The Book John Steinbeck Almost Wrote About the Pacific Northwest

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Steinbeck collaborator and marine biologist Ed Ricketts in a kelp bed at Port Townsend, 1930 (Image: Jack Calvin)

The marine biologist, philosopher, and pioneer ecologist Ed Ricketts is well-known to fans of John Steinbeck as the model for “Doc” in his novels Cannery Row and  Sweet Thursday, and he turns up in other guises in other works, including The Grapes of Wrath. He and Steinbeck were great friends in Monterey — some have called Ricketts his mentor — and they collaborated on Sea of Cortez, a marine survey and travel journal about their six-week voyage around Baja California in 1940.

Less well-known is that the two planned a second collaboration about the maritime Pacific Northwest, according to historian Michael Hemp, who described Ricketts’s travels in the fourth edition of his expanded history of Cannery Row. (Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean Avenue and Its Connections to the Pacific Northwest, Fifth Edition (2019) by Michael Kenneth Hemp.)“They wanted to do another book, doing the same thing they had done in Cortez, starting probably at Vancouver,” Hemp said in an interview. Together with Ricketts’ seminal Between Pacific Tides (1939), “it was going to be a trilogy that would complete the biological intertidal scientific data on the entire West Coast of the United States to Mexico and as far as Alaska, and they were going to call it The Outer Shores.

Hemp began collecting the oral histories of Cannery Row residents in 1983. “I interviewed over a thousand people. I could talk to somebody who was canning fish or fishing back in 1925 or ‘30. I delivered hundreds of lectures in Ed Ricketts’ lab. You can get a lot of information when you’re talking to somebody who actually knew him and is willing to talk. ”But in 2014, long after he’d published the first edition of his book, Hemp’s collaborator and photographer Pat Hathaway showed him a photo he’d found of Ed Ricketts kneeling in bull kelp at Point Wilson, Port Townsend, on July 25, 1930, during one of the extreme low tides that occur every 18.6 years due to a wobble in the moon’s orbit. (There was another one this year.)

“When I saw that photograph, I thought ‘Holy Moses, what is Ed Ricketts doing in Port Townsend?’” Hemp said. “I realized nobody knows this, except maybe marine biologists, and that’s important.” Hemp and his wife relocated to Gig Harbor in 2017 to trace Ricketts’ work on the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, and points north. “The guy who took that photograph is the most important unknown guy in Steinbeck-Ricketts history, and his name is Jack Calvin,” Hemp said. “Ricketts’ favorite place in the world after 1930 was the Pacific Northwest,” and Calvin would become his collaborator.

Ricketts was not a marine biologist per se; he’d attended a bit of college in Chicago after serving in the medical corps during World War I, but was largely self-taught. “He came out here (to Monterey) and started collecting specimens and opened a biological supply house (Pacific Biological Laboratories, now a museum),” Hemp recounted. “He sold rats and mice and frogs and rattlesnakes, and everything you could get out of the ocean, to collectors, schools, research centers. He had about 25,000 things you could buy.” In 1932, Calvin invited Ricketts to join him and a few others, including Joseph Campbell (yes, that Joseph Campbell) on his 33-foot launch for a cruise from Puget Sound to Alaska. (Calvin had already made the trip once by canoe, on his honeymoon.)

“And that trip changed Ed’s whole life,” Hemp said. “It was the first time he could reach specimens by boat. He found out that the topography and water conditions were so diverse they prompted the separate development of different species that he was familiar with in California and as far south as Mexico.” Ricketts would return to Washington almost annually for the rest of the decade. “His main destination was Hoodsport,” Hemp said. “He’d bring his family with him. I don’t know exactly why he stopped there. That just happened to have an artist’s colony and a number of good taverns. Maybe that was it – there wasn’t a whole lot else going on.” 

Ricketts collected along Hood Canal, the Strait of Juan de Fuca all the way to Neah Bay, and around Vancouver Island. He also explored locally, near Gig Harbor. “He’s hauling specimens from Comox (B.C.), all the way down to Port Townsend for that tide, and all the way down to Wollochet Bay (Gig Harbor),” Hemp said. “I have information but no confirmation yet that he was at Vaughn Bay (Key Peninsula).”Ricketts’ explorations led to the development of modern ecology, Hemp said.

“In the Sound, in bays, inlets — there were shores all over here he couldn’t find in California, it being a mostly straight coastline except where you get into San Francisco Bay and places like that. The same species grew differently up here in the Sound, in the bays and inlets; usually larger, more robustly, where there was no wave shock. He had to identify them because a lot of the scientists of the day didn’t know what he had pickled in his jars.”

Ricketts and Calvin collaborated on his findings in Between Pacific Tides. “He and Calvin were trying to get it published by Stanford,” Hemp said. “The director there took a dim view of Ed originally. He had no credentials and was doing some really unusual research that was contradictory to the established field procedures. Some people considered him almost a poacher because he was out there depleting the tide pools of specimens to sell. But that passed when they realized he was turning up new things on these trips.”

Between Pacific Tides was published in 1939. “That basically brought ecology to the world, describing the interconnection of different species,” Hemp said, “and became the definitive handbook for the study of the intertidal fauna of the Pacific Coast of the coterminous United States.” It remains one of the most successful books Stanford University Press ever published.

It was the strength of that book that led to Ricketts’ and Steinbeck’s voyaging together to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. Steinbeck chartered a sardine boat off-season out of Monterey, the 77-foot purse seiner Western Flyer. It was the only boat in the fleet that would have him. After publishing The Grapes of Wrath the year before, Steinbeck was viewed with suspicion by the community as a possible Communist. But the Flyer’s captain, Tony Berry, one of the few non-Sicilian sardine fishermen, was also an outsider and he proved sympathetic.

Built in Tacoma in 1937, the Western Flyer deserves her own book (and has at least one: see The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries by Kevin M. Bailey, 2015). She had a long career fishing the West Coast, changed names once, sank three times, and was rotting under a bridge in Anacortes when she was rescued by a very successful, if sentimental, marine geologist named John Gregg in 2015.

“John became interested in the marine sciences at about age 11 due to The Log from the Sea of Cortez and Between Pacific Tides,” Hemp said. “He didn’t know he was going to pay a million bucks for it — a boat that wouldn’t float — but John said at the time, ‘It was worthless, but it was priceless.’” The boat was restored in Port Townsend and refloated June 26. 

“I was at the Western Flyer, of course, at the relaunch,” Hemp said. “It’s going back to Monterey, its homeport, after visiting Puget Sound.” Gregg plans to operate the Flyer as a floating classroom, with educational programs developed by the Western Flyer Foundation, Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, and the Naval Postgraduate School.

In 1948, Ricketts and Steinbeck were preparing for a second trip together, this time up the Inside Passage to the Queen Charlotte Islands, for the book to complete Ricketts’ trilogy. They were a month away from departure when Ricketts was hit by a train near his lab in May, dying two days later.

Steinbeck later reissued Sea of Cortez as the better-known The Log from the Sea of Cortez, without the comprehensive species catalog but including an eloquent eulogy called “About Ed Ricketts.”

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Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer. Updated from his column, “Another Last Word,” Key Peninsula News, September 2019.

3 COMMENTS

  1. What a fascinating history and gratitude for that photo. While I wish the Western Flyer could still be in Port Townsend, I am glad to know that historic, gallant vessel is restored.

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