Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 60 miles Time out: 5 days
Degree of Difficulty: Moderate Elevation: 3,602 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
Post #1 – Were these guys from the Press Expedition really the first?
The Press Expedition. Photo courteUniversity of Washington Libraries, Special Collections
Join Trisha and I on a five-day backpacking adventure across the breadth of Olympic National Park. We’ll retrace the footsteps of arctic explorer James H. Christie and the hearty men of his 1889 Press Expedition while examining records left by local Native American tribes in our quest to answer this question: who were the first people to cross the enigmatic Olympic Mountains?
Detailed books and splashy newspaper accounts have documented the trials of the Press Expedition. Their journey was even fictionalized in the sprawling novel, ‘West of Here’, written by my friend, Jonathan Evison, where protagonist James Mather, like the real James Christie, leads his men into the unknown interior of the Olympic Peninsula.
Meanwhile, native Americans quietly called the Olympic Peninsula their home for the last 10,000 years. Their close relationship with the land and water is recounted in their traditional stories as they traded, fought, and sometimes intermarried. The arrival of the Europeans in the 1850s changed their way of life. Within twenty years, the Native Americans had been forced onto eight reservations circling the Olympic Peninsula. Beginning at the northwestern point of the peninsula and moving clockwise, the tribes included the Makah, Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Skokomish, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, Quinault, Hoh, and Quileute.
The tribes’ impact on this bountiful land was minimal. At the same time, European settlers logged the shoreline forests, continuing up rivers into the foothills until the then-unknown and impregnable Olympic Mountains hampered their progress, the mountains Trisha and I hoped to cross.
Post #2 – Would you have answered this call?
As unknown as the interior of Africa
As Trisha and I prepared for our backpacking adventure, we thought about the timber barons who had logged the Olympic Peninsula with impunity, right up to the foothills. The idea that the Olympic Mountains—clearly visible from their opulent mansions located in Seattle and the other newly minted cities around Puget Sound—hid an interior landscape that was as unknown as darkest Africa must have been galling to these powerful men. Finally, in 1889 the Seattle Press (predecessor of the Seattle Times) printed this clarion call, “There is a fine opportunity for some of the hardy citizens of the Sound to acquire fame by unveiling the mystery which wraps the land encircled by the snowcapped Olympic range.” Out of the many who volunteered, the Seattle Press selected a team of six whom they outfitted for the exploration.
Post #3 -Is ‘grit and manly vim’ their secret ingredient?
Hoping to channel a bit of that grit and manly vim
Our journey would take us from the northern to the southern border of Olympic National Park. We’d climb up the Elwha River, cross over the watershed at Low Divide pass, then continue down the Quinault River. This was supposed to be a 48-mile wilderness journey, but the road to the Whiskey Bend trailhead was washed out, so we had to add six miles along an empty paved road. (We added another six when yours truly took a wrong turn, but that’s another story) No matter, it was a pleasant August weather.
Back in 1889, the Seattle Press Expedition would make the same journey in the dead of winter. While many considered the Press Expedition’s trek through the unknown mountains challenging enough, most thought it was suicidal to travel during such frigid weather. Not so their sponsor, the Seattle Press who claimed they had full confidence in the men of the expedition because “They have an abundance of grit and manly vim.”
Post #4 – We carried no napalm
One tough backpacker babe
While Trisha and I carried all that we needed in our backpacks, the Press Expedition purchased 2,000 lbs. of equipment and supplies for the same journey. The men stocked guns, ammunition, a tent, canvas sheets, blankets, fishing tackle, axes, saws, carpentry and prospecting tools, snowshoes, cooking utensils, camera and film, bacon, sugar, tea, coffee, flour and dried foodstuffs, tobacco and whiskey. They even packed 50 lbs. of a napalm like substance, “for the purpose of illuminating, if possible, some peak visible from Seattle.”
The Press Expedition packed so many supplies because they weren’t sure what obstacles whey would encounter. There was speculation that in the unknown interior, the Olympic Mountains rose as rings of concentric circles that hid lush prairies and a massive lake at the center where fierce cannibals roamed, or even the lost tribe of Israel might have settled. Yet nobody asked any of the tribes living on the eight newly created reservations what secrets the Press Expedition might uncover. Unnecessary, cried the territorial governor of Washington State. He promised his white audience that the Native nations were so frightened by the legends of fantastic beasts living in the interior that the Olympic Mountains were terra incognita to them.
