Nadia White is all set to depart Coupeville, Washington in late May at the start of her journey to trace the route of her great grandmother Josephine. She paddled all the way to Juneau, before joining her parents on the ferry to Skagway. Nadia White
Up the Inside Passage with Josie to meet The Stroller
By NADIA WHITE
Special to 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 great-grandfather, arrived in Juneau in time to join me on the ferry to the finish line.
To history buffs, The Stroller’s name has some cachet. The shoulders of Mount Stroller White square off above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. He spent years chronicling the rise and fall of the towns and personalities along the way to the Klondike gold fields in various newspapers, served as speaker of the House in the Territorial Legislature, and pontificated about local politics for decades.
A fair amount is known about The Stroller. Less is known about his wife, Josephine Keys White. My project, which I call “Travels With Josie,” aims to rectify that by following in her spirit, if not her actual route, to Dawson and the goldfields.
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.
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 for the Klondike.
“We didn’t go for the gold so much as we went for the adventure of it,” Josie wrote years later.
I followed for much the same reason. I imagined a three-part modern 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 dry Cimarron Valley in 1891 to visit her sister in Sumner, Wash., near Tacoma. She got a job setting type at her brother in law’s newspaper, and ended up marrying the editor. He was an even-tempered man, 13 years her senior with an interest in politics, 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. Interstate highways fill that route now. I chose 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.
Sea lions jump off a haul-out rock near Texada, B.C., in June, and a lightning-scared old cedar makes a dry storage space for gear along Clarence Strait, north of Ketchikan, in July. Nadia White
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 and stirred by far-reaching rivers. 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.
I 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 long before in Desolation Sound 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 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 to mind my manners and not inhale the entire larder. Deb was up to that challenge, however, 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 as long as I could stand 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 from Alberta on a sailboat. I had met them weeks earlier in British Columbia. I took the tow and friendship and avoided playing peek-a-boo with commercial ships.
My trip coincided with one of the rainiest springs on record. 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 supported a cannery into the 1970s, but anything that could be construed as a marina with services had long since surrendered to moss. Now it is an Alaska marine park with a dock. I arrived late in the afternoon and 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 Tlingits 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 a day longer than intended. We talked and laughed and shared meals. I left at daybreak the third morning to hedge against the wind. They sent me off with an invitation to stay with them in Juneau, where they would me to the Alaska capital’s summertime circle of plenty – crab, salmon, berries and barbecues kept life lively.
Linda, Nadia and Stroller Tod White gather in front of the News building in Skagway, where the original Stroller began his northern newspaper career. His wife Josie followed, and now Nadia. Jeff Brady
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 Rainier ruled the skyline. The Skagway News was bustling but the editor broke away to give a personal tour of off-Broadway 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 in time.
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, I could only say, “You bet!”
Like her great grandparents, Nadia White worked for newspapers for many years, and is now a professor of journalism at the University of Montana. Her complete trip blog can be found at travelswithjosie.com.