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banner - marvin and muriel paulson a travelogue and memories

Marvin T. Paulson

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Our nomad life was, now, just beginning. The party was already on a move from Alturas, California to Lakeview, Oregon. There 25 men, eight of whom were married with children and traveling with trailers. The single fellows, for the most part, pitched tents. Accommodating a nomad group like this with parking space for trailers and tents was always a difficult persuasion. Thank goodness for abandoned fair grounds and small airports around the country. We had two trailers that served as offices for computing that needed space as well as about 20 trucks and automobiles.

A rudimentary explanation of triangulation surveying is the measurement of angles of lines between three or more stations to determine the latitude, longitude, and elevation of those stations and, thereby, determine the distance, direction, and altitude of each point. Ultimately, an adjustment of all stations thus located and tied together around the earth, will result in determining the true size and shape of the earth and, believe it or not, the true speed of light. All of this is basic to all space orbiting and return of satellites.

Throughout our career, Muriel and I have elected to search for apartments, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, on each of our moves in preference to trailer living. Our total commitment was to do the best we could with what we found available. In retrospect, it seems that the beautiful accommodation we have had were taken for granted, but rough ones were indelibly impressed in our memory.

Take for instance, Paisley, Oregon a once thriving lumbering, mining, and ranching community had deteriorated to less than 100 people - no lumbering, little mining and limited ranching. Nearly a ghost town. The Forestry Service headquartered there provided the town’s basic income, but the, the town, did have an old wooden, two-story hotel that was closed to guests but maintained a bar-room and a restaurant for tourists traveling through - 60 to 90 miles to the next town. Absolutely nothing was available to Muriel and me in the line of housekeeping facilities, unless we pitched a tent. The hotel did have one room open that they used as a “drunk tank” for over-imbibers at the bar to sleep it off, so to speak. Across the hall was a room with a bed and old mattress and a connecting room. No bedding was available. Down the hall was the only bathroom and toilet in town and the bath had a 25 cent slot to pay for a bath. On Saturday night you would have to wait in line when the cowboys came to town.

We had our own bedding, so we convinced the proprietor, who was also the bartender, to open the double room for us to occupy. So, with card table, boxes, folding chairs, camp stove, roasterette, and ice chest - we had our apartment. Each room had its own fire escape - a knotted rope coiled up under each window with one end tied to the bed post - who could ask for anything more?

One unforgettable evening, after supper, I went back to my so-called office to finish up some work til about 9 P. M. When I returned to our room, a man lay passed out in front of our door. I summoned the bartender-owner who roused the guy enough to get him in the vacant room across the hall. I went in our room and Muriel was already in bed but I told her anyway that there was a drunk man passed out in front of our door. To which she replied, “I know, I had to step over him when I took the dish water down to the bathroom.” An unforgettable event.

Later that evening, we woke up to smoke coming into our room. I opened the door and saw smoke floating out from around the door across the hall. Again I summoned the bartender. We finally roused the drunk by pounding on the door, (he had left his key in the lock). Soon the smoke subsided and he said he was O. K. Not long later, however, the smoke came in again. This time they got the man out of the room. In the first place, the fire was in the mattress which he dug out with his bare hands and put it all in the waste basket and went back to sleep. Now, the second time, it was the waste basket that was smoldering. What a night!!!! Four weeks of Paisley would be enough and we moved to Klamath Falls for couple of weeks and then on to Colfax, Washington.

It was now Thanksgiving time, 1948, and plenty of snow to “Grandfather’s House” and we were en route to Colfax to prove or disprove the feasibility of surveying triangulation in the state of Washington during winter months. It turned out to be the year of the big snows and the project discontinued in January 1949 and they sent us to Castaic, Cal. to survey an earthquake fault.

We made the most of our stay in Castaic with frequent sight-seeing trips to Los Angeles and Hollywood. On one such trip, we were stopped at a red-light at Hollywood and Vine when Muriel exclaimed, “There went Eileen and Kendall Mork on the cross-street.” We last saw them in traffic but called Eileen’s mother, Mrs. Elma Eielson Osking, in Hatton, North Dakota - and, sure enough, they were spending the winter in Hollywood. We made contact and spent several weekends together. Eileen had been one of Muriel’s close friends while living in Hatton so this was a good reunion....

