Becoming A Published Author
Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book
By Evan and Lois Swensen
In The Footsteps of My Father
Sheldon Gebb is a first-time author who has written about his father’s adventures, John Wesley Gebb, based on diaries he maintained from age 16 and throughout his lifetime. The idea of publishing a book occurred long after Sheldon discovered the diaries in a suitcase in his mother’s home after her death in 1989. Sheldon, the youngest of the four Gebb children, was an admiralty lawyer with an international practice. Sheldon used airport and air-flight time to transcribe all the diaries onto his computer.
Upon his retirement in 2000, Sheldon and his wife Barbara bought an off-road four-by-four RV (license plate HMS TANK) to follow in his father’s footsteps. Over the next decade they explored the places John Wesley Gebb mentioned in his diaries. They started with John Wesley’s early years in Jerome, Arizona, his student years at the University of Arizona, and his attempts to strike it rich with a gold mine he developed with friends in the Rincon Mountain range near Tucson, Arizona. Sheldon, during his career, developed a fondness for Alaska while spending considerable time in the Far North representing various clients. Thus, it was natural for them to focus on the diary years of 1908 and 1909 when John Wesley went with three friends to Alaska and the Yukon (Dawson City area) to seek his fortune. The year 1908 was a decade after the original Klondike gold finds on Bonanza Creek outside Dawson City. It was the beginning of the era of corporate mining employing huge gold dredges. With his degree in mining engineering, John Wesley was able to find work with that industry in Dawson City.
Barbara and Sheldon decided to write a book about John Wesley’s life. They concluded that the book would have greater interest if it included a description of their travels as they traced the diary entries. In 2000 they covered John Wesley’s early life. Then, beginning in 2001, they traveled to the Yukon and Alaska in HMS TANK to see, record with photographs, and research every place John Wesley had mentioned in his diaries.
The Gebbs soon learned that it would require several years of travel to Alaska and the Yukon Territory to adequately research John Wesley’s adventures. They relied on archival material from libraries and museums for photographs and information of places long since destroyed. They began their research at the Yukon Archives in Whitehorse, YT, where they found extensive historical information about the Dawson City area, particularly of the corporate mining era, which had been preserved. The museum staff was gracious and helpful. Sheldon was able to take digital pictures of photographs showing people and places mentioned in the diaries.
The Gebbs found Whitehorse to be a delightful place to visit. Exploring the city on foot, they recognized some of the sights mentioned in the diary: the prominent cliffs, the Yukon River, a well-preserved stern-wheeler, and the vast blue skies. Good restaurants, various interesting stores, and a museum added to the pleasure of being there. After traveling up the Inside Passage to Skagway, Alaska, John Wesley, and his friends had traveled by train to Whitehorse and then to the goldfields of Dawson City on the stern-wheeler Selkirk. Sheldon and Barbara traveled that route on the Trans Canadian Highway along the Yukon River. They were treated to beautiful vistas of valleys and mountains and the incredible blue Klondike skies John Wesley had enjoyed. The highway itself was a washboard experience due to frost heaves typical in the Far North. However, it was worth the bumps. When they arrived in Dawson City, they discovered it remained the same as described in the diary. The town is now a Canadian historical site. The wooden sidewalks are built higher than the dirt or mud (depending on the weather) streets. Most of the buildings are historical landmarks that are still in use. They were able to explore the banks of the Yukon River across from Dawson, and they marveled at the skeletons of the old riverboats piled in helter-skelter fashion.
Upon their arrival in Dawson City in 2001, the locals directed Barbara and Sheldon to the Dawson City Museum. The museum proved to be a gold mine of information. The museum staff were excited about the diaries’ firsthand account of John Wesley’s employment with the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, referred to as Guggenheim after its owner, and about John Wesley’s gold-mining adventures. They provided the Gebbs with a room loaded with notebooks and boxes of historical information. The Gebbs spent several days rummaging through the materials, taking photographs, and making notes. Finally, parks Canada personnel provided them with a personal tour of the Guggenheim facilities where John Wesley had worked as a surveyor and as head of the power plant that supplied electricity to the gold dredges.
In 1908 the gold-mining industry in the Yukon was dominated by eastern corporations, which used electrically powered dredges to scoop up tons of embedded river-bottom rock, which contained the prized gold. John and his friends worked all summer for the corporation. Then, in the fall, they decided to strike out on their own, and they filed a gold-mining claim for a site east of Dawson City on Slough Creek.
Finding the gold mine site where John Wesley and his friends worked during the winter 1908–1909 was a frustrating experience. Barbara and Sheldon traced the route over which John and his friends had traveled by dogsled in their CJ7 Jeep. It was easy to document the dogsled trek from Dawson City to Slough Creek but locating the mine took several years of exploration. They knew from the diaries that it was on Slough Creek, 60 miles from Dawson City near Gravel Lake. However, they had no idea exactly where it was located, although the diary provided a relatively accurate description of its location. Finally, in 2008 after years of several failed attempts peering through a dense forest of trees and underbrush, Sheldon found a trapper on Gravel Lake who knew exactly where the mine was located after reviewing the diary entries! He took the Gebbs on a wild ride through the brush and forest to the mine, where evidence of mining was still visible after 100 years.
