Chapter 1: Traveling by train
In June 1956, Meg’s parents announced that they were going to take a long trip in August. Meg phoned her best friend Betty as soon as she heard the news.
“You’ll never guess where we are going this summer,” she said.
“Lake of the Ozarks,” Betty guessed.
“No, we are going to travel by train through Canada and then take a steamboat to Ketchikan, Alaska. Then we are going to visit a bunch of relatives.”
“Boring!” Betty responded. “I mean, about visiting the relatives. How long will you be gone?”
“Nearly three weeks.”
“Meg, that means you will miss my birthday party.”
“Yes, I know and I’m really sorry.
“You could stay with us while your parents go on vacation.”
“No, I already asked. My parents are determined this trip is part of my education. On top of that, I overheard them whispering about how my father might decide to get a teaching job in Alaska. My parents used to move around a lot before I was born.
“Being away from you for 17 whole days is bad enough. I wouldn’t like moving so far away forever. I don’t want to leave my school and my church for new ones, either. I hope they decide it’s not a good idea.”
“Wish I could go along, Meg.”
“I do too, Betty.”
Even before Meg packed for the trip, she and her mother addressed some envelopes to Betty. Meg’s mom added them to the pad of paper and pencils in Meg’s small entertainment bag that included a small checkers board, puzzle books, a movie magazine and a copy of “Little Women.”
“We will have to buy some Canadian stamps,” Mom noted.
Friday, Aug. 20
We left on a train for Chicago just after midnight. My parents say that we will sleep on the train or with relatives and save money, so most of our traveling on trains will be done at night trying to sleep while sitting up. It worked O.K. last night when we took our first train ride to Chicago. Not many people with us, so it was quiet.
We arrived in Chicago in the morning. I’m used to St. Louis streetcars but I’ve never seen an elevated track before. The “L” sure was noisy. Glad I don’t live near one.
We visited an elderly cousin and one of Dad’s nieces. She lives in a big apartment in a tall building with her husband and two kids. (He works for the FBI.) We got some sleep that night and toured some museums the next day.
Saturday: We took a train to Milwaukee in the afternoon. It was really crowded. Mom says there were a lot of people on board who had gotten together and nominated Estes Kefauver to run against President Eisenhower this November. Since my friend Stewart says he’s going to vote for Eisenhower, I guess “I like Ike,” too.
Mom and I escaped the crowd to the dome car, with windows all around so you can really see the scenery. I sat next to a nice lady artist who showed me how to draw roses on my sketch pad. That was fun. It was still light enough to see part of the Wisconsin Dells. They have funny looking rocks call sea stacks on account of they used to be under the water.
From Milwaukee, we took another train through the part of Minnesota they call the land of 10,000 lakes. I lost count. We changed trains again at St. Paul at supper time. Our next train was to come in late so we had to grab a candy bar for supper.
We had been traveling on the Wabash line, but this time we boarded a Great Northern train to Winnipeg. That’s in Canada. We got lucky. There weren’t many people that night, so we each sprawled out on two seats, cozy and warm with our lap blankets.
Can you tell yet that Mom is helping me with my spelling and punctuation? With a father who’s a teacher and a Mom who is an editor, I don’t have a chance! And Mom’s already told me I can’t use the word beautiful more than once in a letter. I have to think up synonyms. So watch out for words like alluring, lovely, delightful, appealing, gorgeous, heavenly, stunning, bewitching, exquisite and magnificent.
Did you know?
On June 6, 1892, the first elevated—or “L”—train began running in Chicago. By 1893, the trains were running to Jackson Park, the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Expansion of the system has continued as Chicago spread out.
Minnesota’s nickname, "Land of 10,000 Lakes” is based on fact. There are 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or more in the state. Minnesota’s portion of Lake Superior is the largest at 962,700 acres and deepest body of water at 1,290 feet.
President Dwight David Eisenhower won a second term in 1956. In 1953 as president, he had charge of 48 states. In 1959, during his second term in office, Eisenhower signed a bill making Alaska the 49th state and Hawaii the 50th state. Eisenhower had advised the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union while campaigning in 1952. He recommended adding Hawaii first, but Congress favored admitting Alaska first, believing that Alaskan oil would be more beneficial to the nation’s economy.
Eisenhower expressed concern that statehood could interfere with his administration’s ability to establish and run defense installations in Alaska, the territory closest to Soviet Russia. Hawaii, which had been annexed by the U.S. in 1898, also possessed defense installations that were important to national security, but some members in Congress from Southern states expressed negative feelings about incorporating Hawaii’s largely non-white population into the Union.
After receiving assurances that an Alaskan state government would not interfere in the federal operation of military installations in the region, or the president’s right to reserve territory for future bases, Alaska became a state in January 1959. Eight months later, Hawaii also was admitted.
Chapter 2: The wheels keep turning
Sunday: Mom woke me up at about sunrise. The scenery was now rolling with lots of fields and a few tiny farmhouses. Mom says it costs too much to heat big houses up here.