Alaska now enters into this phase of our experiences together and apart as the case may be. The travel orders read - “With party in tact, take up the Alaskan coastal survey from Cape Prince of Wales on the Seward Peninsula to Kotzebue to Point Hope and Cape Lisburne to Point Lay. A Photogrammetry party will also be attached to your group for shoreline delineation on photos. Five Alaskan bush pilots have been contracted to transport your personnel from station to station. The planes will be equipped with either floats or wheels as the circumstances dictate. A C47 cargo transport plane has been chartered to move your party from Seattle to destination Shishmaref on the north coast of the Seward Peninsula.”

Muriel and all the other family members took their leave from us in Seattle. She boarded the Empire Builder to spend the summer with her folks in Fargo where she busied herself selling dresses and such at Nordstroms. In all - an uneventful summer.

With the return of the party to Seattle, Muriel would join me there for our trip to the next assignment.

The only possible landing area in Shishmaref is on the wide beach that is O.K. for large planes with skis in the winter, but no large plane had ever landed with wheel gear. Our C47 pilot, fearful of a dangerous landing, off-loaded all passengers and cargo in Nome except three of us and 4' X 4' boxes destined for the missionary. It seems that these boxes had been in Nome for months waiting for transport and so they begged for our indulgence. We obliged. The beach was long and hard-packed and all ruts and chuck-holes had been filled in by the local Eskimos in anticipation of our arrival. Our earlier contact in Shishmaref was Mr. Bingham, the school teacher/ weather observer with a short-wave radio. Our maiden voyage, subsequently, opened up the village to tourist trade that summer by Wien Airlines.

Incidentally, the boxes for the Lutheran Mission, originated from the Free Church in Hatton with clothing and presents from the congregation. The minister, Mr. Nelson, was from Finley. We had many delightful discussion about North Dakota. Mr. Bingham and his wife lived in a small two-story house next to a fairly large 2-room schoolhouse. They obligingly rented the school for our temporary office, mess hall, and a couple of cots for our office staff. The available cook stove did us well. We arrived with a 4-month supply of groceries and donated our excess when we left.

The survey personnel are divided up into 3-man team, an observer, a recorder and a light-keeper for night-time observations. The stations are anywhere from 5 to 25 miles apart with one set along the beach and another at high ground inland so our survey actually covers a 25 mile strip of shoreline paralleling the beach. We will end up with shoreline delineation, inland contour for mapping, and accurate latitude, longitude and elevation of all stations.

Bush pilots provide the transportation of the parties from station to station. There were five planes - 2 piper cubs, 1 Stinson 4-seater, 1 Stinson Gullwing 3-seater which is a real workhorse for our use because it could carry a good load and land on short distance; and lastly, 1 Norseman which a possible 6-seater from the Canadian bush - A powerful plan with pontoons for cargo handling.

Much of Alaska is peppered with small lakes; therefore, station sites were selected that could be reached from a base camp by the lake. For the most part, the personnel would have several miles of hiking across the tundra to reach the station site. In that case, building material needed would be bombed out from the plane to the site.

The Piper Cubs were equipped with Whitaker gear that are 2 wheels in tandem on each side for landing on the beach. They came in handy for landing on high ground that has a shale outcropping surface. The pilots would make a pass over the site looking for potholes or ruts then make another pass lightly touching his wheels to test the length and then, with a prayer, make a landing. We were very fortunate that in two years of treacherous landings and takeoffs we had only one minor mishap. The Stinson Gullwing returning from a supply replenishment run to Kotzebue with me on board too, couldn’t stop short of a rut across the beach. The jolt broke the wheel struts so it sank on its belly and bent the propeller. Nothing more serious than fixing the wheel struts with bailing wire and hammering out the bent propeller. The pilot cautiously flew back to Kotzebue on a vibrating plane for repairs and returned the next day. The pilots are paid by the hour on flying time on the job so they do not waste much time patching the planes.

