There are three ways to get from Seattle to Alaska—by air, coastal steamer or highway. This summer Letitia Davis, 21, and Ginger Cox, 23, discovered a fourth: rowboat.
It’s a 1,150-mile trip which took 72 days—and for what? When the two stepped ashore in Skagway with calloused hands, they had accomplished what no other women had ever done. That was the challenge. “We would have kept trying even if it had taken us till Christmas,” vows Tish Davis.
The two young women were roommates and crewed together at Dartmouth until Ginger graduated in spring 1977. A few months later they began planning the odyssey. “We did research to find a boat that could handle the water,” says Tish. With help from their parents, they raised $6,000 to build and outfit the Vandrafalken (Wandering Falcon), modeled on a 1,000-year-old Norwegian design. Made of spruce and teak, it was 20 feet long, had a five-and-a-half-foot beam and was equipped with sliding seats that allowed the women to use leg muscles as well as their arms and backs. They sometimes rowed 14 hours a day.
Tish and Ginger pushed off from Lake Union in Seattle in late June and followed the Inside Passage first sailed by British explorer George Vancouver two centuries ago. Along the route bears outnumber humans, and sea lions and whales often swam alongside the boat. “Once we went through a pod of humpbacks all blowing and singing,” remembers Ginger. “We’d row for hours without saying hardly anything,” says Tish. “All I could hear were the birds, the water going by and the wind.” At night they went ashore to pitch a tent or, if the cliffs rose straight up from the water’s edge, they snuggled into sleeping bags on the boat. Meals consisted of grain, beans, lentils, dried fruit and granola, plus clams they dug and fish they managed to catch. Commercial boats gave them fish (sometimes canned salmon) and advice about the currents or weather that lay ahead. Once a passing seaplane landed to serve coffee and sandwiches.
Much of the trip was through protected waterways, but there were several stretches of open ocean. “We’d see fishing boats taking swells over the bow,” says Ginger, “but Vandrafalken lifted right up, light as a gull.” Conditions inside the boat were sometimes stormy too. “When we were tired we had our arguments,” Tish confesses, “but we always talked it out.”
The women reached Skagway nine days ahead of schedule, and more than half the town’s 854 inhabitants turned out to greet them. The mayor presented framed aerial photos of the town. Restaurants and hotels offered room and board and the local bus company free rides. Instead of settling in for a rest, the women immediately left on a three-day, 33-mile backpack up Chilkoot Pass, near the headwaters of the Yukon. “We almost ran,” notes Tish, “we were so psyched up to be on land again.”
She is now back in college, majoring in physics and astronomy and training as much as four hours a day for spring crew. She hopes for a spot on the 1980 Olympics team. Ginger, who graduated with a degree in wildlife biology (her specialty is peregrine falcons), is a $6-an-hour carpenter near her Issaquah, Wash. home. Both plan to return to Alaska “to explore Glacier Bay National Monument,” says Ginger, “or follow the gold miners’ route 2,000 miles down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea. By no means,” she insists, “is one trip enough.”