PAT NEAL: A Christmas canoe cruise

As the holiday season progresses, we ask ourselves the question, “will we be at home or on the road?”

This year, staying home for the holidays makes a lot of sense since the road can be risky. Look at the road between Clallam Bay and Sekiu where the side of a mountain fell down.

This is nothing new on the “wet end” of the Olympic Peninsula. State Highway 112 was barely passable during the dry season.

Driving on Highway 112 was like riding a bucking bronco if you dared exceed the 15 mph speed limit over the top of Twin Hill before descending to the “Devil’s Elbow,” a nasty hairpin turn at the bottom near Deep Creek.

Local legend says Highway 112 was built by a logger in a cart following a bull elk in the rut, since it seems to go in complete circles when you least expect it.

Once the monsoons hit, the mountains slid down into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, taking the road with it.

Coincidentally, U.S. Highway 101 is facing the same problem. South of Forks, the effects of gravity and water are clearly seen in the giant cracks in the road, which seems intent on sliding into the Bogachiel River.

Highway 101 is down to one lane just south of the Calamity County line, which is better than no lane at all. Once the single lane slides out, the Olympic Peninsula will have come one step closer to becoming an island, a geographic designation many of the locals would prefer.

Traveling east is no picnic either, given the tendency of the Hood Canal bridge to shut down at any time. Our magnificent State Ferry system is no guarantee, either. They can shut down for low tides, high winds or the lack of any crew to run the darned things.

All of which makes us long for the good old days when our transportation was so much easier, safer and modern. Just don’t go too far back in the good old days or you’ll see just how tough it was to get around.

In December 1859, James Swan was in Neah Bay waiting for a schooner to take him to Port Townsend. The winter hit early that year, and rather than spending it in Neah Bay, Swan “persuaded” a party of Makah to take him “up to the Straits.”

I often think of this journey while complaining about our roads or waiting to get on a ferry.

There was Swan in an open canoe in December with five Makah companions, one of whom was an elderly woman.

They departed Neah Bay on a dark day with a light head wind and every indication of a storm. Though wrapped in several blankets, Swan complained of the cold while he noted the Makah blowing on their hands to keep them from freezing.

The Makah kept close to shore in case a storm should hit. They paddled through tide rips, heavy swells and surf between the rocks with what Swan described as a “consummate skill” that made him feel as safe as a being on a mill pond.

There were, however, other dangers. The Makah were almost always at war with the Clallam. At Pillar Point, they passed the burnt remains of a Clallam village where the Nittinats of Vancouver Island killed 20 or more people. The Makah were implicated in the attack.

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

This is where we will continue our canoe cruise next week.


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 [email protected]

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