We stopped at the Canadian border for Customs and Immigration. The agent didn’t even go through our suitcases. Mom and Dad were both unsettled, though. When Mom got out our birth certificates, she had two for me and none for Dad. They let us into Canada anyhow but now Dad is worried about getting back into the U.S. Dad worries a lot lately. I’m not sure he feels well.
At Winnipeg, Manitoba, we walked around downtown and counted banks and wondered why they need so many of them in one town. They have several Ford dealerships here but they call the cars Monarchs.
Betty, in case you are wondering how can we walk around town so much while we’re traveling, most train stations have rental lockers, so we stow our suitcases when we go sightseeing.
We had lots of time on our hands because our Canadian National train was nearly three hours late. When we finally got on the train, it was really crowded. At least two dozen people were part of a wedding party and we hoped they’d get off soon.
Dad treated us to a late lunch in the dining car and it was really good. Mom even had dessert, apple pie with cheese on top. Can you believe it? When I laughed, our server said a lot of people like cheese that way. We ate so much we didn’t even eat supper.
That evening, we crossed a really big river, shimmering in the sunset, then traveled along it snaking path for a while. We didn’t find out its name until the next morning; it was the Saskatchewan River. Dad promised we’d see magnificent mountains by the following day. The wedding party got off and we slept well.
Monday: We woke to a view of rising hills and deep valleys. The wheels of the train clattered at a fast clip, driving us forward. Then blue-gray, snow-capped mountains began to form in the distance. We played hide-and-seek with the Athabaskan River.
The blue mountains that surrounded the town of Jasper, Alberta, looked like a painted picture, with roaring cascades of waterfalls flowing into mountain streams and rivers swirling swiftly, one gray mass of water. Mom and I ran out of synonyms trying to describe them.
We ate a late breakfast and didn’t pull into the station at Jasper until 1:30 p.m. There, we found a room at the Astoria Hotel, then had a late lunch at the hotel cafe. Our waitress was really interesting. Dad asked about her British accent and she told us she was a college student from England. The vacation season is short here, so she flew over to make some money and then she will go back to college in the fall. Betty, wouldn’t that be fun for me and you to do in another six years?
When we got into our room, we all took a bath. We had worn the same clothes for two days straight and didn’t smell very good anymore. Then Mom and I washed our dirty clothes in the bathroom sink and hung them out to dry wherever we could. We even slung them over coat-hangers. Then we napped.
Later while walking around town, we spotted “The Old Man” formation that looks like a sleeping Indian, and we think we identified Mount Edith Cavell in the distance. As we ate a snack, we saw three deer that were hustling tourists for handouts and a bear that was not sociable but was very interested in a trash can. Walking past a housing development for oil workers, Mom decided maybe that’s why they need so many banks in this part of Canada.
We walked by Mounted Police headquarters and saw a lot of Canadian Mounties who drove cars or rode on motorcycles. None were on horses. Only one had on a red uniform. That Mountie stood on the train platform to greet visitors as the trains came in. My parents realized that they have gotten their ideas about Mounties from movies made in the U.S.
Did you know?
Mount Edith Cavell was named for Edith Louisa Cavell (1865-1915), a British nurse. She saved the lives of soldiers from both sides during World War I without discrimination. While helping soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium she was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation. A mountain in Alberta, Canada, was named after her.
The Canadian province of Saskatchewan is east of Alberta. Nearly 10 percent of Saskatchewan is covered by fresh water, composed mostly of rivers, reservoirs and 100,000 lakes. Residents primarily live in the southern prairie half of the province, while the northern half is forested and sparsely populated. Its climate includes severe winters.
Saskatchewan has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. It was first explored by Europeans around 1690 and settled in 1774. In 1992, the federal and provincial governments signed a historic land claim agreement with First Nation people, whom we call Native Americans. The First Nations received compensation and were permitted to buy land on the open market for their reserve lands. Some First Nations people have used their settlement to invest in urban areas, including the provincial capital at Saskatoon.
Oil was found in Alberta many years ago. More recently, close to the surface, a 50,000-square-mile reservoir of heavy crude oil has been found. The potential is estimated to be as many as 2 trillion barrels of recoverable oil. Existing facilities are currently producing around 2 million barrels of oil per day, with plans to double that.
Chapter 3: Sliding on 1,000 feet of ice
Tuesday: The following morning my parents and I joined a tour to the Columbia Ice Fields. We shared our tour bus, a noisy nine-passenger Volkswagen, with the family of a teacher from nearby Edmonton. At the glacial source of the Athabasca River is a spectacular waterfall just below a melting glacier. There, we learned the funny gray color of the rivers is silt from the grinding action of the glaciers.
The road we followed was narrow and had no shoulder, so riding up the switchbacks was scary. Also, the bus couldn’t pull over to take photos, so the driver would open the roof and the teacher would try to take photos while the bus jolted and the wind whipped her hair.
