PAT NEAL: A Christmas canoe cruise continued

LAST WEEK, WE were comparing our modern system of transportation with a Christmas canoe cruise from Neah Bay to Port Townsend in December 1859 by James Swan and five Makah friends.

Swan was a Boston ship chandler who sailed to California in time for the gold rush of 1849. Then headed north to Shoalwater, now Willapa Bay, and then to Neah Bay in 1859.

Swan was the first working journalist on the Olympic Peninsula, writing a series of columns for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. These stories were published by the Washington State Historical Society in 1971 as “Almost out of the World, Scenes from Washington Territory.”

In his ethnography, “The Indians of Cape Flattery,” published by the Smithsonian in 1869, Swan described the 100-mile journey between Neah Bay and Port Townsend as taking seven days in the winter and making the trip in a little over 24 hours in the summer.

The average passage was about three days. This journey could only be accomplished by using the tidal currents.

Take a moment, look up from your newspaper and look out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a frosty, windy December morning and consider if any of us would survive the seven-day, 100-mile canoe journey these days.

Makah canoes were ocean-going vessels carved from a single cedar log in the shape of a clipper ship hull. The largest canoes were traded from the Clyoquot and Nittinat of Vancouver Island. Swan once went to Victoria to purchase a canoe that was between 75 and 80 feet long. The canoes were powered by paddlers and sails made of cedar bark and, later, cotton.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca flows like a river, changing direction with the tides. To catch the tide, you might have to travel at night, which could make the journey even more terrifying. However, night travel was a good way to avoid hostilities with other tribes with whom the Makah were at variance.

The Makah had a grudge with the Clallam, later known as the Klallam, and it went both ways.

Swan had noticed the burnt remains of a Clallam village at Pysht, where the Nittinats of Vancouver Island killed 20 or more people. The Makah were implicated in the attack.

That night, Swan and his friends pulled their canoe up the Lyre River to where the smoke from their campfire could not be observed by the Clallam.

The next day, they stopped at Salt Creek to build a fire and eat lunch where they found another burnt village. Swan’s Makah friends took credit this time, saying the Clallam had not let them fish in Salt Creek. The Makah left and returned at night, killing 12 Clallam and taking women prisoners.

Swan had friends among the Elwha Clallam. He feared being caught in the middle of the endless battles of retribution.

All of which calls for some historical perspective. The Strait of Juan de Fuca could be a dangerous passage in 1859.

That same year, France and Austria were at war. Over 20,000 Austrians were killed, wounded or missing in just one battle. Shortly thereafter, the American Civil War began, killing as many as 750,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians.

Humans can be bloodthirsty critters.

Swan’s canoe slipped by the Clallam village at the mouth of the Elwha at daylight without incident. When they eventually reached Port Townsend, Swan said, “I was entirely satisfied that a winter’s trip on the Fuca Straits is anything but a pleasure cruise.”

Words worth remembering when missing the ferry or getting a flat tire while riding in a heated vehicle this Christmas.


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

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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