Looking for Ed Ricketts on the Hood Canal

Posted 9/25/18

Berkeley-born historian Michael Hemp is on a Pacific Northwest quest.

The quest, should he complete it, will connect Hoodsport and the entire Hood Canal area to a vital ecological and literary …

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Looking for Ed Ricketts on the Hood Canal


Berkeley-born historian Michael Hemp is on a Pacific Northwest quest.

The quest, should he complete it, will connect Hoodsport and the entire Hood Canal area to a vital ecological and literary moment in history.

It all began with a photo of Ed Ricketts, a pioneer in modern ecological study, leaning over a bed of seaweed in front of a familiar sight: Port Townsend's lighthouse, at Fort Worden.

"I thought, 'Has anybody got any idea where Ed was up there?'" Hemp said. "There's a whole story out here that nobody has jumped on yet."

The story, should Hemp uncover it, would tie in the Pacific Northwest with the relationship between Ricketts' studies, his friendship with author John Steinbeck, and with their journey to the Sea of Cortez.

Hemp, who has spent 40 years studying Ricketts and Steinbeck, created the nonprofit Cannery Row Foundation in 1983 to research the history of Cannery Row, in Monterey, California, where Steinbeck gathered much of his material for his books. Cannery Row was also the site where Ricketts, who was the basis for several of Steinbeck's characters, lived, studied and later died, when his car was hit by a train.

After publishing the book, "Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck's Old Ocean View Avenue," Hemp has since focused his efforts on the Pacific Northwest, where Ricketts supposedly spent many summers making ecological discoveries in the 1930s. Leaving Monterey behind, Hemp moved up to Gig Harbor to search for clues of Ricketts on the Peninsula.

He will discuss his new research at 2 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Mason County Historical Society Museum, during his talk, "New Horizons for Pacific Northwest History - Hood Canal's New Role in Ecology."

"It's got a gravitational pull to it," Hemp said of his new research. "It's exciting, it's challenging and it's very rewarding."

His main challenge is finding an incredibly specific location: the cabin in Hoodsport where Ricketts and his family would spend their summer, while Ricketts went out into the Hood Canal and the Puget Sound to study tides, animals, and their relationship to each other.

"The risk I'm taking is that I might never be able to find the right spot," Hemp said. "I've started my research at Hoodsport looking for the places where Ed and his family would have stayed in the 1930s. The original cabin is gone, but Nancy Ricketts, Ed's now 95-year-old daughter, is doing her best to help identify the location where it may have been."

Along with enlisting the help of Nancy Ricketts, Hemp is trying to reach out to community members for memories, photos and details of life along the Hood Canal during the 1930s.

"It's like being a detective," Hemp said. "Is there someone alive today who remembers the Hood Canal and where that cabin might have been?"

Besides discussing the history of Ricketts' studies along the Hood Canal at his event on Sept. 29, Hemp will also ask the audience members for their help.

"People who come to our programs have a history in Mason County, so they have something to contribute, whether it's a memory or something they can add to the story," said Kristin Fabry, director of the Mason County Historical Society.

In a twist of fate, or perhaps merely a coincidental relationship, the story gets even more interesting in Port Townsend.

At the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, the Western Flyer, the fishing boat that Steinbeck and Ricketts took down to the Sea of Cortez that prompted the co-authorship of their book, "Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research," is being restored.

According to Mark Stout of Scow Bay Boats, who began the restoration project before it was passed along to the Shipwrights Co-op, the boat was originally built in Tacoma in 1937 and was in pretty bad shape by the time it reached Port Townsend in 2015.

"Every inch was covered in barnacles," said Stout, who added that despite the condition, it was still worth restoring.

Since then, the Shipwrights Co-op has taken over restoration, and is working to make the boat a traveling "educational experience."

"We're still in the early stages of restoration," said Chris Chase, project manager and one of the head shipwrights at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op. "Most of the last two years has been building our community of support, which spreads from Alaska all the way down to Monterey."

Hemp sees a future for the boat and for the Peninsula, where all the dots are connected to tell a larger story, including Ricketts, Steinbeck, the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Northwest.

"There are only three or four photos of Ricketts working, and one of them is in Port Townsend, which is pretty incredible," Chase said. "It might be delving too much into the 'spiritual connection' of the Pacific Northwest, but the book was about connections, and Ed Ricketts was about connection, the connection of humans with animals, animals with each other. ... Maybe it's fateful that it ended up here."


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