PAT NEAL: A historic canoe journey

LISTENING TO PEOPLE complain about the weather on the Olympic Peninsula is evidence we’ve evolved into a nation of wimps.

To hear the horrors of driving through a hail storm with faulty windshield wipers or scary rides on a ferry boat through choppy seas makes us remember the old days when people traveled by canoe.

James Swan left us with several descriptions of his canoe journeys in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Back then if you had to get somewhere, you’d get there by canoe.

On March 4, 1859, Swan was on a canoe trip from Port Townsend to Protection Island.

He left an account of this journey that makes you wonder if any of us reading this a century and a half later would survive this ordeal today.

Accompanied by two settlers, Swan described the journey out to the island — how they were hit by a violent squall that lifted the canoe out of the water dashing spray over their heads while a sail the size of a handkerchief pushed them along the top of the foam.

After a fine visit to Protection Island where spring plowing was in progress, it was time to head home.

At the time the weather was not their only worry.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca has a long history of wars, ambushes and massacres.

In 1788, the first European to enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Robert Duffin, cut short his visit when his long boat was pierced, “in a thousand places by arrows.”

Tensions simmered in the Strait through the treachery and slaughter of the fur trade and the joint occupation by Britain and the United States in a never-ending cycle of raids and retribution.

In 1847, a combined force of S’Klallam, Suquamish and Duwamish tribes attacked a Chemakum village that lead to the extinction of the tribe.

In 1854, a fight between the S’Klallam and Army troops in Dungeness left four dead including a captain and a lieutenant.

In 1857, the Nittinats of Vancouver Island burned the Clallam village at Pillar Point, killing 20 people.

That same year the Tlingit murdered Col. Isaac Ebey, a former customs collector and territorial legislator at his home on Whidbey Island.

This was payback for the American warship USS Massachusetts opening fire on a Tlingit encampment at Port Gamble, killing their chief and an estimated 50 people, then destroying their canoes and provisions.

In 1859, the Haida attacked the Schooners Blue Wing and Ellen Marie near Vashon Island killing 17 people.

The ships were burned and sunk.

Swan, who was a teacher at Neah Bay in 1862, said the Makah had recently wiped out a S’Klallam village at Salt Creek and were at variance with the Quileute and the Ahossetts on Vancouver Island.

The weather might have been the least of your worries when transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca — until Swan describes the horror of their return from Protection Island.

He describes how they lost an oar and their steering paddle as they approached a wall of breakers in a tide rip extending from Point Wilson clear across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Whidbey Island.

Waves broke in every direction. They were only saved by sheer luck and an incoming tide.

Swan vowed he “would never travel in a canoe again unless there were Indians to manage her.”

It was a vow he kept for the rest of his days as testament to the consummate skill of his Makah friends, who ran their canoes through rocks and surf, “showing as much concern as if they were paddling about a mill pond.”


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 patnealwild [email protected].

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