Post #5– The bountiful Elwha River
Historically, the Elwha River had prodigious salmon runs
The Lower Elwha Klallam had enjoyed the bounty of the Elwha River for thousands of years. The Elwha and its tributaries had produced some of the most prolific salmon runs on the peninsula, including Coho, chum, humpies, steelhead, and especially King Salmon, some of which could reach an impressive 100 lbs. The Press Expedition feasted on the bounty of the Elwha River too. Expedition leader Christie caught fourteen salmon in half an hour in a pool next to their camp in Geyser Valley, none smaller than two feet long.
All that changed when pioneer Thomas Aldwell began construction of the first of two dams spanning the Elwha back in 1910. Though the electricity generated from the dams was an economic boon to the struggling village of Port Angeles, Aldwell cut corners and built both dams without fish passages, which ended those prodigious salmon runs and ravaged the economic life of the Lower Elwha Klallam.
But there was still more pain in store for the tribe. A tradition going back generations described a flat rock along the river with two deep depressions as the place where the Creator bathed and blessed the tribe and showed them visions of their future calling in life. The rising waters behind the Elwha Dam flooded over their sacred creation site and literally drowned the spiritual heart of the Lower Elwha Klallam.
Post #6 Nothing went as planned
fpe06 – Mules are still used to haul supplies and equipment through the Olympics
Trisha and I hefted on our backpacks at the Madison Falls parking lot and strode past the mule coral to begin our 5-day journey. I admit to being a bit too excited about our adventure and not paying enough attention to landmarks, and so I missed the turn to Whiskey Bend. Result? I led our little party many miles in the wrong direction.
Back in 1889, the Press Expedition had a much worse start. Rival expeditions threatened to conquer the Olympics the coming spring. With the Seattle Press newspaper’s encouragement, the Expedition arrived in Port Angeles on December 7th of what would become the coldest winter on record. Leader James Christy was unsure how to get his men and his ton of supplies through the deep snow. Relying on the advice of Port Angeles Mayor, Norman Smith, who claimed the wild Elwha was navigable for most of its 45-mile length, the Press Expedition decided to build a boat and pole and pull their supplies up the frigid river.
The men constructed the ‘Gertie,’ a thirty foot-long, flat bottomed boat out of green lumber, which meant she promptly sank when launched. After lighting massive fires to dry the lumber, they re-assembled, re-caulked, and relaunched her. Result? After two weeks of struggling against the icy rapids in waters up to their waists, the frozen and exhausted men had succeeded in moving only four miles upstream.
By January 24th, 1890, the men had abandoned their boat and loaded their one ton of supplies on their two mules, Dollie and Jennie. Their small feet made it possible to climb narrow mountainside trails, where a big horse couldn’t. Today the heavy equipment and supplies for trail maintenance and repair are still hauled by pack trains of mules in Olympic National Park. Thanks in part to these hard-working beasts, Trisha and I hoped that we’d find the trail ahead free of blow-downs and maintained.
Post #7 – Wild thing you make my heart sing.
Trisha standing on the remains of the Glines Canyon Dam with former Lake Mills in the background
A few miles up the abandoned auto road Trisha and I stood, smiling and lighthearted, upon the last vestiges of the Glines Canyon dam. Below us, stretching toward the distant mountains, was a river valley reborn. In the thick of the battle over climate change, pollution, and deforestation, good ol’ planet earth had won a round for a change. A century after the two Elwha River dams were constructed and after decades of debate, the mistakes of the past were rectified when the last of the dams was removed in 2014.
After the reservoir waters receded, the lakebeds were blanketed in a thick layer of silt and dotted with stumps that looked as if they’d been cut yesterday. But the biggest surprise was yet to come. The National Park Service contacted The Lower Elwha Klallam with the news that the tribe’s long-lost creation site had been found.
Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles and members of her tribe visited the rock, said prayers, and sang songs honoring their ancestors and elders. For Charles, validating what many believed was a myth was a powerful yet humbling experience that has revitalized tribal activities.
Today most of the lakebed sediments have been washed to the sea, creating a thriving river delta. Fish populations in the Elwha River have surged. According to a recent report from Washington State Fish and Wildlife Services, the number of juveniles produced from adult chinook salmon has increased from 16,000 to nearly 500,000, and chinook are now swimming as far as 34 miles upstream. Hatchery coho have established self-sustaining populations. Nature’s magic is unfolding as summer steelhead appear to have developed from the resident rainbow trout formerly trapped upstream. Bull trout are now spawning in the extreme Elwha headwaters. Plants are sprouting and proliferating, just like the fish. The FWS report concludes wryly, “The Elwha River ecosystem is recovering at a faster rate than the planning effort leading to the removal of the two Elwha dams.”