When we got to the bottom of the Athabascan glacier, we switched vehicles. The snowmobile had sled runners in front and Caterpillar tracks on the back. We bounced and slid along the ice when we hit big bumps. The top of the snowmobile opened too, so we could see the snowcapped mountains rising all around us.
After spending half an hour in the snowmobile, crawling along the ice and dodging splashy melt pools, we stopped. Our guide encouraged us to get out and walk around. He said we were standing on about 1,000 feet of packed ice. Then he pointed out the “beware of soft mud” signs and told us not to go far, since crevices sometimes opened up without much warning. Dad ventured the furthest. Then he reached down and cupped a drink of water.
“I’m drinking the oldest water on earth,” he crowed.
Just then the teacher went beyond one of those signs to take a photo. She slipped on a patch of silty mud and dropped her camera. When she moved to retrieve it, she lost her balance and fell into the mud. Our guide grabbed her and helped her as she fished for her lost shoes. Her camera, skirt and shoes were all covered with the mud when she got out. Mom told me not to laugh, Betty, but it really was funny, at least after we found out nothing but the teacher’s dignity was hurt.
By the time we got back into the snowmobile, Dad had changed his story.
“I guess all the water on earth is about the same age,” he said. “But this water has been locked up for thousands of years or more. No pollutants.”
My Dad always talks about conservation!
That evening we waited for our next train. It arrived at 9 p.m. but was crowded with passengers, so we looked forward to an uncomfortable night.
Wednesday: The dawn exposed remarkable views of lower valleys with lots of green fir trees. For many miles, our train shadowed the Fraser River. We’ve been lucky about the weather so far and enjoyed our panoramic scenery in sunshine. I’m still worried about Dad. He doesn’t have as much energy as he used to.
Soon an agent of the railroad began passing out free sandwiches and coffee. In the afternoon, he passed out candy bars and we tried several different kinds before the end of the day. Canadian chocolate is delicious, better than what we get at home, Mom says.
Towns were few and far between but we stopped often for water or fuel. When we did get to a small town, the conductor would tell us how long we had to walk around. They even had a scheduled stop above a picture-perfect canyon where water thundered through a stone shut-in. We were sorry we hadn’t brought a camera then.
Our fellow travelers were friendly, some a little too friendly. Dad talked to several young men who were headed to work at the new aluminum plant at Kitimat. Betty, did you know that men outnumber women by about eight to one here? Mom and Dad, who were sitting behind me, laughed as the men checked out the few women on the train. Then one even sat by me, but left when he found out I was 12 and my parents were with me.
We didn’t get any sleep until we stopped at Terrace and half of the passengers got out there to go on to Kitimat. Mom woke me up at 1:30 a.m. and we began preparing to get off at the end of the line at Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
Did you know?
The Columbia Icefield is located in the Canadian Rockies astride the Continental Divide along the border of British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. It was formed during the Great Glaciation (238,000 to 126,000 B.C.). The ice field lies between parts of Banff and Jasper national parks. It covers about 125 square miles, is 1,198 feet deep and receives up to 280 inches of snowfall per year. The Athabascan glacier, part of the Icefield, peaked, recessed and then advanced again until 1840, when it began receding again, a process that continues.
The ancestors of the First Nation tribes probably arrived in Alberta 10,000 years ago, toward the end of the last ice age. After the British arrived in Canada in the 1600s, about half the land in Alberta they claimed was ceded by Charles II of England to the Hudson Bay Co. Trappers, including French Canadians, began working the area.
The southernmost portion of Alberta was part of the French (and then Spanish) territory of Louisiana. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, it was sold to the U.S. in 1803. After the War of 1812, in 1818, the portion of Louisiana north of the 49th parallel was ceded back to Great Britain.
Chapter 4: Be alert when you travel
Meg’s letters to her friend, Betty, continued.
Thursday: While we waited for the workers to leave the train at Kitimat, I chatted with a woman returning home to Prince Rupert. At one point, she commented on my charming southern accent. I was surprised, Betty. I didn’t think I had an accent. She was the one with a Canadian accent. I sounded normal. Whoops! I suddenly realized that in Canada, I was the one who wasn’t normal.
Mom woke me at 1:30 a.m. From the window of the train we could see a large body of water and, on the other side, dark cliffs. Between the two, an emerging town perched precariously. The dim light of the streetlights seems to be sucked away by darkness and fog. Then we passed lighted fish canneries and shabby apartments for the workers.
We arrived at the train station at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, at 2 a.m. My parents had imagined we’d sleep on the benches there for the rest of the night to save money. Turns out there were no benches in the main waiting room, so we climbed up the stairs. The door to the “women’s waiting room” was locked and so were the rest of the doors to the various offices. All that was there was a wide hallway with two windows and a door overlooking a bridge-way over the railroad tracks with a sign that said, “To Uptown.”
Dad decided to see if he could find us a hotel. Mom and I perched on the two wide windowsills and waited. No one else was with us but a wondering man who came and went a few times without saying a word. That was scary.
