PAT NEAL: A historic hard winter

BY NOW, I think we have all had it up to here with winter — even though it has just started. And yet, things could be so much worse.

That is the value of history, to look back and see how good you have it now.

We need only go back a little more than 100 years to observe a brutal winter in the Olympic Mountains, endured by some of the most clueless campers in history.

That would be the Press Expedition of 1889-90 when six men, four dogs (Daisy, Tweed, Bud and Dike), and two mules (Jennie and Dollie) relied on advice from the locals to buy lumber and build a boat to cruise up the Elwha.

Thirty feet long and 5 feet wide, the flat-bottomed Gertie “began to take on water like a thirsty fish” when she was launched and loaded with 2,000 pounds of supplies, including 50 pounds of fireworks on Dec. 30, 1889.

While it’s easy to judge historical figures from the comfort of our electrically heated homes, we were not there dragging a boat through waist-deep water or hip-deep snow, exhausted, hungry, cold and lost in 16-degree weather, so don’t judge the past by the present.

By Jan. 18, 1890, the Expedition had only made it upstream a few miles to the mouth of Indian Creek, where a massive log jam, used by the locals to cross the Elwha, stopped Gertie. Expedition leader James Christie employed a “clever strategy,” otherwise known as extortion, to threaten the locals with either helping to drag the Gertie over the log jam or the Press boys would cut it and deprive the pioneers of a river crossing.

Seven men showed up to drag the Gertie over the log jam.

The bridge and the expedition were saved.

Gertie was abandoned just upstream. The snow was too deep for Jennie and Dollie to pack anything so the expedition fabricated some failed contraptions to sled their supplies that worked about as well as the Gertie.

Somewhere near the present Olympic National Park boundary, they met a camp of S’Klallam hunters with elk meat hanging whom Christie declared “utterly ignorant of the country.”

More likely the S’Klallam hunters had already learned the fate of the buffalo and were reluctant to share information on the elk, whose near extinction through market-hunting by the white man would occur a few years later.

The S’Klallam had villages and camps all along the Elwha. In fact, the expedition spent the night in an abandoned S’Klallam house above the Glines Canyon dam site.

The country was not unknown to the S’Klallam.

It had been depopulated by disease and the 1855 Point No Point Treaty, which forced the S’Klallam onto a reservation at the mouth of the Elwha.

By the end of February, the expedition had traveled less than a fifth of the distance across the Olympics, but had used up half its supplies.

Loading the mules with 200-pound packs, they started across the Devil’s Backbone, the steep ridge above the Elwha Ranger Station.

At one point, Jennie fell off a 400-foot cliff, breaking her back. The expedition “felt blue,” knowing they would now have to pack Jennie’s load on their backs.

By March, every member of the expedition was suffering from dysentery, which could have been contracted from any number of sources from polluted water to questionable hygiene.

Dollie, the remaining mule, was reduced to eating Oregon Grape. She would have to “survive on faith” until reaching the bunch grass prairie that the locals said was near the hidden lake at the center of the Olympics.

To be continued next week with“What Happened to Dollie?”


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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