John and Jan Straley of Sitka presign books at the Pacific Grove Museum.

John and Jan Straley of Sitka presign books at the Pacific Grove Museum.

‘From Cannery Row to Sitka’: Shorefast Editions publishes collaborative book on Ed Ricketts

Ed Ricketts was a scientist, a writer, a father and a Renaissance man, the inspiration for the character of “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and an influence on generations of ecologists. He was also closely connected to the community of Sitka through research he conducted there in 1932, an experience that led to the publication of the seminal book “Between Pacific Tides,” and to the development of his important theory of how waves impact intertidal ecological communities.

Juneau-based publisher Shorefast Editions at the end of this year released “Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska,” which showcases a previously unpublished essay by Ricketts and personal, scientific, and creative takes on his life, time in Alaska, and impact on later generations.

One of those strongly impacted by his work is Sitka-based humpback whale biologist Janice M. Straley, who edited the book.

“In today’s thinking, Ricketts had a holistic approach to science and to life, bringing ideas and people together,” she wrote in her introductory essay. “These ideas came from the study of music, literature, and poetry, in addition to the study of science.”

“He had so many sides that I think everybody sees a different side of him almost,” Straley said in an interview. “He was a really good scientist who thought in a different way, and liked to really engage people. He was passionate about what he did.”

Ricketts’ 1932 trip to Sitka was part of a 10-week research expedition conducted in illustrious company: his fellow travelers were mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell and Sitka couple Jack and Sasha (Kashevaroff) Calvin (Jack would eventually co-found the Sitka Conservation Society). The group traveled up the Northwest Coast from Puget Sound in a motorboat called the Grampus aiming to collect 15,000 jellyfish for distribution by Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratories, and to conduct a relatively quick study of intertidal areas and their fauna along the coast.

Eighty years after the Grampus’ journey, Straley and the Sitka Sound Science center received a grant to compare Ricketts’ findings with their own.

Straley got in touch with Ricketts’ biographer Katharine A. Rodger, who shared Ricketts’ unpublished essay with her. That’s how Straley got the idea for a collaborative book.

Shorefast co-founder Katrina Pearson loved the idea.

“I’m always a big fan of collaboration,” Pearson said.

The book is a mix of many different types of writing: Ed Ricketts’ daughter Nancy Ricketts’ memories of collecting in tide-pools with her father; Ricketts’ essay on wave shock theory; scientists writing about Ricketts, and both a biographical piece by Rodger and a thoughtful essay on place by Sitka author John Straley, among others.

Juneau-based photographer Ben Huff helped edit the archive of pictures — from that 1932 trip up the coast to photos of Ricketts’ laboratory, which burned down in a 1936 fire; Norman Campbell did the cover and inside illustrations, Sarah Asper-Smith handled book design, and Liz McKenzie copy-edited the book.

Nancy Ricketts is now 91 and has lived in Sitka for the past 40 years.

Working on the book was “a very unusual and rewarding experience,” she said. “And it was very pleasant, at the same time, being with a group of people talking about the central theme of this collaborative book.”

Nancy Ricketts first came to Sitka when she was around 14; she started her high school years in Southeast Alaska. From the beginning, it reminded her of Monterey Peninsula, where she’d grown up, and where much of Ricketts’ work focused.

She wrote about her early childhood family memories.

Of collecting with her father, she wrote “Out came the equipment — sieves, jars, flashlights for us kids and other equipment for Dad. Most of the time we were collecting gonionemus — a thumbnail sized (more or less) jellyfish found in the eel grass. We VERY carefully picked up the specimens in the sieve and lowered them into the jar filled with seawater… the serious business of carefully collecting kept us occupied until the tide came in to the point where the eel grass was well-covered and no more jellyfish could be seen.”

The book features seven essays, including John Straley’s closing piece.

“If you just read the Steinbeck book, you would know Ricketts as a party animal and an interesting man,” said John Straley. “He was all those things, but he was also a father, and he was a lover of plays, and he was a writer, and he was also the coauthor (with Jack Calvin) of the seminal book ‘Between Pacific Tides,’ and one of the forefathers and popularizers of this notion of deep ecology.”

Sitka’s Old Harbor Books hosted a standing-room-only book launch at the end of November.

“The end result, I think we’re all very proud of…. I think it is an important book, and it carries some weight, and it needed to be published in Alaska,” Pearson said. “This was by far the most complex project (I’ve worked on) just because of the number of contributors. There are all different types of writers – science, history, fiction.”

“That’s what makes it work, is all those perspectives,” Huff added. “That’s sort of who Ricketts was.”

“Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska” is available at local Southeast Alaskan bookstores. Taku Graphics will also distribute the book along the Pacific Northwest and “wherever there’s demand,” Pearson said.

See more at Shorefast Editions’ website,

• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at

'From Cannery Row to Sitka': Shorefast Editions publishes collaborative book on Ed Ricketts

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