Finally, Dad came back. He’d found a hotel that would accommodate the three of us. But when we carried our suitcases up a long steep path and then two blocks on paved streets to get to the Commercial Hotel, it turned out the manager wanted to rent us two rooms and Mom said we just couldn’t afford that. So off we went into a night that felt colder and darker all the time. We walked a block away past an open saloon. Neon lights lit more hotels along the way. Each had a sign reading “ring bell for service,” but we couldn’t get to the bell because the doors were locked.
Finally we had tried all of them we could see and were wondering what to do next when some rough-looking men hailed us from across the street asking if we needed to find a hotel. It’s not easy being in a strange town at 3:30 a.m., Betty. Dad politely said we did need a hotel. Could they suggest an open one? One of them said he knew a good one a couple of blocks away. He showed us his key to prove his point.
Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by the men who were obviously inebriated (Mom’s word) and a couple of them offered to carry our suitcases. We hung on tight when they tried to take them. They were shouting they could show us the best hotel in town but pointing in different directions where there were no more streetlights. Suddenly I could feel how afraid my parents were. Dad thanked them politely for their concern and we walked away slowly, seemingly unafraid. Behind us they hooted and made catcalls.
Mom and Dad agreed it was time to get off the streets at any cost. We walked back to the hotel Dad had seen and got one room with one double bed. It was 4 a.m. by then. All three of us piled onto the bed and tried to sleep. That wasn’t easy since all three of us were large. (You know I’m already five and a half feet tall.)
Dad gave up about 6:30 a.m. and left Mom and me to spread out and really sleep without fear of falling off the bed. Dad returned about three hours later. He’d found some places he wanted to see in town, so we ate breakfast at a Chinese restaurant, then walked down toward the wharf.
On the way, we noticed a group of young artists drawing and painting the view. There I caught my first good look at the wild barrier islands that help protect these coastal towns and waters. A few days later, I would bless those islands for their protection.
Did you know?
Prince Rupert is a port town on the western edge of Canada. The town was incorporated in March 1910. It was and is the western terminus of the Canadian railroad system, the last location to the coastal north that is able to receive railroad shipments from the other side of the coastal mountains.
Charles Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway, had many progressive ideas for Prince Rupert, including berthing facilities for large passenger ships and the development of a major tourism industry. These plans fell through when Hays died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
Having been promised a highway connection by the government, the city grew over the next several decades. U.S. troops completed the road between Prince Rupert and the inland town of Terrace during World War II so thousands of Allied troops could be moved through the Aleutian Islands and on to the Pacific theater. The U.S. Coast Guard still maintains a base in nearby Ketchikan, Alaska.
After World War II, the fishing industry became the city’s major industry. Prince Rupert was considered the halibut capital of the world until the early 1980s.
The Canadian National Railway connects with Terrace and makes transportation available to Prince Rupert, St. George and Vancouver as well as Jasper National Park.
Chapter 5: A fishy place to visit
Meg’s letters to her friend, Betty, continued.
Thursday: Prince Rupert, British Columbia, is built on a narrow strip of land at sea level and up a steep hillside. Most of the homes include beautifully terraced gardens. As Dad, Mom and I strolled along late this morning, Mom pointed out that the gardens contained springtime flowers although it was August.
As we continued along the wharf, Dad noticed a fishery operation. Then we passed a man who smelled like he was working in a fishery. Dad asked questions and in response, the man asked if we’d like to see the operation. Of course, my parents said yes. Inside were several women wearing rubber coveralls, splitting and gutting piles of fish efficiently. It wasn’t a pretty sight, seeing piles of fish guts all around. The place didn’t smell very good, either.
The man told us that the factory had three shifts and was open 24 hours a day. He explained the fish in this catch were salmon. He also showed us how the split and cleaned fish were set in carts and further down the line how workers salted them or packed them in ice and loaded them into refrigerated units for shipping.
When we went outside, we could see even more fish being unloaded from fishing boats using big hoists. They were sorted into size and kind to bring into the fishery. One worker slipped and fell into the slippery pile of fish. He righted himself and went on working. Our unofficial guide pointed out a cannery and suggested we visit, but we decided we’d seen enough dead fish in one day.
Further along, someone was hosing out one of the fishing boats. Then someone else from the fishery threw a load of guts into the water and the gulls swarmed in eagerly. Bobbing around in the water, the jellyfish seemed happy, too. Mom pointed out how their scallop-shaped tails propelled them along the wharf.
Did I tell you, Betty, it’s cool during the day up here even in August? It’s because of the ocean currents.
We stopped at a museum on the way back and saw Indian ornaments decorated in silver and shells, wood carvings and painted pictures, along with some hunting boats, harpoons, furs and stuffed animals.
Continuing our walk, we realized there were no buses and not many cars in this town. We did see a pitched battle between some young boys playing cowboys and Indians. Pow, pow, pow their pop-guns went off. The Indians were sneaking up and the cowboys were defending the roof of a trading post. We didn’t see any blood and no one else was running away, so we watched the show for a while.
Back at our room in the hotel, someone on staff had brought in a rollaway bed for me. That was a relief for all of us.
