PAT NEAL: The Peninsula’s hidden trails

OFTEN WHILE GLIDING along the paved roads of the Olympic Peninsula you wonder at the difficulty of travel in this land before the age of the automobile.

Before there were roads there were railroads.

Most were used for hauling logs until the invention of the log truck.

Before there were railroads there were trails.

The first people made the first trails probably following the seasonal migration paths of elk that would provide an easier passage through the thick undergrowth and blown-down timber the Olympics are famous for.

While generations of historians and anthropologists have insisted the Native Americans of the Olympic Peninsula lived along the seashore and seldom ventured inland, subsequent archaeological discoveries reveal that the Olympic Mountains were inhabited throughout the vast interior for hunting, fishing and gathering everything from blueberries to cedar logs used in the manufacture of canoes.

This false impression seemed to be promoted by the Native Americans themselves, who promulgated a great fear of the Thunderbird, a creature that caught whales in the ocean and carried them up to the glaciers for safekeeping, and the Skookums, giant cannibal ogres that haunted the mountains and preyed on humans.

It was as if the Native Americans saw no good reason to share their territories with European invaders after having fought pitched battles with other tribes for their ownership.

That would explain a report by the Press Expedition, which on meeting some Elwha elk hunters Feb. 10, 1890, near the present national park boundary on Olympic Hot Springs Road declared that, “The Indians were utterly ignorant of the country.”

The Press boys had just spent weeks pushing a leaky barge up the Elwha River.

They had passed the site of a S’Klallam village at the mouth of Indian Creek where it drained from Indian Valley.

Having failed to kill any game or catch any fish, the Press boys were living on bacon and beans while the Elwhas had elk meat hanging around their camp.

All of which begs the question: who would have been the party that was “utterly ignorant” of the country?

Nineteenth century Native Americans did not live in an informational vacuum.

In 1859, James Swan related a legend of the Makah of Cape Flattery that told of a tribe that lived near the North Pole who dressed in skins, lived on the ice and boiled out blubber of whales and seals.

If the Makah knew of the Eskimo, there is little doubt that in the next 30 years Native Americans would have learned through the moccasin telegraph about the massacre of the buffalo, the coming of the railroads, the treaties of 1855 and other historical events that would change their lives forever.

Just the fact that the Press Expedition continued up the river in the winter would have betrayed their utter ignorance of the country.

To this day, no one with a lick of common sense would venture into the interior of the Olympics in winter where avalanches can plummet down thousands of feet into the timbered valleys in a matter of minutes, obliterating everything in their path.

Nowhere is the evolution of our transportation more apparent than the current smooth-as-a-baby’s-bottom road around Lake Crescent.

Before the road, there was a ferry across Lake Crescent from East Beach to Fairholm.

Before the ferry, there was a trail built in 1903 by Chris Morgenroth, a Forest Reserve ranger.

Morgenroth was an experienced trail builder, having blazed the 80-mile Pacific Coast Trail from Forks to Queets in 1892.

Parts of this trail would become what is now U.S. Highway 101.

To be continued …


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

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