I like to tell of one little anecdote that explains the character of the Bush Pilot. All planes, by FAA standards, must undergo a 100-hour checkup to keep the license valid. One of our pilots was a novice to flying in Alaska and had to get to Anchorage for the checkup, asked another one, who was a native of Anchorage, how to land there if the weather is “all souped in.” He replied, “You always have a 150 to 300 foot ceiling so fly above the clouds on the beacon until you pass over Anchorage. Bank it left and head for Mt. McKinley for 10 minutes and then make a “U” turn and get on the beam to the airport, dive down under the clouds and follow the beam in until you get to the bank building, then make a hard right bank and set her down and you’ll be on the airport.” I might add that this took place before the modern skyscrapers of today when the bank was about the only 2-story building downtown.

In mid-August, our survey had progressed past Shishmaref so we moved the base camp into tents at Deering. Actually, Deering was an abandoned gold mine dredging operation with no population left. On the little spare time that we might have during the 24 hours of daylight, we’d pan for gold. I must say that the dredging operation did a thorough job of sifting out the gold.

We closed our season in mid-September and stored our gear in Kotzebue for the next season’s continued survey. We proceeded to Seattle to pick up our families and continue to Inyokern, California. Here our project called for a series of super-accurate surveys in support of the Navy rocket program.

Muriel and I were provided housing on the base - a furnished duplex that was back to back with Nelsons who owned Bing, a Boston Bull Terrier, that dragged a small blanket around the neighborhood just like Linus in the funnies. Every day at 4 P. M. Bing would whine at the door, beg for a tidbit, swallow it and leave for the next neighbor with the same rounds every day. We had a nice long 8-month stay on the project and became well acquainted with our neighbors - the Nelsons in particular. It is interesting that the Nelsons’ newborn baby began getting more attention at home than Bing could accept. More and more his visits became longer and longer until, with Muriel’s special attention, he rarely went home in the daytime. Bing wasn’t a young dog and the Nelsons were very attached to him, but with their baby that Bing seemed to resent, they asked us to adopt Bing when we left Inyokern.

We had a short vacation en route to another Alaska assignment so to North Dakota we went with Bing. Muriel’s folks fell in love with him right from the start and he gave them several years of pleasure and company.

The Navy Rocket Program was a highly classified operation so let me just say it was very interesting to say the least and the accommodation granted our survey party was terrific. The high point of our stay at Inyokern (China Lake is the Navy Base) was the two week visit from our folks - Mama and Papa Paulson and Mama Cole - Muriel’s Dad couldn’t get away. We met the train in Mojave that was six hours late due to a derailment in Sacramento. There are so many interesting sites to see and sites to visit in Southern California and Nevada, that we hardly had time to sit and visit.

Our first spot of interest was Death Valley, a nice long day’s round trip drive. We just took enough time for a few pictures and collect some sand in our shoes and return home for supper. We left Scottie’s Castle and such out for another time that we never made.

Los Angeles and Hollywood was probably the most intriguing place to visit and see all the famous places you read and hear about. Papa’s greatest desire was to wade in the Pacific Ocean, and that he did, after which we ate some clam chowder at the Santa Monica Pier lunch shack. The orange groves that we passed were especially interesting to the North Dakota farmers. Our supper was at an interest residential restaurant named Oscars - Mama was especially impressed with name for brother Oscar. The waiters all wore vests and arm bands while the waitresses were decked out in gingham and bustles. After a terrific meal the two Mamas excused themselves to the restroom and seemingly never returned. Muriel finally checked and found out that they were all engrossed with wallpaper made of vintage Sears and Roebuck catalogue pages - circa 1900. - Mama Cole spotted her first sewing machine.

Our next excursion was “on” to Las Vegas with a lunch stop at the desert gardens and prospectors’ display in Barstow. Downtown Las Vegas was still the tourist mecca in those days, so we made the rounds there the first night. Come Saturday, it was the trip to the dam and lake. The folks especially enjoyed the scenery that I used to write about when I had a surveying party in the area, a few years earlier, to determine the effect that a full lake had on the dam and whole Las Vegas Valley.

The “piece-de-resistance” for the trip was the Donald O’Connor show at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. In those days (1950), you could get a fabulous dinner before the show and just sit there and enjoy an evening of entertainment. There is nothing like it today (2001). In all, it was a fitting tribute to our parents for making the trip to see us.