After lunch and a nap, we walked back to the wharf. This time a boat was bringing in a load of halibut. We ambled down to the place where our “Queen of the North” would be docking the following morning. We waited around for the arrival of the Coquitlam, a ferry boat that runs between Vancouver and Skagway. It came in right on time. Mom noted that the ships seem to keep schedules better than the trains in Canada.
A U.S. Navy destroyer had also docked and sailors were swarming around the decks. We walked to the gangplank and Dad started asking questions of the officer. He invited us to come aboard and assigned a sailor from Texas to give us a tour. We went up stairs and down ladders and all over the ship except for the radar station, that we were told was off-limits. Tex showed us their four-inch guns and five-inch guns and where they ate and slept. My parents asked lots of question. He gave polite explanations.
Then we watched as workers loaded passengers and several cars onto the Coquitlam ferry and the boat took off headed north.
By then it was after 6 p.m. It started to drizzle, so we headed quickly back to the hotel. After supper, Dad wanted to explore some more. We didn’t. He went out. We could hear the rain pounding down on the windows. He returned quickly. Bedtime came early that night. I can’t help wondering: Why is he pushing himself so hard?
Did you know?
More reliable that either roads or the rail line in the Pacific Northwest in earlier years were the many steamships and ferries that plied the waters of the Inside Passage and Queen Charlotte Sound. One ship, the Princess Norah, was built in 1929 in Scotland. It was 250 feet long, with a beam of 48 feet and 23-foot depth of hold. It was designed for service to the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. It operated in British Columbia and southeastern Alaska from 1929 until 1954.
During World War II, the Norah and the other ships working the west coast fleet were painted grey as camouflage, making them look like auxiliary naval ships.
In 1955, having changed owners, the Norah was renamed the Queen of the North. Under this name, the ship was operated on the Inside Passage as a joint venture with the Canadian National Railway. It continued operating as both a passenger ship and a freighter under that name until 1958.
In 1958, the ship was transferred to the Northland Shipping Company and renamed the Canadian Prince.
The Panhandle of Alaska is the narrow strip of land that points the closest to the rest of the U.S. The Inside Passage is the ocean area that runs between the mountainous mainland and equally high mountains on barrier islands. Russian fishermen had begun colonizing this long strip of coastal waters by the 1600s. Eventually they moved inland into upper Alaska, but on the lower panhandle they were held near the coast by rugged mountains.
Spanish seafarers and later people from the U.S. vied with the indigenous people for land. Following the purchase of Alaska shortly after the Civil War in 1867, the entire area became a territory of the U.S.
Chapter 6: Cruising to Territorial Alaska
Meg’s letters to her friend, Betty, continued.
Friday: By morning in Prince Rupert, the clouds had lifted and the sun began shining brightly. At breakfast, the waitress told us we were lucky that we had encountered such nice weather most of the day yesterday; it rains here a lot and had done so steadily for the two previous weeks. She told us our steamship, the Queen of the North, does triple duty, carrying passengers, autos and cargo.
Our tickets said we could board at 10 a.m. The crew let us on promptly and a steward showed us to our stateroom, a small, windowless space. It did have something we wanted; room to sleep. We had two bunkbeds and a couch.
We stowed our luggage and climbed to the top deck. There, we watched as a crane hauled up the last of four cars and set them gently on a deck. It then began loading all kinds of crates and boxes. We were not too sure what the cars were for, since we’ve been told that further north most roads ended where the high mountains began. Those towns rely solely on boats or airplanes to bring in supplies.
Promptly at noon, a chime rang and someone announced in a decidedly British accent that luncheon would be served in half an hour. We were seated at a table for four. A crisply dressed waiter (my mother couldn’t decide if his accent was Chinese or cockney) handed us a menu that included a choice of meat dishes, potatoes, salad and dessert.
After lunch, in the bright sunshine, we enjoyed the sights of the Inside Passage. Heading north, the tightly-packed islands to our left were as steep as the coastal mountains to our right. Sometimes we spotted an Indian village. We also saw two lighthouses and many waterfalls fed by melting snow. A whale dove down near our ship and shook his tail at us.
My parents soon were enjoying talking with the other passengers. They told Dad that some Alaskans want to join the United States as a state instead of just being a territory. He wonders if that will happen.
Several of the teachers were heading back to Alaska after a teacher’s meeting in Vancouver. Some first-year teachers were young and anxious for adventure, but they were also worried about the high cost of living in Alaska and the difficulty in getting fresh fruit and vegetables.
Late Friday afternoon, we pulled in at Ketchikan, Alaska. The mountains are really high around the town. Far above it you see miles of deep woods and then exposed cliffs that cut off access to the other side of the mountains by vehicles.
Since we were entering U.S. territory when we got off the ship, we had to pass through an American immigration officer again. That left us only three hours to sightsee.