One of the reasons John Wesley and his friends had chosen the site on Slough Creek was that Alex McDonald, known as “King of the Klondike,” had staked a claim there. McDonald had been very helpful and had encouraged them to come to Slough Creek. They were all there, working together when Alex McDonald died at age 54 while chopping wood in weather of minus 50 degree Fahrenheit. The Dawson City Museum contains detailed information about Alex McDonald, which Sheldon could use in the book. They discovered he had made (and lost) several fortunes, but he was always generous to those less fortunate than him.
The Dawson Museum personnel also introduced Barbara and Sheldon to John Gould, a recognized historian of the Klondike gold rush era and author of Frozen Gold. John read the diary entries about the mining adventure and discovered that John’s uncle, Angus Chisholm, had been one of John Wesley’s partners at Slough Creek. Sheldon used the detailed entries John Wesley had entered in his diary to describe the dangerous winter of 1908–1909 that his group endured on Slough Creek while digging a mine shaft to a depth of 165 feet. It was the coldest winter recorded in the Dawson area up to that time. Finding no trace of gold, the group abandoned the mine on April Fools’ Day, which John Wesley declared appropriate. Returning to Dawson City, John Wesley elected to become a bear hunter. His numerous failed attempts provided comical entries for the book. The Gebbs traced his hunting trips by Jeep, marveling at the vast area over which he had traveled.
John Wesley recognized that he had no future in Dawson. His wrangling days in Arizona provided him with enough experience to hire a group of cowboys who were herding horses to the White River for the United States survey team surveying the United States–Canada border. By following the diary entries, Barbara and Sheldon were able to retrace John Wesley’s journey to the White River. They were amazed to find that much of the area, including settlements, remained just as described in the diary. After delivering the horses John Wesley could find no one willing to undertake a trek across what is now the Wrangell Saint Elias National Park. He thus elected to make the journey solo hoping to find work at the Kennecott Copper Mine. The diary describes a journey fraught with peril. This convinced them to charter a small plane in which they flew over the route John Wesley had taken. They could see that what is now the Wrangell Saint Elias area includes rugged, high, steep glacier-covered mountains with icy streams and rock-strewn cliffs and many waterfalls, an area, the travel books admonish, which is only for the most experienced hiker. Sheldon was able to take pictures of the entire area that had been such a tortuous and dangerous trip for his father. The plane ride was not without its excitement. In tracing the journey, the plane was enveloped with fog while searching for John Wesley’s route. The experienced bush pilot, recognizing that the peaks were higher than the plane, retraced his route to clear weather. They were also treated to the sight of a grizzly bear lunging at the plane’s wing as they flew close by the mother protecting her three cubs.
Failing to find work at the Kennecott Copper Mine, John Wesley hiked out on a newly constructed train right-of-way and headed for home. That right-of-way is now a dirt road to the Kennecott Copper Mine. The Gebbs drove the old right-of-way to the copper mine area, an interesting national historic site. In addition to exploring the mine facilities being preserved, many tourists go hiking in the ice fields to enjoy the magnificent scenery and the interesting historical hotel. The road leading to the Saint Elias National Park facilities is an adventure of potholes and ruts, which Barbara noted in her diary for inclusion in the book. However, it is worth the trip.
Finally, in 2010 Barbara and Sheldon decided the book was ready for publication. While they were in Anchorage, they found Publication Consultants on the Internet and arranged for a meeting with the owner, Evan Swensen. Evan’s reaction to their manuscript was swift. He recognized it as an interesting story that lacked focus and required a grammar overhaul. He explained that Sheldon might know how to write legal briefs but was an amateur in writing a book. Evan insisted that the book must have a theme. He suggested that we center the story on John Wesley’s adventures in the Yukon Territory and Alaska in 1908–09 rather than giving equal treatment to all his life’s adventures. Evan introduced Sheldon to a copy editor and writing instructor who would help us edit the book if she thought the story had merit. He cautioned that Sheldon would have to correct everything she marked in red. Evan’s evaluation of the editor’s reactions was right on point. Fortunately, she liked the story.
The draft Sheldon received from the editor was dripping in red ink. Barbara and Sheldon spent the next several months going through numerous drafts learning how to write all over again. Sheldon also contacted the University of Washington, the State of Alaska, the Anchorage Museum, and the Yukon Archives to obtain photographs documenting John Wesley’s travels. Sheldon discovered that the museums contain a treasure of historical information that can be obtained online.
Finally, in the spring of 2011, Publication Consultants concluded the book was ready to be published. Evan then advised Sheldon that his actual work, marketing the book, was about to begin. In July 2011, the book was launched at the Dawson City Museum, with Sheldon giving a lecture on John Wesley’s gold-mining adventures. The Gebbs then traveled to Anchorage to attend book-signing engagements arranged by Publication Consultants. Since then, Publication Consultants has also arranged to have the book sold where other good books are sold, and it’s now an eBook.
In honor of John Wesley’s memory and thanks to the people of Dawson City who treated him so well one hundred years ago, all proceeds from the book sales are being donated to the Dawson City Museum to computerize their archives and for other improvements as needed.
We regard our efforts to research archived records and physically be in and see every place John Gebb mentioned in his diary of 1908–1909 as the grand adventure of our lives. Thanks to Evan Swensen and Publication Consultants, we are delighted to preserve it all in Sheldon’s book.