The Last Otter Hunter tells the story Cannery Row’s definitive historian always wanted to.
By David Schmalz
Thursday, September 15, 2011
When Michael Kenneth Hemp moved to Monterey in 1979, it is tempting to imagine that Doc Ricketts and John Steinbeck breathed a sigh of relief from on high. Over the next decade, the author established himself as the preeminent historian of the Cannery Row era, and nearly all of what he has recorded (much of which can be considered a local, and national, treasure) would have been lost forever without his efforts.
A writer by trade, Hemp’s interest in the piece of shoreline was piqued while researching a dining guide. To his surprise, he found that no major books existed about Cannery Row history outside of Steinbeck’s namesake novel.
“I stepped into one of the last opportunities like this in the world,” Hemp says.
With the help of Monterey attorney Bob Rosenthal and (locally famous) founding board members like Ed Haber, Frank Wright, Eldon Dedini, Lou Rudolph and Max Tadlock, Hemp formed the Cannery Row Foundation in 1982, a nonprofit dedicated to the research and preservation of Row history. As the Foundation’s Executive Director, Hemp made a breakthrough a year later when he organized the first of five Great Cannery Row Reunions, a celebration of former cannery workers and fisherman featuring a fire muster and bartender races.
Among the alumni Hemp met that day was Charlie Nonella, one of Steinbeck’s “Mack and the Boys” (Nonella had been best friends with Harold Otis Bicknell, aka Gabe, the man who inspired Mack). Despite being the fastest can-catcher on the Row and a collector for Ricketts, Nonella was not exactly popular in the neighborhood.
“I’ve met a lot of guys who didn’t like him,” Hemp says. “He was a real roughneck.”
But Nonella’s meaner days were long past by the time he met Hemp – he had been sober for 20-plus years. Blessed with a memory that Hemp describes as “perfect,” Nonella quickly proved himself an invaluable resource.
“[Charlie] was my constant daily companion for about four years before he died,” Hemp says, “and everything [he] told me checked out.” (Hemp conducted about 1,000 interviews in the ‘80s, often eight to 10 hours a day.)
In 1986, Hemp published the first edition of his Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue, a culmination of his research to date. Yet there was one great story he was unable to fit in, and he has been aching to share it with the world ever since.
With the just-released SUR: Legend of the Last Otter Hunter, that story’s time has come. A short novel of historical fiction, SUR was inspired by Nonella’s recollections of his father, who (among other, mostly illegal things), was the last otter hunter in the region. He was a “crack shot” and an expert boatman. For a time he and Charlie ran the surf at Bixby in longboats to deliver dynamite to the beach.
Otters had been largely wiped out by the mid-1800s, but for those like Nonella’s father that possessed an intimate knowledge of Big Sur’s remote coves (no road was built until 1937), there was still a living to be made: At the turn of the century, otter pelts sold for about $2,000. With a million hairs per square inch, says Hemp, they are “the most fantastic fur in the world.”
The spirit of Hemp’s lead character (William Manning) was modeled after Clint Eastwood’s lead in "Unforgiven" (William Munny), and Hemp dedicates the book to Eastwood. When reading "SUR," it is a pleasure to imagine Eastwood’s charged, gravelly restraint in the voice of Manning, and the narrative, which is rich with fascinating, historical exposition, is a quick, entertaining read.
Hemp’s postscript touches on Big Sur pioneer Howard Sharpe’s 1935 discovery of an “extinct” otter colony, and the rest, as they say, is history.
SUR: Legend of the Last Otter Hunter is available at www.amazon.com for $4.95 via Kindle, and can also be delivered to a smartphone, or to Amazon Cloud, where it can be read on a computer. For more, visit www.thehistorycompany.com.