Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Hubbard in the wild

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Last week, I found myself in the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, where the cruise ship on which I was traveling with my wife and daughter called briefly into port. We were on shore for just a few hours—it was a short stop on a weeklong trip that also took us to Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park—but I was eager to look around, for reasons that probably hadn’t occurred to most of my fellow passengers. On August 30, 1940, L. Ron Hubbard and his first wife Polly wandered into the port of Ketchikan on their boat the Magician, the crankshaft of which was broken. It was an undignified end to a voyage that Hubbard had commenced with high hopes. He had planned to sail his little yacht, which he had bought with the proceeds from his novel Buckskin Brigades, up the West Coast to Alaska. The Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition was supposedly conceived with the aim of updating outdated navigational guides and testing new models of radio and camera gear, and he would be flying the flag of the Explorers Club, the exclusive New York society to which he had contrived to be elected earlier that year. It also gave him an excuse to fit out his boat, and he wrote letters to manufacturers, on a special letterhead, asking them to send him free equipment to test. After submitting a handful of stories to John W. Campbell and leaving his two small children behind with his aunt, he sailed out of Yukon Harbor with Polly in July. Almost at once, they ran into trouble. The engine died on the second day, when they were caught in a fog eighty miles from home, and it conked out again in Chatham Sound, off the coast of British Columbia. They just barely made it to Ketchikan, where they would be stranded for months.

On his arrival, Hubbard told the local paper that he had come to Alaska to win a wager—a friend, he said, had bet him that his boat wasn’t big enough to survive the trip—and to research a novel about salmon fishing. He didn’t have the money to fix the Magician, so he wrote letters instead to his friends, including Campbell, who gleefully informed the readers of Unknown that Hubbard had suffered “a slight case of shipwreck.” Hubbard mailed film and navigational notes to the Hydrographic Office in Washington D.C., and he pestered the Regal Company in Bremerton to send him a replacement crankshaft. He also befriended the owner of the town’s radio station, which I visited on my trip, becoming a regular presence on the air with stories about his travels. Among other things, he claimed that he had tracked down a German saboteur in Alaska, and he described an encounter with a swimming brown bear that he had lassoed from his boat with a noose. (The bear allegedly clawed its away on board, forcing Hubbard to flee into the cabin, where he managed to cut the rope. After the boat beached itself, the bear sniffed around, devouring all the salmon in the hold, and finally lumbered off. In Hubbard’s later retellings, it was transformed into a polar bear.) According to Russell Miller, author of the biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Hubbard also “reorganized the station and wrote new programming schedules with all the confidence of a man who had spent a lifetime in broadcasting.” He took every opportunity to mention his busted crankshaft, and when a new one arrived, he was convinced it was because his program had been heard in Bremerton. Once the boat was repaired, he and Polly left Ketchikan, leaving behind an unpaid loan to the Bank of Alaska, and finally returned to Washington on December 27. He hadn’t seen his children in nearly half a year.

The expedition hadn’t exactly been a success, but Hubbard, characteristically, spun it into the kind of colorful story that made him seem larger than life. (Campbell wrote in a letter: “Ron, I think, is in for some kidding when he comes east again.” And he was teased by his friends John Clark, Fletcher Pratt, and L. Sprague de Camp, who sang a satirical song in his honor, but it was the kind of affectionate ribbing that he enjoyed.) It’s usually seen as just another instance of Hubbard’s inflated notion of himself, but there’s a little more to it. Hubbard was only twenty-nine at the time, and he was far from the first or last person to be drawn to Alaska for what he thought it represented. Here’s what an electrician named Jim Gallien recalled of a young hitchhiker he once met outside of Fairbanks with similar dreams:

Gallien wondered whether he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.

“People from Outside,” reports Gallien in a slow, sonorous drawl, “they’ll pick up a copy of Alaska magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin’ ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.’ But when they get here and actually head out into the bush—well, it isn’t like the magazines make it out to be. The rivers are big and fast. The mosquitoes eat you alive. Most places, there aren’t a lot of animals to hunt. Livin’ in the bush isn’t no picnic.”

The hitchhiker, of course, was Christopher McCandless, whose life and death was memorably chronicled by Jon Krakauer in the book Into the Wild. Krakauer notes that McCandless was representative of a type that frequently turns up in Alaska, quoting a critical letter sent to Outside magazine by a schoolteacher living in a remote village on the Kobuk River:

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there’s quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they’re almost a collective cliché. The only difference is that McCandless ended up dead, with the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, although the two men differed in important respects. Most notably, Hubbard didn’t go alone: he left behind his children, but he brought his wife, to whom, by most accounts, he could be horribly abusive. (Polly’s thoughts on the trip have gone unrecorded.) Hubbard also survived to shamelessly embellish his adventure to his friends, and he went on to have a career that naturally inclines his critics to seek out unflattering readings of his earlier life. But there’s an equally legitimate interpretation that takes his wanderings—the trips to Guam and China with his parents, his stint as an amateur pilot, the “expeditions” to the Caribbean and Puerto Rico—and acknowledges their affinities to those of other restless but urgent seekers in their twenties. If we’re more likely to make fun of his failures than to admire his audacity, his own tall tales bear most of the blame. His exaggerations were rooted in truth, but in the long run, they had the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of impressing others, they trivialized and distorted what was a genuinely colorful youth, the only flaw of which was that it wasn’t romantic enough by the standards that Hubbard, and no one else, had set for himself.

One Response

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  1. One outfits a boat, not fits out a boat.

    galtz

    May 25, 2017 at 12:14 pm


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