Lois Crisler in 1949. (Ernest Kassowitz)

Lois Crisler in 1949. (Ernest Kassowitz)

BACK WHEN: Crisler captured wilderness, wildlife in writing and on film

CHANGES OCCUR IN our society over time. They can be thrust upon us due to a tragedy. We recently observed Earth Day, one of those changes.

In January 1969, a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., inspired conservationists and environmentalists to create Earth Day.

It also can happen when determined people show us the way. Lois Brown Crisler was such a person.

Lois E. Brown was born in Spokane on Aug. 9, 1896. She was raised in Spokane and became an assistant English professor at the University of Washington. Not only was she intellectual, she was also a Seattle mountaineer who enjoyed hiking the Cascades.

Brown introduced her students to intellectual and emotional curiosity. Her classes had the Bible alongside books by Virginia Woolf. By 1941, Brown had met Herb Crisler, a well-known wilderness photographer with extensive “wilderness education.” Brown and Crisler both had a love for the wilderness and each other.

Brown and Crisler married Dec. 7, 1941, in Kirkland. It turned out to be an odd start to a marriage. After the ceremony, someone turned on the radio, and everyone learned about the Pearl Harbor bombing. The United States had just been drawn into World War II.

Crisler took Brown to their home at Hume’s Ranch above the Elwha River. Above that stood Hurricane Ridge. The Crislers helped the war effort by spending their honeymoon years on Hurricane Ridge as lookouts for enemy aircraft. They never saw any enemy aircraft, but they were able to serve while living in the wilderness they loved.

They never had much monetary success, but they had what they needed, which was the earth and its inhabitants.

For many years, the Crislers would backpack into the interior of the Olympic Mountains and film wild animals in their natural habitat. Herb was the photographer; Lois was the writer. She kept detailed journals of the wildlife they witnessed and the experiences they had.

Beginning in 1948, the Crislers traveled nationwide to lecture and show their wildlife films. During those tours, they showed people their footage of the Olympic elk, of which Lois was the writer, cinematographer and narrator.

The Crislers felt that most people didn’t know what wilderness was.

“Wilderness without wildlife is mere scenery,” Lois said.

They wanted people to know that wilderness is the home of wild animals that go about their own daily struggles to survive. They tried to create an understanding of the living wilderness. At the same time, they sought to give people the will to preserve it.

From June 1949 through spring 1951, Lois began writing a weekly column for the Port Angeles Evening News. She titled her column “Olympic Trail Talk.” She used the column to detail their lives in the mountains, her observations on wildlife and the history of the Olympic Peninsula.

Also in 1949, Walt Disney was producing a nationally televised series titled “True-Life Adventure” and agreed to purchase their elk footage. Disney then developed it into the nature film “Olympic Elk,” retaining most of Lois’ script.

As the Crislers wanted, thousands of television viewers were awed and inspired by the wilderness and wildlife of the Olympic Mountains.

Their friend, Irving Petite, proposed to tell the story of the development of the movie “Olympic Elk.” He wanted to title it “Ten Years and Twenty-six Minutes,” and it would document the 10 years of effort to photograph in the Olympic Mountains’ high country to create a 26-minute nature film.

The Crislers’ efforts continued. In April 1951, Disney Studios sent them to Colorado to film and document bighorn sheep. Later, in 1952, they were sent to Denali National Park in Alaska to document and film grizzly and brown bears.

In early 1952, Lois articulated her thoughts regarding the value of the Olympic wilderness. She wrote to conservationists and Irving Clark, an advocate of Olympic National Park: “They (Olympic Mountain wilderness) have a sacredness. They are the only remaining traces of the physical foundation of our whole frontier-hatched ethos and institutions-democracy and all the rest, and of freedom and what that does to a man’s spirit. And space is of their essence.”

In 1953 ,the Crislers traveled north of the Artic Circle into the Brooks Range. There, Herb filmed caribou. Lois kept journals of her observations about the wilderness and its wildlife.

It was in the Brooks Range where the Crislers adopted two wolf cubs. This began her life as a chronicler of the social life of the Artic wolves. When the Disney assignment ended, they, and another litter of wolf cubs, traveled to Colorado near Lake George.

Lois spent seven years with Miss Alatna, her favorite wolf, to document the wolves’ family life. Lois’ work eventually led her to craft her observations into book form.

In 1962, Lois was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her studies in organismic biology and ecology. The fellowship allowed Lois to complete and publish her book “Captive Wild.” The book was a crusade for Lois; she wanted to change the popular concept of the ferocious Artic wolf.

In 1969, Lois received special commendation for her book “Captive Wild” from Gov. Dan Evans during the Governor’s Invitational Writers’ Day in Olympia.

Lois’ seven years of arduous labor with the wolves strained the Crislers’ marriage. Their partnership and marriage ended in divorce around 1968. Lois died on June 4, 1971, in Seattle.

Lois sacrificed many comforts we take for granted. Lois considered the question, “What do I want? Her answer: “Now to shed off the wants, the troubled, distorted wants — for fresh vegetables to eat instead of lima beans and rice; for letters from friends; for my own tool-and-craft kitchen at home. These are filaments dragging my heart back toward civilization. ‘Pull them out,’ I thought. What do I want? My answer is instant. To be where the people that walk on four legs are. For the rest I can pick myself up, get off the couch of uncorseted slackness. Tauten my muscles and take the direction of the desire under the desires.”


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].

McNutt’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.

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