PAT NEAL: Finding the Pacific Trail

SOMETIMES, WHEN READING the accounts of the first people who came to the Olympic Peninsula, it’s hard to imagine how any of us from the modern-day world would survive back then.

For one thing the clothing was so much different.

Native Americans made their clothing from the woven fibers of the inner bark of the cedar tree.

Which could explain why they were so anxious to trade for woolen blankets the first European traders brought by ship to the area.

But even a wool blanket is a poor excuse for rain gear in the dead of a rainforest winter. Once the wool is saturated with water it becomes very heavy.

Every once in a while there is a mention of Indian Rubber cloth but from what can be gathered from historic literary sources, few people had this luxury.

Compared to the incredible variety of foul-weather gear offered for sale these days, it’s hard to imagine someone facing a winter downpour with a gunny sack for rain gear but sometimes that’s all they had for rain gear.

It is a testament to the hardy nature of the old timers to read about journeys in a canoe through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or the open ocean along the Pacific Coast in winters that can make one today throw another log on the fire, put on extra socks and throw on another down comforter.

That is a sudden urge one can get reading about the mission to blaze the Pacific Trail from the Bogachiel River south through what they described as an “unknown jungle” to the Queets in the soggy December of 1892.

The country between these two rivers might to this day best be described as a brush-choked quagmire cut with deep canyons of rain swollen streams amid impassable sections of giant blown-down timber.

Just driving the roads that cut through this country today, it is easy to get lost.

People do it all the time trying to visit loved ones at the Olympic Corrections Center.

Imagine walking through this country with nothing but a few dead-end elk trails to follow, a compass and only a vague idea of where you’re going.

Of course you would be soaking wet all day with no way to get dry at night.

Jefferson County Engineer Ed Walker and a group of homesteaders that included Chris Morgenroth and Cornelius Huelsdonk, were attempting to blaze a trail between Forks and a group of settlers from Tacoma that were homesteading on the Queets River.

It took 60 days of surveying through the rain and wind to locate 60 miles of trail while living on a diet of bear meat and spawned out salmon.

At one point the trail builders climbed Mount Octopus, named because it sprawled out in every direction, to try to get a view of the country.

Once on top of the mountain, Morgenroth climbed to the top of a tall tree.

This was a very risky prospect, but it was the only chance they had to get an idea of where they were going.

By yelling directions to Cornelius who was down on the ground, they were able to make the first map of the Snahappish River country.

Parts of the trail were improved into a wagon road made of split cedar boards to keep people and animals from sinking in the mud.

When it was completed, the Pacific Trail was the only way by land into the Hoh, Clearwater and Queets country until the construction of U.S. Highway 101.

Amazingly, parts of the Pacific Trail have survived hurricanes, forest fires, logging, bugs, rot and rain to this day.

It is a cedar road that winds through isolated sections of the rain forest.

Walking it is like traveling back in time.

This is our own Olympic Peninsula version of the Oregon Trail.

These are the footprints of the Native Americans, trappers, hunters, explorers and pioneers that came after them.

The Pacific Trail is a monument to the end of the last frontier.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected]

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