About Ed Ricketts: A Cannery Row Character on the KP (Maybe)

'Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean Avenue and Its Connections to the Pacific Northwest,' Fifth Edition (2022) by Michael Kenneth Hemp


Historian Michael Kenneth Hemp moved to Wauna from Monterey, California, in 2017 to follow the trail of Ed Ricketts.

Hemp had already written a definitive history of Cannery Row but stumbled on a clue that took the story north to the shores of the Pacific Northwest and Gig Harbor, and even Vaughn Bay.

The marine biologist, philosopher and pioneer ecologist 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 Hemp. 

“They wanted to do another book, doing the same thing they had done in Cortez, starting probably at Vancouver,” he said. 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 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 began tracing 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 said. “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. 

“And that trip changed his 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, all the way down to Port Townsend for that tide, and all the way down to Wollochet Bay,” Hemp said. “I have information but no confirmation yet that he was at Vaughn.”

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; 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 was the strength of that book that led to Ricketts and Steinbeck voyaging together to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. Steinbeck chartered a sardine boat offseason out of Monterey, the 77-foot purse seiner Western Flyer. 

In 1948, Ricketts and Steinbeck were preparing for a second trip together, this time up the Inside Passage, 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. He died two days later.

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