PAT NEAL: From elk to puncheon trails

IN LAST WEEK’S episode we were considering the evolution of the Olympic Peninsula infrastructure while cruising the highways and byways of the paradise we call home. Most of our roads probably started out as elk trails.

Elk, being migratory herd animals, tended to travel in single file when they were moving from the high Olympics to the lowlands in the fall and back again in the spring.

Elk trails still come in handy if you find yourself in the wilderness with no other trails or roads.

Elk routinely find the easiest way through the rough country even if it is straight up or down because they don’t seem to believe in switchbacks.

Following an elk trail is an adventure because a lot of time they seem to be going the wrong way from a human perspective.

Lt. Joseph. P. O’Neil, the first government surveyor to explore the Olympics back in 1885, depended on elk trails to pioneer his route.

The book “Men, Mules and Mountains” by Robert L. Wood describes a difference of opinion between O’Neil and one of his enlisted men who insisted the elk trail they were following was going the wrong way through country described as “a crosscut saw business side upwards with the devil on one side and hell upon the other.”

The explorers soon learned the elk trails were the only way through the country even if they were going the wrong way.

Except for one minor detail: Elk trails have a maddening habit of petering out and disappearing altogether just when you really need them.

That’s when the pioneers would break out the shovels, axes, mattocks, saws and dynamite and the fun began.

Building trails in the rainforest in the west end of the Peninsula was even tougher than that.

Slashing a trail through the brush and blowdowns was only the beginning of the trail-building project.

If anyone walked on the trail the amount of water coming out of the sky would soon turn the trail to mud.

After a season of rain, a horse would sink in up to its belly in wet spots on the trail.

There was only one thing to do.

They built what was called a puncheon trail, that is, one made of wood.

Loggers were already using puncheon roads. These were a series of logs set in the ground and lubricated with everything from axle grease to whale oil to make the logs slide out of the woods with the aid of oxen, horses and colorful language.

Puncheon trails were built with the most abundant building material available at the time: cedar slabs. The western red cedar is an aromatic wood that is resistant to rot.

Cedar logs buried in the mud for a thousand years or so with mature cedars growing on top of them can be as sound as the day they fell down.

Building a puncheon trail was a big job because it involved cutting and splitting thousands of board feet of lumber from raw logs and packing the wood to make the trail.

What would become known as, “The Pacific Trail” was started in Forks in the fall of 1890 when Chris Morgenroth and a crew of settlers built 10 miles of trail south to the Bogachiel.

This trail linked up with the trail coming from Lake Crescent and reached south to the Queets River.

In 1909, the Pacific Trail was completed. The Olympic Leader announced it was possible to ride a horse from Grays Harbor to Port Angeles.

The story of the Pacific Trail and what is left of it will be told next week.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild