Posted on November 18, 2012 - by Nadia
Originally published in the Skagway News –
It wasn’t in the original plan, but it felt pretty good to step off the ferry at Skagway next to Stroller White. Together, we made our way through the crowded street to the Skagway News. More than a century ago, when Skagway was in its founding growth spurt and news overflowed its docks and saloons, The Stroller was a newsman at that paper, though he hadn’t yet adopted the name he would make famous in his column, Strolling Around the Yukon.
Skagway, and specifically, the newspaper, had been my destination for the past two months as I kayaked the Inside Passage in a three-part pursuit of my Klondike roots. It was a quirk of timing that my mother and father, who is named Stroller after his grandfather, arrived in Juneau in time to join me on the ferry to the finish line.
The Stroller’s name has some cache. The shoulders of Mount Stroller White square off above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. He spent years chronicling the personalities along the way to the Klondike, served in public office and pontificated about local politics for decades.
Less is known about his wife, Josephine Keys White. My project, which I call Travels With Josie, aims to rectify that by traveling in her spirit to Dawson.
Josie arrived in Skagway on a Tuesday in mid-June, 1898. The Stroller himself – known then by as Elmer John or E.J. — announced her arrival in the columns of the Skaguay News, where he had served as associate editor since he arrived in April of 1898.
“Mrs. E.J. White and little daughter, Lena, arrived from Port Townsend on the steamer Discovery Tuesday night, and the associate editor is now living in the pomp and oriental splendor beneath his own vine and fig tree in a 10 x 10 cabin on Fifth Avenue.”
After that brief news item, The Stroller’s news writing falls silent about his wife. She is left to speak for herself, a bit too quietly, in a slim collection of photographs, a self-conscious journal and a glowing obituary that reports she was a crack shot who kept dinner on the table with her .22, who had climbed every worthwhile peak in Southeast Alaska.s
They had worked their way around the Seattle area through the depression of ’93 and its aftermath, chasing a living, building a life. In July of 1897, The Stroller reported on the arrival of gold from the Klondike aboard the SS Portland. By the time the solstice lit the night in ’98, they both had joined the mob headed north.
“We didn’t go for the gold so much as we went for the adventure of it,” Josie wrote later.
I followed for the same reason. I imagined a three-part outdoor adventure: Over several summers, I planned to bike from Oklahoma to Washington; kayak from Washington to Skagway, and canoe the Yukon River to Dawson.
In 1891, Josie left her parents’ homestead in Oklahoma’s Cimarron Valley to visit her sister in Sumner, Wash, near Tacoma. She got a job at her brother in law’s newspaper, and ended up marrying the editor. He was an even-tempered man, 13 years her senior with a vaudevillian sense of humor, and a newsman’s willingness to travel to where the action was.
In 2010, I found the Keyes family homestead just shy of the New Mexico line, where the Rocky Mountains push up from the plains. Josie took the train to Sumner. I followed back roads, linking towns shaped by mining booms that primed the pump for the intensity of the Klondike rush: Red River, N.M., Creede, Colo., Park City, Utah; Stanley, Idaho.
This May, I rejoined Josie’s route in Port Townsend, Wash. The artsy tourist town was in full flush with the annual Rhododendrons Festival. The blossoms were lost on me as I struggled to keep the proper balance of intention and ignorance I needed for the trip. I live in Montana, and while I had planned and trained, I had a lot to learn about tides and currents.
The Inside Passage is North America’s most iconic sea kayaking route. It is a single trip of about 1,000 miles, divisible by a half-dozen distinct personalities: the scattered islands of the San Juan and Gulf Islands with their swirling currents; Desolation Sound with dark, stone corridors; Johnstone Strait with its reliable winds; big crossings open to the full force of the Pacific Ocean; the bottle-glass green of waters fed by glaciers. Add to such natural variety the loose lunacy of the water surrounding port cities – Nanaimo, Port Hardy, Prince Rupert in British Columbia; Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway in Alaska.
sI was surprised at the number of tiny communities I passed and the camaraderie I found with other boaters along the way.
I fought both current and wind to arrive at the map-dot former cannery of Butedale on Princess Royal Island. I arrived tired and hungry and was greeted like family by power boaters I had met earlier and by Lou, the caretaker.
“I heard you were coming and have a sun shower for you,” said Lou, in his handsome French Canadian accent, showing me a makeshift shower on the deck of the old ice making plant.
“When you’re done, come back down,” said Deb, one of the powerboaters. “We’ll have dinner for you.”
Inviting a sea kayaker to dinner mid-trip is a risky proposition and I cautioned myself not to inhale the entire larder. Deb proved up to that challenge, and set up a bellyful of steak, chicken and peach cobbler. After her crowd pulled out early the next day I found a doggie bag with leftovers tucked into my kayak. I was much repaired, mind and body, when I pulled out of Lou’s post-industrial hillside retreat.
One pea-soup morning on Johnstone Strait I waited for the fog to lift, then launched at just a hint of clarity. I was anxious to cross a channel at slack tide. It was foolish. I paused, considering my options, then heard a voice: “Nadia. Let us give you a tow. We have radar.” It was a couple on a sailboat. I had met them weeks earlier. I took the tow and avoided playing peek-a-boo with commercial ships.
As I approached Juneau, the glacial waters introduced a chill into my bones. When the weather called for two days of 30-knots winds, I paddled hard for Taku Harbor, marked as a marina on my map. I was hoping to find a warm place to take shelter from the coming storm.
Taku Harbor was a Hudson Bay Trading Post in 1840 and a cannery into the ‘70s, but anything that could be construed as a marina has long since surrendered to moss. Now it is an Alaska marine park with a dock. My fantasies of a warm shower dissolved in the rain.
Exploring the shore, I found an unoccupied state park cabin and stepped in. As I dried my soaking gear around an oil stove, I hoped my luck would hold, that the forecast would prevent the rightful occupants from showing up. But around dinnertime, the door opened and there they were. My fortune had changed, but for the better.
After taking in the smelly, but warm, chaos of their cabin, the two urged me to stay. I protested, but the man, who proved to be The King of Tlingets for his resemblance to Elvis Presley, insisted. “We aren’t on a honeymoon, she’s here to paint.”
I tidied up and relocated to the loft. The wind came. The King, The Artist and I stayed longer than intended. We talked and laughed and shared meals. I left at daybreak to hedge against the wind. They sent me off with an invitation to stay with them in Juneau where they introduced me to Juneau’s summertime circle of plenty as crab, salmon, berries and barbecues kept life lively.
Snow on Skagway’s mountains sparkled on the blue-sky summer day we arrived. I wondered if such days had reminded Josie of Sumner, where snowcapped Mount Rainer ruled the skyline. The Skagway News was bustling but the editor broke away to give a tour of off-Main Street Skagway and neighboring Dyea.
Driving from Skagway’s cruise boats to Dyea’s lush tidal flats, it was hard to imagine that the two coves had vied for urban supremacy. Dyea was already starting to slip away when Josie arrived, I thought. Now, there is scant evidence of the 48 hotels, wharves or breweries that marked Dyea’s glory days as the starting point of the Chilkoot Trail. Time has a way of swallowing history’s stories if they aren’t dragged out of the underbrush or away from rising waters.
As I ended the second part of my trip my thoughts turned to the final leg. Josie and The Stroller made Dawson their home at the height of the gold rush, before returning to Whitehorse where they lived for several years. Dawson was the grand destination of my three-part adventure, so when the editor suggested I join his team for the 444-mile Yukon River Quest next June I could only say, “You bet!”