To add a little “icing to the cake,” as we were filling-up the car in preparation to leave for home, Papa put a nickel in a slot machine and hit the jackpot. We hit the road with great memories of Vegas. Those past couple of weeks were the first chances we had to entertain our parents at our home and introduce them to our “way of life.” As they left for North Dakota, we got the feeling that it had all been a wonderful time for them too.

I think it is noteworthy that it was on the lightly traveled desert roads around Inyokern that Muriel learned the art of driving and earned a driver’s license. Now I could get some relief on long trips.

Come the end of May, 1949, it was time to prepare for Alaska duty again. I wrangled a 10 days leave to take Muriel and Bing home to Fargo for the summer. As I mentioned earlier, Bing adapted to his new surroundings as if he had always lived there. I flew on to Seattle and then to Kotzebue, Alaska....

The Fourth of July is celebration time almost everywhere, and Kotzebue is no different. A beauty pageant in native parkas was the climax of events for which I was recruited as an unbiased judge.... A couple of days later, Muriel arrived in Kotzebue to spend a few weeks with me. Boy, the trip stories she had to tell. I’ll try and do them justice. In Fargo, they sold her Alaska Airline tickets to Nome, but in Anchorage she found out there was no scheduled flight to Nome so she had to literally scavenge around to find a flight out. Luckily, Wien Airline had a flight scheduled to depart and she was able to transfer her ticket. In Nome she found out that the local flights to Kotzebue would be scheduled only after they had enough cargo or passengers to make the trip profitable.

Luckily for Muriel, an FAA employee was also headed for Kotzebue and provided her with some friendly company while the pilot scurried around the town, and bars in particular, to roust out some passengers. Finally after four hours they were ready to take off in an old corrugated-tin Stinson tri-motor plane. Then, when finally loaded, they couldn’t get the side door to close shut, so they just removed it completely and took off with an open side. It’s hard to comprehend situations like that but in reality that is real Alaska Bush flying in-the-raw.

The Kotzebue village turned out “en-masse” to greet Muriel and one little girl handed her a handful of little wild flowers. The Rotmans extended her an invitation to a get acquainted tea the next night at 11 P. M.

I rented a one room apartment that had been built on the roof of the warehouse we had rented for office space and supply storage. The room was furnished with a bed, a cook stove (oil burning) and an outdoor privy on the roof. There was a stairway down into the warehouse and a ladder on the side of the building for an outside entrance. The first morning we awoke to find an Eskimo dog lying in front of the outside door to the roof. Every morning after that, he’d be there and how it got up and down remained a mystery to us for it was at least a 10-foot drop to the ground. Needless to say, Muriel enticed him with leftovers the likes of which he probably never had before.

Our water supply had to be obtained from some fresh water lakes and Tom White would take Muriel along in his Norseman with floats, to fetch a 50 gallon drum of water, so, you might say, she was given the full treatment. Speaking of treatment, Muriel enjoyed the tea party very much and was very surprised to be coming home in broad daylight at 1:00 A.M. in the morning. The Eskimos were enthralled with Muriel’s friendliness and personality so they invited us to a presentation of their ceremonial dance ritual, that few strangers get to observe, the night before she left.

As our survey progressed northward, we had to move the base camp to Point Hope so Muriel’s involvement would also come to an end. She returned to Fargo via Fairbanks with an overnight stay with the C&GS Seismology observers at the University of Alaska. Over all it was a great experience.

It might seem incongruous that each Eskimo village could be so very different, but such is the case and Point Hope is certainly that. The religious persuasion no doubt is a contributing influence to the culture. Shishmaref is a Lutheran Mission, Kotzebue is primarily Catholic, and Point Hope is an Episcopal Mission.

The original mission in Point Hope contained a hospital as well as a church, and was staffed with a medical staff and a Bishop. At the time of our occupation, the hospital was closed and the church was served by a Priest that commuted from Fairbanks. He was known as the “Flying Bishop” to the congregation. The church services were quite unique, too, in that families would split-up when entering the church so that Sopranos had one section, altos another, and base and tenors their sections. The music they presented was terrific, and they loved to sing. We were authorized space for an office and a few cots in the hospital. My office was set up in the operating room. Quite “apropos” wouldn’t you say? A large lagoon lake provided good “sailing” for the float planes to maneuver for take-off and landing.

