Elwha teens follow ancestors’ steps – Eight youngsters complete trek over Olympic Mountains

The Lower Elwha Klallam people historically traveled a trade and marriage route through the Olympic Mountains to reach the Quinault and other tribes.

Now a group of Lower Elwha youth has retraced those steps to learn about their ancestors.

Eight 14-year-olds and four adults reached the North Fork Quinault River a week ago after hiking close to 50 miles past the Elwha River headwaters and ancient campground sites.

“It was pretty spiritual,” Jesse Charles, 14, said Friday.

“You kind of think about where your ancestors walked, where they went to the halfway point to marry off couples,” he said.

The hikers — four boys, four girls, four adults and five llamas — left Whiskey Creek on Aug. 4, covering an estimated 44 to 52 miles in Olympic National Park before reaching the North Fork on Aug. 10.

Some drove on to Taholah at the Quinault Reservation to greet the Lower Elwha and other tribal canoes completing the 2002 Paddle Journey, where the young hikers were acknowledged for completing the trek.

Reclaiming history

The hike reclaimed a region of tribal history well known among the Lower Elwha that few have experienced firsthand.

“I knew that our tribe had been back in those areas years ago, but I never really heard about the trail itself,” said Charles’ father, Tribal Police Sgt. Rod Charles, who accompanied his son on the trip.

“This was the first time this has been done for probably hundreds of years,” he said.

Early in the week, the group hiked close to the headwaters of the Elwha River where the banks were 25 feet apart, “to show the kids, this is where your strength comes from,” Rod Charles said.

They continued on past the documented sites of ancient campgrounds and where arrowheads have been found.

They also spent one day clearing garbage from a national park ranger station.

The youths evaluated their progress on a map every evening.

“Each night, they’d be in awe,” Charles said.

Participants said the journey made them consider what their ancestors may have regularly experienced.

“It makes you think a lot,” Jesse Charles said. “You don’t have a TV, you don’t have most of the things you have at home.”

Different experience

Mike Wiechman, 14, hiked the same route two years ago with his family but said this time, with more historical context, the experience was different.

“I thought it was cool because we were doing it and (our ancestors) did it years ago,” he said.

Some of the hikers have considered renaming sites along the route, such as Chicago Camp, that were named by members of the Press Expedition who completed the route in 1890.

“There’s a power in naming things and the idea of them reclaiming these pathways that have been used for thousands of years by their ancestors,” said Bob Boardman, a non-tribal member who accompanied the group as a medical technician.

The journey was led by Tribal Police Cpl. Sam White and sponsored by the tribal police department in the first of what White said he hopes will be an annual event for the tribe’s youth.

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