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

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GOODNEWS BAY - Spring of 1911

(Approaching the area where mosquitoes are sometimes mistaken for Snipe.)

The assignment was to the Steamer "Explorer," Captain Rhodes commanding. This ship was a recent arrival from the East Coast. The orders called for the survey of Goodnews Bay and the approaches to the mouth of the Kuskokwin River, Bering Sea. Arriving at Goodnews Bay, former Congressman-at-Large Waske came alongside the ship in a skiff. He was then engaged in fur trading. His skiff was in bad shape and he was anxious to have it fixed up a little. The ship's carpenter looked at the skiff, scratched his head and then built a new hull around the relic. I did some favors for Waske and some time later he presented me with pieces of fossilized walrus ivory and an Eskimo seal oil lamp. This was a saucer-shaped dish about eight inches in diameter and an inch or so thick. It appeared to be made of a sort of clay or semi-porous material. I mailed it and some moccasins to a boyhood friend in New York. Some years later I met him and he mentioned the incident. The dish arrived in midsummer. It was placed in the top drawer of a bureau. A New York summer temperature of ninety-eight degrees thawed the oil out of the dish. It dripped through to the contents of lower drawers. The half-cured moccasins had come to life. Naturally I did not visit the family.

I was placed in camp on the south spit of Goodnews Bay to make astronomical observations for the determination of latitude, longitude, azimuth and magnetic variation, a plane table survey of the shore line, and in spare time a preliminary survey of the channel over the bar. Of course it was never thought that these Great Expectations would be realized, as it rained about fifty percent of the time and blew gales the balance. The ship party dumped our camp equipment and instruments on the beach and then departed immediately. That was part of the psychology underlying large scale surveying operations. Get away before the shore party finds out what they have been handed. I was a victim on numerous occasions, but the knowledge thus absorbed was very useful when I became Chief of Party, particularly when I had to detail a party to survey an island in the tropics infested with red ants. Max Steinberg was assigned to that job. I hope he will remember that five-gallon tins of kerosene were sent ashore to be poured in pans beneath the legs of the cots so the ants would not crawl into the beds.

By afternoon we had our tents erected, cook tent and shipmate stove set up and we were fairly well established before a gale broke loose. An Eskimo boat, a kayak, landed on the beach. This is a skin boat which has one cockpit in which the paddler sits. He wears a skin jacket or parka, which is lashed to the cockpit, making a watertight joint. IT has a watertight fit at the neck and wrists. Such craft will ride out severe storms and the Eskimos are very skillful in handling them. A paddler can make a complete revolution, going head down and bottom up and then righting his craft. Such craft are very light and have a large carrying capacity. When the kayak landed on the beach, the native got out of the cockpit; another crawled out; then another, until it looked as though a village might have stowed below. The old Sennett comedies wherein man after man got out of an old car had nothing on this outfit.

It was mealtime and we were eating. The natives squatted in front of the mess tent, grinning. Asked if they were hungry, they nodded assent. The food consisted of corned beef, coffee, potatoes, bread and canned peaches. Each native was given as much as he wanted. We had a twenty-eight foot whaleboat and a large dinghy, bottoms up, on the beach. They asked permission to camp beneath these boats during the night, while the storm lasted. They spoke good English, having had some schooling at a Moravian Mission at the head of the Bay. At 6 a.m. the following morning we found our Eskimos had departed.

A week or ten days later, upon returning to camp at the end of the day's work, we were surprised when the Japanese boy served some nice tender chops. He said the Eskimos landed that afternoon and left half a reindeer carcass as a gift. They never joined us again at meal time. Perhaps our corned beef gave them indigestion, perhaps their teeth were not as good as ours. However, they did occupy our tents during our absence, but that is an item for the next episode.

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