Back on this day, Sept. 20, 1890, Private Harry Fisher, a member of Lt. Joseph P. O’Neil’s U.S. Army expedition who had been sent to map the interior of the Olympic Mountains, was camped in the Queets basin in the shadow of Mount Olympus. While bushwhacking beneath the lower ramparts of Olympus, Fisher became separated from the other expedition members who were attempting to climb the mountain and place a copper box on the summit, then “explore the Queets, Hoh and Quileute rivers.”
That was a tall order for men who were “almost shoeless,” with little to eat but rancid bacon and bear meat that tasted “like taking a dose of worm medicine.”
After losing Fisher, the rest of the expedition waited for him during lunch and then moved on with no concern for his safety since he was known to be “an old woodsman.” Indeed, he was.
After spending a day lighting a smokey fire and firing signal shots, Fisher decided to follow the Queets River to the ocean. His only grub was a grouse he’d shot and a salmon he caught with a spearhead attached to his alpenstock. He declared the salmon was “much better than strong bear or dog flesh.”
Fisher reported that sleeping along the Queets River was difficult. Between the thrashing of the salmon in the river and the breaking of brush by the large animals hunting the salmon, it was like “a camp in Barnum’s Menagerie as far as sleep was concerned.”
As Fisher found his way down the Queets, he came upon several fish drying racks that had not been used that summer. These would have been associated with villages of the Queets People whose territory stretched from Mount Olympus to the ocean. They hunted elk, gathered roots and berries, carved canoes from the massive cedar trees and harvested salmon from the weirs they had built across the river.
In 1856, the Queets People ceded their territory through the Treaty of Olympia. By 1890, the coastal Tribes had been decimated by diseases and forced onto reservations, leaving most traditional villages in the watershed abandoned.
On Sept. 26, Pvt. Fisher was hailed by an Indian, also named Fisher, who offered the lost explorer a canoe ride downriver. Fisher described floating the Queets in the cedar canoe watching his new friend hitting fish 20 or 30 feet away with a forked spear. After spearing six large salmon, he quit fishing. Fisher describes his “staunch friend” watching the many splashing salmon with “Pride, as a farmer would his cattle.” He mentioned a weir that was built across the river to intercept the salmon.
Fisher noted several homestead cabins along the Queets.
By the 1900s, the valley was settled by farmers and a dude ranch and fishing resort whose guests included Zane Gray.
In 1938, the supervisor of fisheries resources of the newly created Olympic National Park declared the Queets to be the best fishing stream in the Olympic Area. Shortly thereafter, the Park removed private landowners along the river to create a pristine environment from the glaciers to the ocean.
A recent float down the Queets River revealed a far different world than the one described by Pvt. Fisher. There are no V-shaped ripples in water 4 feet deep, made by giant king salmon swimming upriver in uncounted hordes. There were no dead spawners on the shore that used to feed the ecosystem with their nutrients.
The night was undisturbed by splashing salmon or the animals hunting them. The salmon drying racks have been replaced by a quickie-mart.
It is the end of the last frontier.
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@example.com.