At the dock, someone told us the salmon were running in the local stream, so we rushed down to see the action. Betty, I’d never seen so many fish together in my life, all flapping, leaping and trying to swim upstream. Both banks were lined with fishermen. Some were even catching fish by hooking their tails. A very cool local bear ignored the crowd and waded in for his share. A few sightseers scooted over reluctantly to let the bear through. Children were buzzing around laughing and playing. We were hypnotized by what was probably an annual event for the locals and watched for a long time.
As dark fell, around 11 p.m., we walked back to the dock. We could hear the sad notes of a song as we approached. Dad asked why and found that parents were singing to their children as they were boarding boats to Canada or the United States to go to school. Their parents wouldn’t see them again for months. My father found that upsetting. Why don’t they have a good high school here, he wondered. Someone in the crowd agreed and insisted it was the worst place in the world to bring up children.
Back on our ship, we stayed on deck and watched the fading lights of Ketchikan, with its rows of canneries and steep-sided hills with houses clinging to them. Then we turned south. The darkening sea was as smooth as water on the Mississippi, Mom noted. She had brought seasick pills but so far, we have not needed them.
Did you know?
Ketchikan is located on Alaska’s southern tip. Downtown Ketchikan is a National Historic District. In 1956, the population in the Ketchikan area was about 16,000, about twice the population of Prince Rupert.
With a declining population in 2010 of 8,050, it is still the fifth-most populous city in the state, and 10-most populous community. The adjoining region shows a population of 13,477.
The state capital, Juneau, is also located on the Alaskan Panhandle. Alaska’s Marine Highway provides a vital surface transportation link throughout the area.
Ketchikan is named after Ketchikan Creek, which flows through the town and is a popular place to fish for salmon.
At the time of the salmon run, fishing becomes a major sport for humans but also for bears and eagles.
Salmon spend their early lives in rivers, then swim out to sea where they live their adult lives and gain most of their body mass. When they have matured, they return to the rivers to spawn.
In the Pacific Northwest, the impact of the salmon runs on the environment is greater than would be expected. Significant nutrients in their carcasses, rich in nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, are transferred from the ocean to wildlife such as bears. Woodlands next to the rivers are enriched by bears who enjoy their salmon dinners in the privacy of the woods .This affects not only the next generation of salmon, but every species living in the areas that the salmon reach. The nutrients can also be washed downstream into estuaries, where they accumulate and provide support for breeding birds.
Chapter 7: Canadian cowboys
Meg wrote her friend, Betty, the next day.
Saturday: The breakfast chimes woke us the next morning. We piled into clean clothes (Mom had washed them the day before) and headed out. Just after we finished eating, we pulled back into Prince Rupert. Outside the harbor, we saw seals resting on a buoy and an eagle perched on top, scouting out his breakfast.
We had a long layover while the ship was loaded with more cargo, so we walked the docks and saw a Canadian Navy gunboat. No one invited us aboard the Canadian vessel.
We cast off again at 11 a.m. Not long afterward, the lunch chimes rang, giving us half an hour to prepare. A German girl named Heidi joined us. She is very quiet and shy.
The food they served tasted really good, although the choices were limited. The waiter was friendly and answered questions or pointed out interesting sights as we cruised. We weren’t sure what to order at first, but we always had the same waiter and began trusting his judgment when he recommended a dish, even when the names of the dishes sounded funny.
I ordered stewed prunes one morning, Betty. They tasted strange, so I asked our friendly waiter. Seems they prepared them with flaming rum. Mother was not pleased.
By now we were getting used to the routine of the food. Salads always had lettuce and tomatoes and nothing else. The vegetables were mainly cabbage and cauliflower. We guessed it was because they stayed fresh for a long time. We had potatoes every meal. The fish was excellent, very fresh. We always had choices of delicious desserts.
Soon we went through the Narrows. Dad thought they might look like the Norwegian fjords and the next day he found a Norwegian fellow traveler who said it was true, only the mountains around the fjords are taller.
It was comfortably warm on deck by early afternoon on Saturday. We strolled around as though we had not a care in the world. No train to catch, no schedule to keep.
We didn’t have a bathroom in our stateroom, Betty. There were communal ones off our hall. And if someone wanted a bath, they had to reserve one of several small room with a bathtub and a lock on the door. Mom and I were enjoying a bath each day. A steward would unlock the door and give us a towel. The tubs were about 6 feet long with plenty of room to stretch out and lots of hot water.
By the time we had finished bathing and dressing, we had reached Kitimat. We joined Dad out on deck to see if we could spot the aluminum plant. Until two years before, the town had been a quiet Indian mission village of about 500 people. Then the Aluminum Company of Canada built a mill and now there are about 10,000 people living there. Eight out of 10 are men. They expect about 50,000 people to be working at the plant by next year.
A large number of people came out to watch our ship come in. As they gawked at us, we gawked back at them. Mom noted that these rough-looking men had some of the most fantastic beards she’d ever seen – long ones, short ones, pointed ones, thick ones, thin ones. Not much chance to be creative with the way they dressed, so we figured they expressed themselves with their facial hair. We searched the crowd for the familiar faces of some of our train mates who had stopped there to seek jobs, but didn’t see any.
