KATHRENE PINKERTON: A Little Known Alaskan Pioneer

KATHRENE PINKERTON: A Little Known Alaskan Pioneer
I've put a black blob on my home on the Inside Passage of the above rough map.

I’ve read many, many books about Southeast Alaska, but I’ve never found one that described the unique geography of the place better than this:

     “For a thousand miles north of Puget Sound this coast once extended farther into the Pacific. Its mountains were much higher than at present. An outer range rose from the sea. Behind it was a deep valley and behind that a stupendous range with deep narrow canyons cut by ancient rivers. Before the last glacial period the whole coast sank, tilting seaward, and the sea flowed in. The outer range became a vast archipelago extending from Puget Sound through Southeastern Alaska and the first valley is now the Inside Passage. Former foothills and mountains have become islands, and spaces between the peaks form a fascinating network of straits, channels, sounds, bays and arms.

      “Even the great mainland sank, but the mountains permitted the sea to take only the steep walled canyons of the ancient rivers. Today these canyons are inlets. The sea has invaded but the mountains remain. Neither makes concession to the other. The mountains rise straight from the salt water and one could moor a ship against rocks as to a wharf. One could step from the deck and begin at once to climb.” — Three’s a Crew by Kathrene Pinkerton

     When you travel by boat in SE Alaska it’s easy to feel as if an epic natural disaster has happened, that the world has been flooded and you’re traveling between mountain peaks–because that’s essentially the truth of the matter, as Kathrene Pinkerton so eloquent describes in Three’s A Crew, her memoir of her family exploring Southeast Alaska by boat in 1924.

I first stumbled across Kathrene Pinkerton when I found a yellowed old paperback titled Hidden Harbor in my twenties. The novel’s events take place in 1910 and the story is about a pioneering family that lives off the land in a remote Alaskan harbor. I instantly fell in love. It captured, like nothing else I’ve come across, what it was like to grow up in Southeast Alaska with little access to the Outside world. It was amazing to me to find out how little a childhood in 1910 had changed from mine in the 1980s in this remote part of the world.

     Unfortunately, in my pre-Internet life (before 2015) it was very hard to find more books by Pinkerton. But once I introduced a friend, a former librarian in Ketchikan, to Hidden Harbor, she took it from there and managed to turn up more books. I devoured them, impressed with Pinkerton’s accuracy, not just in describing the locale, but in putting down an authentic SE Alaskan perspective.

     Such as this scene from Steer North when they’re trying to get a wounded man to Ketchikan but they have to face Clarence Strait, the boogeyman of SE Alaskan mariners, and also the waterway on which I live:


​”The southeaster was not blowing itself out, and Clarence Strait, wide open clear across Dixon Entrance, would be tough. As they went south into the wider reaches of the strait, it was bad and becoming worse. Not only did the strait live up to its reputation, but the storm increased in fury….

     “Back in the wheelhouse he saw the captain was straining, and the exertion showed on his face. ‘Suppose we both take hold,’ the captain said. ‘I’ve still got my know-how, but my staying power isn’t what it used to be.’

      “Between them they did much better, but the seas increased until they were fighting every moment….Hour after hour they went on. The Mary was pitching as she never had before, crashing into waves and lifting with them. As they passed Caamano Point, a wave, larger than any before, roared up. The Mary lifted but not enough. Green water crashed on her foredeck and came rushing aft to strike the wheelhouse a shivering blow. But the ship reared, threw off the water, and was ready for the next.

     “….The next half hour was the worst of the entire two days. The gale was sucking up Behm Canal, and they had to quarter into it. A new motion came to the Mary. She not only pitched but rolled with the sea on the bow. Sometimes they had to swing to starboard to meet a big one head on….Spray and rain flooded the windows, and they could see only a huge wave rushing toward them, and another and another. The Mary reeled under the successive blows. Greg, fearing she could take no more, eased up on the throttle.”

     It’s obvious the author has been on Clarence Strait. Besides where I live, Caamano Point always hands out the worst weather on Clarence, and who hasn’t had to quarter their way across Behm Canal? The only thing I’d have added was the sinking feeling I’d get when the stabies (stabilizing poles) were lowered and their anchors thrown overboard. I’d know we were heading into dangerous, “dirty” weather.

The opening page of Three’s a Crew

​  Another friend, in Texas, knowing I was looking for books by Kathrene Pinkerton, discovered the delightful memoir Three’s a Crew and sent it to me. The author’s quirky sense of humor is revealed in this book more than in her fiction. She details, tongue in cheek, the many neophyte mistakes and misadventures of her family, a family made up of herself, her husband Robert (who also was an author), and their daughter “Bobs” (who later became an editor and writer)–as they traveled where practically no family had gone before.

     Today families by the gross travel the Inside Passage, abaord cruise ships and in yachts and sailboats guided by GPS, but back then the idea was unheard of–and for good reason. The maps were still in the process of being accurately drawn. In fact, Kathrene Pinkerton, with her memoir, became the first woman to write about coastal cruising.

     Only one other coastal cruising book pre-dates Three’s a Crewaccording to Charles Lillard. All other cruising literature was written from the perspective of a coastal steamer or freighter, not through an amateur boating enthusiast’s eyes.

    More importantly, to my mind, is the fact that this is the only book I’ve ever read where floathouses, floating stores, and floating communities are mentioned casually as just another part of the every day scenery. When we first arrived in Alaska, floating logging camps were a common sight just as they were in Pinkerton’s day, exactly as she describes one of them in chapter ten:


​  “The store, restaurant, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, warehouse and owner’s dwelling house, even a chicken house, rested on rafts of cedar logs. Chains and cable moored these rafts to shore and long boomsticks running from shore to the rafts held them off and kept them from battering on the beach as the community rose and fell with the big tides or was buffeted by fierce winter gales. Outer boomsticks herded the buildings in line and also served as sidewalks.

     “[It] could change its town site with no more formality than calling a tugboat. The village had shifted several times. Once when the small daughter of its owner had been ill and required sun, the community had been moved across the bay and the weekly steamship bringing mail and supplies had to go in search of the missing town.”

     She also talks about hand loggers, now an all but extinct breed, though when I walk through the woods I see giant old-growth stumps they left behind decades before I was born. I’ve even found an antique gas can left by them deep in second growth forest.

     At the end of Three’s a Crew Kathrene Pinkerton writes about returning to the world after adventuring in Alaska, to find that the Great Depression had struck during their absence. “The stay-at-homes had lists, figures and old bank books, which now meant nothing. We had pages in a ship’s log which meant very much.”

     She didn’t know it, but those years on the boat exploring SE Alaska would provide her with enough material too write the books that would support her family through the decades to come.


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