PAT NEAL: Opening day of elk season

IT WAS DAYLIGHT in the swamp on the opening day of elk season.

It is a day steeped in a tradition that harkens back to an earlier time when people depended on getting an elk for their winter’s meat.

With the European invasion, the Olympic elk were market hunted for their meat, antlers, hides and ivory teeth, or just shot and left to rot by thrill-seeking lowlifes who liked to watch them fall.

In 1905, the Washington State Legislature stopped all elk hunting.

In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt, one of the greatest elk hunters who ever lived, established Mount Olympus National Monument, a precursor of Olympic National Park, to save the elk.

The government put a bounty on wolves, bears and cougars.

Varmint hunting became respectable.

It was a way many homestead families could survive the Great Depression in the wilderness.

By 1937, the elk had expanded beyond the carrying capacity of many parts of their range.

Elk were starving and loaded with internal parasites.

The Game Commission opened an eight-day season in October and November in Clallam and Jefferson counties for any and all elk.

William (Billy) Welsh a columnist for the Port Angeles Evening News, a forerunner of the Peninsula Daily News, journeyed to the upper Hoh River that October to cover what he called “The Elk War.”

Welch, described the opening-day salvo as 5,280 elk hunters opened fire on previously unhunted elk as a “battle.”

As with any battle, there were casualties.

Before our current emphasis on hunter safety, it was a common practice for groups of hunters to surround an unsuspecting elk herd and open fire.

This meant the hunters were often firing at each other while blazing away at the elk.

One man died in a fusillade of bullets fired at a bull elk.

A boy shot himself in the leg while cleaning his gun.

Three hunters were badly burned when one of the nimrods shot a can of gasoline inside their tent.

Another drowned trying to drive through the flooding Hoh River before the invention of four-wheel drive.

The casualties might have been higher, but a gully-washer dumped 10 inches of rain. The elk hunters were forced to concentrate on just trying to survive.

Welch described the sorry spectacle when thousands of soaking-wet elk hunters tried to drown their sorrows in liquor.

They descended upon Forks, which had run out of whiskey long before the elk season had even started.

All Forks had left was some gin, which was never very popular on the frontier.

In all, an estimated 800 elk, one donkey and a pack horse were killed.

In his book, “The Last Wilderness,” Murray Morgan described a farmer’s cow that was mistaken for an elk and shot.

The farmer propped the cow up against a tree, where it kept getting shot all season long by confused hunters.

As the story goes, after elk season, the farmer melted her down for lead.

This past opening day of elk season was mighty quiet.

I did not hear a single shot fired.

Things have changed. The wolves may be gone, but the cougars and bears are protected by laws against hound hunting.

Their numbers have sky-rocketed.

Meanwhile, the elk have been hunted to near death.

The big herds of 60 or 70 elk are gone — replaced by bunches of a dozen or so with few legal bulls.

I quit and went home before noon.

There were fresh elk tracks in the lawn.

If I had just slept in and stayed home, I might have got an elk.

Oh well, maybe next year.

_________

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 protected].

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