lieutenant Sobieralski and I watched for an hour or more two moose on the flat below. They were distant less than 200 yards and were undisturbed until Soby remarked, "Shall I go down and get them with my little hatchet?" Hearing us, they looked up and then ambled off in leisurely fashion. Captain Rhodes, Commanding Officer, forbade shooting moose. We bought the meat from the Indians, about 500 pounds at a time. Not having refrigerators or similar storage facilities, a 1200-pound carcass would rot before it could be consumed. At that time of the year, the moose's horns were in velvet and the animals often had no horns or only one, and then the heads were valueless for mounting, though a German ship, a freighter of about 3000 tons, had parties ashore shooting the animals. It was said to be headquarters for a wealthy German baron who was on a hunting trip. These remarks are based on comments made in one of the villages. We never contacted the party, though the ship was anchored less than five miles away. There didn't seem to be much sportsmanship in shooting relatively harmless animals, then fairly easy to approach, which afforded targets as large as Army mules. However, for sportsmen afflicted with gout, arthritis, double cataracts, imagination might create sporting hazards for those who like to pose in the limelight as mighty nimrods.

cook inlet
The tidal bore in Turnagain Inlet.
Upper Cook Inlet, Alaska

Porcupine were quite common. These inoffensive animals were never wantonly killed by the sourdough or Old Timer, as they were considered the last resort of the trapper, prospector, or hunter, in distress or short of food during severe weather. Curling up, when approached they were easy to kill. Dogs apparently like porcupine flesh. Dogs from the Indian camps hunted porcupine and the fact that their mouths became infested with quills was no deterrent. At intervals the Indians would conduct what might be called a "dequilling" party, which was always accompanied by terrific howling. In a few days the dogs would start hunting again.

There were several trappers' shacks inshore, a short distance from the beach. Provisions, sugar, coffee, etc., were on the shelves. Cut wood was neatly piled outside. The doors were never locked. Anyone in distress or in need of shelter was welcome to enter and use a minimum of such fuel and supplies as he needed. Upon departing the visitor was expected to cut wood to replace that used and, if possible, leave an equivalent amount of provisions or some money equal to the approximate value of the food consumed. Such was the custom; such was the Code of the North, but I understand this hospitality has been abused by the scum which frequently follows the pioneer.

Similar survey work was carried along the west side of the inlet by Lieutenant Ela. A small craft operated along the shore carrying freight and passengers. At low water the flats bared for six to eight miles, being cut by numerous sloughs. Ela stated that the Skipper of the craft was married to an Indian. One day at low water he put his wife ashore, intending to pick her up within a short time. Proceeding up the inlet he was held up for some hours. Later he remarked, excitedly, "Oh! My wife on the flats." Then he started to chuckle, saying, "She have to run like hell! She too fat." I never did learn from Ela if the Skipper marked her off as expended.

The current in Cook Inlet often reaches a velocity of six knots. The "McArthur" had a single cylinder engine and when anchored at night, with big runouts the current was sufficiently strong to turn the propeller, producing a swishing sound through the relief valve on the engine which was opened.

In the vicinity of Fire Island the tides have a range of forty feet. We were dumped ashore with camp equipment and with directions to make a plane table survey. The ship, as usual, departed immediately. The island appeared flat and at meal time the Japanese boy reported, "No can find water to make coffee; no can cook." We couldn't find any water either, and after cussing the skipper, we decided there was nothing to do but "Root, hog or die," so we bored holes in the side and bottom of a barrel and sunk it in the ground a considerable distance back from the water line. In half an hour we had some of the finest coffee-colored water. It had a rooty taste but with the addition of some coffee, a little milk and sugar, the concoction was not bad. It produced no ill effects, but in that healthy climate few things do. Later we found a small fresh-water lake in the interior. The island was covered with an almost impenetrable mat of wild roses, the thorniest I have ever seen.

Turnagain Arm branches off in an easterly direction from Fire Island, while Knick Arm heads in a northeast direction. Navigation in Turnagain Arm is dangerous for inexperienced persons. A tidal bore often reaches a height of four feet. Some years ago there was a gold rush in that section and a number of prospectors lost boats. They got caught by the onrushing bore of the incoming tide. A small bore, about six inches in height, was observed in Knick Arm. The town of Anchorage was nonexistent when this work was under way. Mail and supplies were received at Seldovia, a small town near the entrance to the inlet. In those days there were no radios or movies. The arrival of a ship was always the occasion for a dance arranged by the dozen or so families living there. An accordion, played by one of the young ladies, furnished the music. There was no relief musician and this young lady was really quite skillful in playing while dancing with her partner.

All officers except the Commanding Officer and one other were generally in camp. There were times, however, when all were aboard, then before dinner all gathered around the wardroom sideboard for cocktails. The dice were rolled and the loser signed up for the drinks, settling at the end of the month with the wine mess caterer. It was customary for an officer when he joined the ship to cut his initials in a well-worn leather dice box. The outside, the bottom and inside were pretty well covered with the initials of Navy Officers, many of whom later became prominent. Years later, when the ship was laid up, Tam McArthur, grandson of the man after whom the ship was named, wrote to Colonel Jones, head of the Coast Survey, that he was anxious to get hold of that box. However, it disappeared. Tam was persistent and kept after the Colonel, who finally wrote to Tam that he was sending a fine souvenir, one that he would not lose. What did he get? Why, the ship's capstan, weighing at least half a ton! It arrived C.O.D. Tam got a kick out of that and told the story to me at least a dozen times.

The survey season closes early in that section and the little "McArthur" headed across the Gulf of Alaska for Cross Sound, thence to Seattle.

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