Our survey project continued to Cape Lisburne to end the season. Subsequent to our survey, Cape Lisburne was selected as the most northern “silo” location in the military arsenal and closest to Russia. The party personnel were shuttled to Kotzebue for a commercial flight to Seattle. On the last flight for Tommy White and his Norseman plane, it backfired while taxiing toward the beach and caught fire. Tommy escaped in 3 feet of water but the plane was a total loss. He had just made his final payment for ownership too, but had no insurance.

We were delayed three days for the weather to clear enough for Wien Airlines to send a plane for our “rescue.” As we were preparing to leave, the villagers brought out many artifacts for sale. It seems that the year prior to our occupation, the Smithsonian Institution had an expedition there (Point Hope) to excavate ancient grave sites to determine the true evolution of the Eskimo as an Alaskan native or a descendant of tribes from Siberia.

The ceremonial masks that caught my fancy were of ancient times according to Eskimo lore. They are a porous bone-textured mask supposedly made from the hip of the whale. A face has been carved out and tattoo marks added to indicate social standing and was actually worn in ceremonial dances of pre-whaling expeditions. They are now displayed on our living room wall and are our most prized possessions. Priceless.


On return to Seattle, I was handed a real shocker in that I was being transferred from Geodesy Division to Coastal Surveys Division with specific assignment to the Arctic Coastal Survey Party. This was one assignment that I did not cherish getting. I was given two months to complete the computations and other records of the past survey, disband all personnel, transfer all equipment and take all accumulated leave.

So now we, Muriel and I, had to find an apartment, get our furniture out of storage in Oakland, California, and shipped to Seattle. We had previously sold our Philippine rattan furniture, so now our leave time would be completely taken with shopping and getting settled in the Lockhaven Apartments in Ballard, Washington. Some vacation. As I think about writing about my Arctic experiences, I’m hoping I can cover everything without too much boring detail -- but it was a unique existence.

First, in early February, I was designated to be liaison officer to the Army in Fairbanks, Alaska, two weeks ahead of the full party movement, to coordinate the transport of our party of 25 from Fairbanks to Barter Island - an Army outpost on the north coast. Only military planes were authorized for this flight. Surprisingly, to the C&GS party on arrival in Fairbanks, they had only 20 minutes to change planes and depart for Barter. In the past, delays had been encountered that resulted in unpleasant occurrences of wayward personnel “straying from the fold” before final departure.

Temporary quarters were authorized on Barter Island until our bush planes could be dispatched from Point Barrow, our Arctic headquarters, to ferry the party to the survey area. The Arctic coast survey had been a continuing project for several years. The surveying season extends from February to mid-September to take advantage of the frozen ocean as a “highway” for movement of our equipment and personnel on their daily surveying activity on triangulation. The summer season, July and August, is when the ocean ice pack will recede about 20 miles from the shoreline. We launch the boats during this period and accomplish the hydrographic surveys for the chart water depth information. The daylight is continuous at this time, so we run 10-hour shifts with each of two launches, weather permitting.

The period of May and June is the ice breakup season. Then your camp is completely isolated from any rescue, other than by helicopter. It is really an eerie kind of existence to feel that you have no way out. The ice flows, during breakup, cause too much danger for float planes and the beaches are too unpredictable for wheel planes. The tundra area is impossible in spring or anytime for that matter.

Our equipment included 1 large caterpillar tractor; 1 cherry picker caterpillar; 4 “weasels” that are a jeep-type vehicle with caterpillar type treads and a waterproof body for floating on water; 2 36' launches; 1 LCM; 4 giant sleds - two of which had bunk houses for the personnel on the move and one smaller bunk house that served as a mess hall. One of the giant sleds hauled the rest of the camp gear including two Quonset huts knocked down and ready to be erected at the next campsite for quarters, office space and mess hall.

