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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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The usual survey work was carried on during the season. There was little in the way of excitement or novelty, but there was one amusing incident. The "Cosmos," a beautiful little steamer with a jet black hull, 52 feet long, was used by a sub-party which operated from the ship. It was placed in command of a senior officer and I was junior officer with him. While working in the vicinity of Iphigenia Bay a number of whales surfaced. One rose not more than one hundred feet from the "Cosmos" and started to blow. I think it had halitosis. An old Swede sailor said, "We had better get out of here pretty quick. If that bull thinks the "Cosmos" is a lady whale, we are sunk!" It was the first time I saw whales, which then were quite common along the outer coast of Southeast Alaska.

Southeast Alaska is heavily timbered and there is a thick undergrowth of blueberry, salmon berry and a bush called devil's club, which has prickly stems and branches. In the fall there is much thick weather accompanied by a cold drizzle,. It is quite easy for the novice, straying inshore, perhaps not more than one hundred yards, to get lost. A pocket compass, a knife or hatchet, and matches in a waterproof pouch, should be carried. The ground is covered with a sort of tundra, mossy carpet or muskeg, and is soggy. Wet moss hangs from the trees and it is difficult to get dry wood with which to start a fire, though an old prospector informed me that dry pitch or gummy bark may be found under the outer bark of some trees. He mentioned the tree but I do not recollect the name.

Coast and Geodetic Survey Steamer THOMAS R. GEDNEY and steam launch
Alaska, 1910?

In the late fall the "Gedney" anchored in American Bay, east coast of Dall Island. All parties were out on small boat work. In the afternoon Officers' Steward Tanaka and two mess boys went ashore for a hike along the rocky coast. The boys returned but the steward did not. He wandered into the woods and got lost. Forty-eight hours later he was found on the west side of the island in an hysterical condition. He was carried back on a stretcher made from boughs. He was traced by footprints occasionally found in mud patches in a mountain stream. He heard the ship's whistle which was kept blowing; but the echoes from the hills, coming from different directions, confused him. He reported seeing wolves - we found their footprints. He also reported seeing bears. This was confirmed. He never recovered from the exposure. Soft physically, not properly clothed, exposed to cold and rain and frightened, he was completely incapacitated by an experience which would not have bothered the surveyor, trapper or woodsman. A few years later, Mr. McLeod, at his home at McLeod's Bay, informed me that there had been a hunting party in the valley back from the Cape. As nightfall approached all members except one returned to camp. Later they heard a shot coming from a distance, estimated to be one-half mile. It was assumed that he shot a deer. Time passed; twilight deepened and he did not appear, although shots were fired and a big fire was started on the beach. A search continued for several days. There was no way for him to leave the island or vanish voluntarily. The opinion of those familiar with the country was that he fell into a crevice or pothole covered over by moss or tundra. The party which found Tanaka consisted of three members; one was a Chief Quartermaster who fell through the moss into such a hole, but he had presence of mind to spread his arms and hold himself until rescued by his companions. Had he been alone he might have disappeared. There are not many of these potholes, nevertheless carelessness is to be avoided. This also applies when crossing snow patches on mountain ridges.

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