PAT NEAL: A miserable memory of a New Year’s Eve

In last week’s episode, we were sharing the yuletide joy of an 1859 Christmas cruise on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a cedar dugout canoe, causing questions to be asked like, could anything be more miserable?

Yes. The 1889 New Year’s party where the Press Expedition pulled a leaky barge up the Elwha River in the snow would qualify.

The expedition was financed by the Seattle Press, a forerunner to today’s Seattle Times. Back then, newspapers sent reporters to unknown ends of the Earth to entertain their readers with stories such as Stanley finding Livingstone in the heart of Africa. It was the golden age of journalism where six men, four dogs and two mules were sent into the Olympic Mountains for a story.

It was claimed the Olympics were so rugged no man had ever penetrated their vastness. The Native Americans were said to be afraid of a war-like tribe of cannibal giants and the Thunderbird, a huge creature that picked up whales and dumped them on the glaciers.

This ignored the fact that Native Americans had inhabited the interior of the Olympics for millennia, where they hunted and gathered, warred and traded. Indian Creek and Valley were named for a Klallam village. They had a village up the Elwha at Boulder Creek.

The southern Olympics had been crossed by five loggers from Lilliwaup to Lake Quinault in 1878. They weren’t working for a newspaper, so it didn’t count. As the Press Expedition was organizing, another newspaper, The Buckley Banner, proposed an expedition from Lake Cushman to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Another group said they went up the Pysht River and crossed the Olympics, but their geography was questionable.

The pressure was on the Press Expedition to be off. This seemed to be the deciding factor for the bad idea to head up the Elwha in the dead of one of the most severe winters ever recorded on the Olympic Peninsula. The snow began falling on Dec. 23 and hardly stopped until it was 4 feet deep.

On arrival in Port Angeles, the townspeople told of a giant lake in the interior of the Olympics. James Christie, the leader of the expedition, eventually concluded he could not glean “one sensible idea” from them.

The second mayor of Port Angeles, Norman R. Smith, offered to help the expedition. Smith was a promotor extraordinaire who became famous for building the world’s shortest railroad. He cut a 30-foot rail in half and laid the pieces together to make a 15-foot section of track between Lake Sutherland and Lake Crescent to “secure the pass” for an imaginary railroad.

Smith’s brother had a sawmill. He convinced Christie to build a boat and drag it up the Elwha all the way to the imaginary lake.

Christie bought the lumber. The expedition began packing 1,500 pounds of bacon, beans, flour, tools and fireworks to signal Seattle, along with Smith’s green lumber, into a 200-foot-deep canyon somewhere under the present Highway 112 bridge.

On Dec. 30, the 30-foot boat, christened “Gertie,” was loaded with the expedition’s supplies. She took on water like a “thirsty trout” as the crew pulled her upstream through 4 feet of snow. The New Year was celebrated in the snow under the stars on a gravel bar with pea soup, boiled ham, baked beans, corn bread, prune pie and coffee.

The expedition eventually ditched Gertie and headed upriver, emerging from the Olympics five months later in Quinault with nothing to eat but salmon berry shoots. All of which gives us hope that our New Year will be better than that.

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 patnealwildlife@gmail.com.

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