While the ship took on a few new passengers and a great deal of new cargo, we were entertained by more rugged-looking men zipping past in speedboats.
“In this country, the cowboys ride speedboats instead of horses,” Mom noted. “They scoot over the waves like they are practically flying.”
We could hear the tails of the boats bump and slap up and down as they sped by us.
“It seems like those boats are bumpier than a Bronco, Meg,” Mom said. “I’m glad it’s their seats, not mine, that are getting bounced.”
When the ship left the dock, it was finally getting dark. They say it gets light again about 3 a.m., Betty, but we don’t have a window in our cabin so I guess we’ll have to just believe them.
Did you know?
Unlike the Inside Passage, Queen Charlotte Sound is open to frequent violent storms with waves crashing in unimpeded from the Pacific Ocean. In stormy conditions, the sound can be a real challenge to passengers and crews of smaller boats and ships.
During a boat excursion up the Goletas Channel in 1786, the leader of an early fur trading expedition saw an opening ahead and named it Queen Charlotte Sound in honor of the wife of King George III of England.
Storms are not the only danger. Earthquakes have also been experienced in the area.
Chapter 8: This ship is rocking
Meg wrote her friend, Betty, again on Sunday:
We got up early the following morning and went ashore at the town of Ocean Falls. British Columbia. It was foggy and the air was very chilling. We wore our coats and Mom and I wore a scarf. A steward told us that Ocean Falls gets more than 150 inches of rain a year.
Ocean Falls is yet another picturesque factory town, built up on another steep hill. This time the factory is a pulp mill owned by the Crown-Zellerbach paper company. Because of the milling process, the air smells different, overwhelmingly like damp wood, not exactly bad but not good either.
We only counted six cars as we wandered around town. The downtown streets had been paved, but uphill they are made of wood planks about a foot wide each. The homes are neat and well-painted. Mom noticed that most porches have places to hang laundry. Someone told us that is because it rains here most of the time and it usually takes a couple of days to dry clothes. We walked past a hotel, school, hospital and three churches. Mom wanted to go to church, but Dad said no. He was worried that church wouldn’t get over until after our boat left.
As we returned to our ship, our crew was loading huge rolls of craft paper and stowing them in the hold. We could see some Canadian naval boats anchored in the harbor and while we watched, their officers turned the sailors loose to go into town. Since nothing much was open on a Sunday morning, a few sailors started wandering back toward the dock, disappointment on their faces.
Following behind them were dozens of children; boys, girls, toddlers; some on foot, others on bicycles, in wagons, with their dogs, all trailing the sailors. I suppose the strangers were the most exciting entertainment around for the kids.
As the sailors reboarded their ships, the children would walk back and attach themselves to the next returning group.
By the time we left port, we had quite a few new passengers. The steward informed us that we would be eating in two shifts for each meal from now on, so to be sure to arrive promptly at the designated time. We began eating lunch as the boat left the docks. Afterward we went up on the main deck again. To no one’s surprise, it was becoming foggy.
People had been telling us all along that the ride through Queen Charlotte Sound would be difficult. There were no barrier islands, so the force of the entire Pacific Ocean funneled in toward the shore there. As we arrived, the water became choppy.
Mom didn’t believe me but I was already feeling queasy. She kept telling me I had eaten too much lunch. She made me walk around the deck six times while I struggled to hold on to my lunch. Finally, I was allowed to go back to our room.
She insisted on feeding us Dramamine but all that did was make me sleepier. Dad refused the pills but soon joined me in slumber. We both missed supper. Mom enjoyed her orange fritters and curried chicken with chutney in a nearly empty dining room. Heidi hadn’t come to supper and neither had a lot of other guests; she told us that the following day, when we could once again stand the thought of food.
Mom went back up on the top deck to watch the waves for a while, then wrote postcards to friends in a glassed-in room up there, while we continued sleeping. She would have made a great sailor.
Around 10 p.m. she noticed the barrier islands beginning to appear and once we got behind them, travelers began stirring around. Mom came back and talked Dad into seeing a movie with her. I insisted I was down for the night. Half an hour later, I woke up feeling normal. It was like magic.
After the movie, Mom and Dad went to the dining room for some “night lunch” that consisted of sandwich fixings and brought me back a sandwich. Our last stop in Canada would be at Vancouver the next day. I was happy to think of getting off the ship and back to the more predictable rail lines for the rest of our journey.
Did you know?
Much has changed along coastal Alaska since 1956. At the time, Ocean Falls was thriving. In 1912, a dam was built and with the hydro power, a sawmill was built along with a hospital and school. Soon the Ocean Falls Pulp and Paper Mill was built. It grew into the largest one of its kind in British Columbia. The mill produced mechanical, sulfite and sulphate pulp processed on two newsprint machines, two kraft paper machines and one tissue machine. Much of the electrical power for the mill and town was produced by four hydro turbines.
