Friday, March 20, 2020

Fieldwork the old way--Harry Swarth's journey to British Columbia

Harry Swarth (center), circa 1915

My husband Chris Swarth is putting together a book about his grandfather Harry S. Swarth, a prominent ornithologist in the early 1900s. Harry was a young man, engaged to be married, when he made a several month trip to Vancouver Island, British Columbia in 1910. Below are some of the adventures that he wrote in a set of letters to Winnie Wood, his fiance in Pasadena, California.

Chris's first book on his grandfather's trip to Arizona from LA as a teenager can be found on Amazon:

Imagine eating Great Blue Heron stew with beans!

Golden Eagle Mine, Jul 18, 1910

Harry Swarth wrote to his fiancé Winnie Wood:

“One of the main things we were after were ground hogs, and tho there were some in the basins the best place for them was on Douglas Mountain-quite a long ways off. I’ll tell you some of our doings. July 5th was a very strenuous day, tho with small results. Despard [Harry's Canadian field assistant] and I left early in the morning, he with the rifle and myself with the shotgun and the camera. First four miles down the road to the King Solomon trail, and then four miles up that trail to the basin. We reached there about 10:30 and made a fire and had lunch. Then we started on the hard part of the trip, as planned to go straight across the divide between the two canyons, not very far in miles, but a terror to climb. You have been over the trail between Strawberry Valley and Tahquitz [In the San Jacinto Mountains in California], and you can imagine what the steep part would be like if there was no trail, and it was grown up thickly with underbrush—salmon berry bushes and devil’s club. However we had only gone a short distance, had not begun to climb, when on rounding a clump of bushes we saw a bear crossing the meadow ahead of us. I grabbed the dog, and we both crouched down, and when Despard had a chance he fired twice. Mr. Bear got into the timber tho, and altho we followed him a mile or so we had to give it up. Then we turned straight up the mountain and put in about as hard a two hours as you can imagine…We started down our side of the hill at 4 P.M. and it was worse than the climb up, a continuous scramble, slide, roll and tumble. About two thirds of the way down we struck a steep snow slide, nearly half a mile long, and that was easy as we could go about ten feet to a stride. And so we got back to camp again with sore muscles but no broken bones.”
Douglas Mountain area, Alberni, British Columbia

On a second trip a few days later:

“The two nights we spent on the mountain were not very comfortable. We made a shelter of branches and kept a good fire going all night, and so managed to get a little sleep. There are deep snow banks all along the ridge, and the second night the little ponds froze clear across. On the morning of the third day we got an early start, and with heavier packs then we had coming up, managed to flounder down the mountain side, reaching the bottom at 8:30. Despard’s dog does not like the steep places at all, and it was funny to see the worried, anxious look on his face all the way down. I fell at one place and slid thirty or forty feet before I could stop myself and the dog refused to try it, but went around the other way. When we reached King Solomon’s Basin we went long quietly and carefully, on the chance of another bear, and sure enough as we were crossing the edge of a snow slide we saw the grass and weeds to one side agitated by something moving along. The vegetation was rank, and over waist high so nothing could be seen, but we stood still behind a bit of brush and in a moment a big black head was poked up out of the grass, sniffing about, trying to get our wind. It was only about thirty yards away, and we were afraid he might bolt any minute, so Despard fired and the head disappeared. Everything was still in the grass, so after a moment we sent the dog in to investigate, and then cautiously followed. The bullet had broken his neck however, and he fell dead in his tracks. This was a fine specimen, on old male in beautiful pelage, and right there ended our plan of getting back to camp early. “

Nootka Sound was, and still is remote!

On the next leg of the trip:

Fairweather Cove, Nootka Sound, July 24, 1910

“Dear Winnie,

            Well here we are at the end of the world; the consolation is that this is our farthest point; and when we leave here we begin to work southward. It took us two days to get here from Alberni, on the steamer, “Tees”, an awfully long trip for the distance. We landed here last night about 7. There is only one white man here, the storekeeper, and he took us in, fed us, and put us up for the night. There is no wharf here, and we had to climb down the “Jacobs Ladder": over the side of the ship, to the storekeeper’s canoe.”

“I’m going to tell you something now, that you must keep to yourself for a time, anyway for I would never hear the end of it, tho it is too good to keep. I missed the boat for Nootka! Got down to the wharf at Port Alberni in time to see the steamer out in the channel some forty or fifty yards away, with Despard and the outfit on board! The captain was on the bridge and I yelled to him; he shouted back for me to get a boat and he would wait for me, but there was no boat to be had. Finally he came back to the wharf and I scrambled aboard. How’s that for luck!”

Harry worked in British Columbia for 25 years

When he returned south to Alberni, B.C. on August 14, 1910, he wrote to Winnie:

“This proved a pretty poor collecting ground. At every other camp we have been at least able to get deer to eat, but here there was no game at all. All of my spare time was put in in keeping the bean pot boiling, and we made stew of Great Blue Herons and Mergansers, as you can see to what we were reduced. It's a fright of a country to travel in, the underbrush making the woods nearly impassible…After about ten days of strenuous effort with small results we decided to pull out…We had to get ourselves and outfit in two small boats, and they were pretty well loaded. The next morning we started about 2 a.m. leaving early to avoid the wind that blew up the canal every day. It’s lots of fun to get up in the dark and start on a twenty five mile trip in a cranky little boat, with gnats in swarms about your head. There were two of us in each boat, with about half the stuff. We rowed for about two hours, when a light breeze came up, and we put up the sail and went along with less labor…The breeze dried out, and then suddenly it started to blow against us, getting rougher all the time. We could not make any headway against the wind and the sea became unpleasantly rough, and as there was four miles of open water ahead that we had to cross we decided to run to shelter…We had to stay where we were until 5 P.M., when the wind died down sufficiently to enable us to proceed. We had a pot of beans with us and some pilot bread [hard tack, a type of simple biscuit], so we warmed up the beans and ate them with clam shells, as we had no spoons. We reached our destination at 6:30, and I was pretty well tired out as I am not used to rowing, and paddling is worse.”

As he headed further south, he wrote:

“We had an enjoyable time loading our stuff from the canoe on to the “Tees”, and one box of grub went overboard. That “Tees” is the most happy go lucky, irresponsible sort of a boat that I ever saw. I had a hard time getting our baggage ashore at Alberni at all, and had to dig it out of the hold myself, and then my dunnage bag was left on board and carried on to Victoria; so here I am with no clothes except what I am wearing, waiting for the boat to return. I was never on a trip on which so many different kinds of things happened to me, and I’m getting nervous, wondering what next!”

Monday, March 16, 2020

The complete memoir!

Marilyn and Chris at informal wedding reception, Tilden Park, Oakland, CA 1986

I’ve assembled a full, complete copy of my memoir for general reading by anyone with this link. The memoir is an edited copy of the 131 blogs that I’ve been posting since August 2019. I’ve edited, re-edited, and compiled them. For this draft Version 7.2 I’ve included a limited set of photos—no more than one or two per chapter.

Since we’re now on virtual lock down in California, perhaps the memoir will be a distraction.

I still am nowhere near finding an agent or a publisher. University presses want only science—nothing personal. For presses that publish memoirs, I think this book is too “sciencey” and not enough just personal tragedy. But I’m continuing to look for something more formal than just via FB and other friends.

Feel free to comment directly to me at

And good luck with the social distancing…

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...