Each “weasel” pulled a small sled when on a move away from camp that could sleep three in cramped quarters and cook meals on a camp stove that also served as room heater. At the end of the season, all camp paraphernalia would be dismantled, loaded on the sleds, hooked up to the caterpillar, and left ready for moving to a new camp to start a new season - maybe 40 to 100 miles forward as the progress dictated.

Our season began in February with moving the gear to a new camp site, about 60 miles, set it up and wait for warmer weather to begin field surveying operations. Sounds simple enough but the obstacles are horrendous - starting with 55 degrees below zero to blizzard snow storms. Picking a route through the ice escarpment of the Arctic Ocean was a tricky business to avoid being trapped on a dead end. The sea ice isn’t’s all smooth sailing or sledding. Traveling in darkness is no easy piece of cake either - the days are practically all darkness in February.

Setting up base camp is a “guess and by gosh” operation in hopes that the ground you clear of snow with the caterpillar will actually be high ground and will not cause a water problem when and after the snow melts or the tide gets high.

Constructing the Quonset huts in minus 20 to minus 50 degree weather is no pleasant task but it was accomplished between blizzards as was the make-shift garage of wood-framing covered with canvas tarpaulins. The unheated “outhouse” was no pleasure to visit either.

A landing strip about one mile long was smoothed on the Arctic Ocean ice and was used once by the Air Force with a C-47 to evacuate a patient with a broken leg. Jeep lights and lanterns marked both ends of the runway. We were complimented by the Air Force on the extraordinary and excellent runway. Incidently, the patient was treated in Fairbanks and transported back to Seattle.

As soon as temperatures in the Arctic remained constantly above minus 10 degrees, we began triangulation observations. To mark the stations we weld a little bronze disc to a small pipe about 3-feet long; then with a small steam boiler with a hose and pipe end we jet the steam into the frozen tundra, quickly pull it out and push the pipe with the marker down into the hole. In seconds it will be frozen solid in the tundra permanently. The tundra never thaws more than a few inches. Pole targets were placed over the markers for observing on in place of the usual lights.

Special care had to be taken by the observer so as not to let his breath fog up the eye piece. The instruments are always left outside when not in use to avoid fogging up. Everything is difficult in the Arctic.

An interesting high-light of the season to me was our temporary camp at Beechey Point. This is the point of land that Carl Ben Eielson and Sir Hubert Wilkins arrived at following their plane crash near the North Pole. They had spent many arduous and treacherous days on foot crossing the frozen Arctic Ocean pulling a sled of meager belongings. Beechey Point is actually a ghost village today with two empty shacks or “igloos” to the Eskimo.

A few boxes of records and miscellaneous items had been left probably as of no value. Being a little curious, I thumbed through a box of sales records and found one pad with the name Ben written on the cover. Inside was only one entry for Colgate Toothpaste. I thought of taking it for the Eielson Memorial in Hatton. My conscience said that would be confiscating private property and so left it all in tact.

A polar bear gave us the excitement of the season. We had an advance Shoran party living in a tent on the beach during the summer. One weekend we picked them up in our launch to have a couple of days at base camp. As we returned, we saw a polar bear walking up the beach a 1/4 mile from their tent. As we approached we saw a large slit in the side of the tent so we knew there had been company. Nothing had been disturbed except a bar of soap on a box that had the teeth marks of the bear. Evidently it didn’t suit his taste

We followed the bear about 5 miles up the beach because the Eskimos in our group wanted the fresh meat for their families at base camp. The bear began heading inward to escape our surveillance so we put the Eskimos on the beach to give chase. About a mile inland they got him. We kind of wasted most of the day, but with the all night “daylight” we got a full day’s work in after skinning the bear and removing the choice cuts of meat from the carcass. I don’t recommend fishy polar bear steak.

We finished up the season by pulling and pushing the launches back up on the beach at the site of the next year’s continuing project. The base camp was torn down, loaded on sleds, hooked up to the cat and made ready for next year’s winter move. Bush pilots transported us to Barter Island again and the Air Force hauled us out except for one officer and some gear. Captain Jarman, our chief of party, elected to wait for the next flight. True to Alaskan Arctic weather , a storm socked them in at Barter Island for three weeks before Captain Jarman could be brought home. Such are your chances in Alaska....

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