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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Alaska Tales

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

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It was necessary to coal ship every second or third week, depending on the amount of running she did. The coaling station was at Dutch Harbor, across Bering Sea from where we were working. The coal was wheeled in handcars of about 500 pounds capacity from the coal pile at the inner end of the A. C. Company's wharf to shipside and, as the entire crew was used in this work, all camp parties were picked up. Camp gear, except instruments, was usually left on shore at such times. Returning from one trip we found that our tents had been occupied. Mine was not disturbed, as I had the flaps sewed before leaving, but the cook's tent and two others had been used. This became quite evident the following day, when the rodmen started to scratch and move around, doing a modified Hula dance. Fortunately, the ship returned that afternoon and the medico with the aid of antiseptics and the Chief Engineer with the aid of a steam box were able to remove from the bodies and clothes the friendly creatures which caused the trouble. Such occupance, during our absence, was not trespassing. It was just part of the Code of the North. The hospitality of the natives' shacks was always extended to the traveler. Shelter was available without question. Sharing quarters often meant sharing fleas.

While carrying a plane table survey along the south shore of Goodnews Bay we had as company a small red fox which followed us all day, but inshore beyond gunshot range. Curiosity, apparently, was his motive. We covered the area where the town of Platinum is located and established a station on top of Red Mountain, back of the town's location. Traders informed me that gold could be panned along the outer coast in the black sand, but not in sufficient quantity to cover expenses. The area was cold and dreary. There was much rain and wind. On the beach, beyond where Platinum is located, there was a lonely grave, with a few personal belongings on top, including a badly rusted gun of ancient vintage. There was no marker to tell who the lonely wanderer may have been, where he came from, or who laid him there for his long and final rest. Our sailors, removing hats, passed slowly by. Nothing was disturbed. Desecration by the Old Time sailor man never occurs.

After leaving Dutch Harbor, homeward bound across the Gulf of Alaska, while on the bridge at sundown, Captain Rhodes came up and asked why a small, black object on the distant horizon was not reported. Before he finished the question a second object appeared, then another and finally almost all the Fairweather Range was visible. This was an instance of remarkable refraction. The distance, if I remember correctly, was about 435 miles, though the entry in the ship's log would be more accurate.

On board there were a small red fox and a St. Bernard pup, both about three months old. The fox outsmarted the dog every time, and when eating from the same tub, the fox would grab a piece, hop on the Fidley, leave it there and repeat the performance, leaving little in the tub. Then he would hop on the Fidley and eat at his leisure. It is surprising what a salutary effect the antics of a pup or other pet will have in maintaining high spirits among men living in cramped quarters and isolated from contact with the outer world.

During the following year work was resumed in this general area. Storm followed storm and the indications by the barometer were unreliable. On these trips to the northward and westward, part of the crew and many of the officers would not see port nor a settlement of white people from the beginning to the end of the season, as they were often left in camp, to carry on survey work while the ship went to the nearest port for supplies. Survey work, mountain climbing, surf landings, soundings in tide rips, create a necessary cooperation and closer association than is customary aboard ship. Of course there was the natural gripe about food for which there was a foundation. For three months, while doing launch hydrography, the lunch consisted of beans, pork, coffee and bread. Of course there was hot coffee - old steam launch 27 furnished that.

Authority was recognized by these men through the development of leadership and was not so dependent upon rules, regulations, uniform and rank. The party was most successful when the officer was as good as his men, and knew a little more. His men felt a little freer to make complaints or ask favors than did those under ship routine.

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