Ocean Falls’ population numbered 250 in 1912 and grew to 3,500 by 1950. By 1970, the number of inhabitants had dropped to 1,500. By 1990, only about 70 people, mostly loggers, remained.
Low labor costs, inexpensive hydro power and low infrastructure costs had made the Ocean Falls mill profitable. As time passed, the remote location, rising labor costs and the high cost of operating a town discouraged further investment. By the early 1970s, the facility was deemed inefficient and uneconomical. The mill closed in March 1973. The provincial government bought the town and mill at a minimal cost and kept the mill operating until 1980.
Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia, grew from a makeshift tavern for millworkers called Gastown. With the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the town was renamed Vancouver and incorporated in 1886. The following year the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railway was extended westward to the city to take advantage of its large natural seaport. It soon became an important link in a trade route between the Orient, eastern Asia, eastern Canada and Europe.
Port Metro Vancouver is the third-largest port in the Americas, displacing New York City, and is considered to be the most diversified port in North America. While timbering remains Vancouver’s largest industry, tourism is very important to its economy. Major film production studios in the Vancouver area have given the town the nickname, “Hollywood North.”
Chapter 9: A decision is made
Meg’s latest letter to her friend, Betty, was dated Monday, Aug. 27:
Happy birthday, Betty! Save some cake for me. We will soon get to Vancouver. Although we’ll be gone until Sept. 3, I’m going to mail this letter to you before we get on another train heading south.
We got up early this morning. Took a bath and packed our clothes. Ate breakfast. By this morning, Heidi had gotten over her shyness. She told us about living in Winnipeg and working at a government office.
She loves to take photos. She said she had already taken about eight rolls of pictures, so that’s nearly 100. One reason we didn’t bring our old Brownie camera is that it costs so much to get film developed. We may live to be sorry about that choice.
We went up on deck for our last looks at Canada. We sat on the open deck, watched the porpoises play and marveled at the mountains through our binoculars for one last time.
A fellow passenger told my parents that President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon have been nominated to run for a second term. My parents were surprised by how much interest travelers from Canada were showing about U.S. politics during our trip.
Seems we are close to civilization now. All along the coast, we have seen vast forests. Just now, Dad pointed out a Greyhound bus on a long paved road. Then we passed a ferry boat headed north. It was so big that Dad thought at first it was an ocean liner. Someone corrected him and said it could carry hundreds of cars at a time.
We began to see the edge of Vancouver about 1:30 p.m. It seems like a rather sleepy town. The port, on the other hand, is very busy with tugboats and steamers lined up or chugging here and there.
After our ship docked, we found our way back to the Great Northern train station by cab. We could see more painted homes and well-kept gardens along the way. We’ve also seen many Oriental-looking people. Dad reminded me that Japan, China and Russia are on the next closest parts of the Pacific Ocean.
I’m going to mail this letter before we go through U.S. Customs one last time and take off through Washington and Oregon and down the Pacific Coast by train to San Francisco.
I’m still a little worried about Dad, Betty. He hasn’t been as energetic the last few days and has rested more. Last year when we took a long trip, he got really sick with a cold before the end. This year, he didn’t get a cold but he just isn’t acting like Dad. I think Mom sees it too but she would never complain. I hope he’s just catching up from being seasick.
Did I tell you that at home we each packed two suitcases, one for up north with sweaters and light coats? Our second suitcases were shipped to San Francisco so we can have summer clothes for the second half of the trip, when we will visit relatives in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Kansas. When we get to California, we will ship our cold weather suitcases back home.
You’ll be happy to hear this, Betty. On the way to Vancouver, Dad and Mom both decided that since most transportation to Alaska involved ships and the ocean and seasickness, Dad shouldn’t think about living in Alaska, no matter how much he’d like to see more schools built there. I agree. So now I can relax and enjoy visiting our relatives, knowing that while Dad and Mom get back to work, I have two more whole days to rest up before school starts on my 13th birthday. I’ve looked forward to being a teenager since I was 8. Maybe the following Saturday you and I can have a slumber party and celebrate my entry into the teen years and your belated 14th birthday. We can also catch up on what you’ve been doing while I’ve been gone and you can hear all about the rest of our travels.
This trip had indeed been “a trip of a lifetime.” After we left the ship, we rode the train along the picturesque Columbia River in Oregon and then followed the Hwy. 101 coast to San Francisco, where we spent some time with Dad’s brother’s family. He and his brother had a great visit, the first in many years. Then we visited in Los Angeles with Mom’s brother’s family and went to Disneyland. We continued on through the desert southwest to Phoenix, where we visited Dad’s niece and her family and learned you could get a house with three bedrooms, two whole baths and a swimming pool for $11,000. My parents thought about moving there at the time. Last we stopped in Kansas and visited a cousin of Dad’s.
A short time later, my father died suddenly from a stroke. He was in his late 40s. Many times over the years, my mother would say: “I’m so glad we made that trip together. It nearly busted us financially but although your father lived a short life, he was able to live a full one. That’s a comfort to me now.”
It’s a comfort to me as well.