PAT NEAL: Peninsula power problems

IT WAS A dark and stormy night. Then the power went out and it got darker. The storm got wilder.

Our thoughts were with our heroes, the linemen who go out in the storm and figure out what happened to the electricity.

Losing power is nothing new on the Olympic Peninsula, where the electricity started going out shortly after it got here.

The first electric light bulb west of the Rocky Mountains was lit up in Seattle in 1886 with a steam-powered generator.

By 1892, electricity had moved west to Port Angeles, where it was boasted that 200 buildings had power.

That was about when Tom Aldwell moved to Port Angeles.

He spent over a decade enlisting homesteaders, investors and government agencies promoting “peace, power and civilization.” Whatever that meant.

To Aldwell, it meant building a dam on the Elwha River to provide power and water for the railroad and mills he hoped to lure to the Olympic Peninsula to exploit the supposed “inexhaustible” natural resources.

Today, Aldwell is seen as a historic villain who built a dam without salmon passage. This is a prime example of “presentism,” where we judge historical figures through the lens of the present.

Aldwell is judged harshly today by people who have never lived without electricity. They’ve spent their whole lives insulated in a cocoon of electric this and automatic that, while burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels and electricity for their toys, gadgets and cars every year.

Aldwell haters might change their tune if they were forced to live without electricity. People might actually prefer eating tilapia in a heated, well-lit home to feasting on a hundred-pound salmon while freezing in the dark. But that’s another column.

This is about power outages — the first of which occurred shortly after the Elwha dam was finished in 1912.

The foundation blew out and it took until 1914 to get the juice going again.

Today, we take it for granted that when the wind blows, the power is liable to go out. You need a backup plan for when dinner is in the oven, nowhere near done, and everything turns off and goes dark.

I fumbled in the dark for a flashlight.

The batteries were dead.

I found my cell phone. Its batteries were dead.

I tried to turn on the radio, but the battery was dead. It was a perfect trifecta of dead batteries.

Wandering around in the dark playing Blind Man’s Bluff, I stepped on a fish hook.

Amid the pain and panic, I stepped on another one.

As much as I hate fishing with barbless hooks, they are easier to pull out of your hide than the ones with the barbs still on.

That was OK. I had a pair of pliers in a tool box, if I could only find it somewhere.

Searching for pliers seemed to take a very long time.

My feet were throbbing.

At that point, what I really needed was a hot cup of coffee. That and getting the fishhooks out of my feet.

I tried the faucet, but only a thin trickle of rusty water came out.

The water pump needed electricity to work. Duh.

Then I remembered. The toilet had water. Enough for coffee anyway.

I could boil it with my camping stove. But the camping stove was out of fuel.

About then, I realized I should have made a list of everything I needed in a power outage: batteries, candles, matches, lighters, camp stove fuel and water — but I would need a pen and paper for that and I couldn’t find anything in the dark.


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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