Now the Elwha River runs free—but be careful what you wish for. The Elwha is currently posing difficulties for Port Angeles’ industrial water supply and its potable water backup system. At first, the muddy water, thick with sediments, overloaded the system, and now the everchanging river is threatening to meander away from the intake well. City officials are looking at an enormous rise in the cost of operating and maintaining the facilities.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service struggles to maintain its infrastructure as the Elwha smashes bridges and slices through campgrounds, refusing to be tamed again. After multiple washouts, you can no longer drive up the Elwha River road to the trailhead at Whiskey Bend. Currently, the NPS is considering options to relocate the highway above the river’s floodplain, but that will take years. Meanwhile, the wild Elwha forced Trisha and me to hike an additional six miles along the abandoned asphalt road before we could truly begin our wilderness journey.
Post #8 – Everybody wanted a piece of this valley
Trisha at Humes Ranch
Trisha and I finally reached the trailhead at Whiskey Bend late in the day and began hiking on the wilderness trail. Now and then, I kicked aside the soil, searching for ancient spearpoints or examined the trunks of giant firs for three horizontal blazes, the Press Expedition’s calling card. I found neither. The sun had set behind the mountain ridges when we reached our destination for the evening, Humes Ranch. Here in Geyser Valley, the river meandered past a broad field. Exhausted from the extra mileage we’d traveled on our first day, we eagerly set to making camp in the lush grass of this perfect campsite.
We weren’t the only ones to fall in love with Geyser Valley. The Press Expedition had struggled mightily through February and most of March of 1890 to reach this same open valley. One of its men, John H. Crumback, was so enamored with this location that he staked a claim here. On the first day of spring 1890, the men of the Press Expedition chopped down four trees, limbed and notched them, and then place them in a square to show the world that this valley now belonged to Crumback.
At the time of the Press Expedition, it had become shockingly easy to claim 160 acres of prime forest lands on the Olympic Peninsula. The tribes had been coerced into turning over most of their ancestral lands to the government, and in turn, the Homestead Act gave that land away to anybody willing to stake a claim, especially if you were white.
Crumback may have claimed the valley, but to acquire title was the difficult part. You were supposed to spend the next five years improving your land. Crumback never returned to Geyser Valley, so nothing ever came of his claim. Yet that wasn’t always what happened. With little oversite, others abused the Homestead Act, and plenty of forested lands from un-proven homesteads ended up in the hands of rich timber barons.
Eventually, a homestead was proven up here in Geyser Valley. Seven years after the Press Expedition passed through here, Will Humes claimed this location. His brother Grant joined him in 1900, and together they cleared the fields and built this cabin. Eventually, Will returned home to New England, but brother Grant stayed on carving out a living here in the forest by growing a few crops, hunting, and guiding. Grant lived in this cabin alone for 34 years until his death. Today his barn and other buildings are gone, but thankfully, the National Park Service has preserved his cozy little cabin.
Trisha and I loved this open field and the soft grass under our tent. We turned in after dinner and were soon fast asleep in our comfortable beds. Grant Humes loved this place too. When business forced him to travel to bustling Seattle, Humes said upon his return, “I’m glad to get back to the cool, green, woods, and the peace and quiet and beauty to be enjoyed here.”
Post #9 – Humans have been wandering throughout the Olympic Mountains for thousands of years
A 2,900 year-old basket fragment found in a melting glacier at Obstruction Point
Trisha and I, refreshed from a ten-hour sleep, enjoyed our second day on the winding trail. As we hiked under the canopy of ancient firs with their combs of feathery moss, we passed half a dozen log cabins and shelters like the one at Humes Ranch. These historical structures highlighted the usage and travels of white settlers, hunters, and fishermen in the Olympics.
While evidence of travel though the Olympics before the arrival of Europeans was difficult for Trisha and I to discern, it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. I would love to report that Trisha and I were the ones to find this 2,900-year-old basket fragment, but alas, no. It was discovered in a melting glacier in the high country near Hurricane Ridge. Traveling even further back in time, archaeologists have found sites along the Elwha and in the high-country meadows where Neolithic hunters flaked tools at their campsites 8,000 years ago.
Who else had traveled in these mountains?
Back in the spring of 1890, the Press Expedition was surprised how difficult their struggle up the Elwha had become. Leader James Christie lamented, “The Elwha is quite a different stream I find from the Elwha of common report.”
The Press Expedition had been given bad reconnaissance. Back in December, Christie claimed that the Lower Elwha Klallam living at the mouth of the river had no information about the interior of the mountains, so he had turned to the mayor of Port Angeles mayor for guidance—someone who had no experience or knowledge of the river.
Perhaps the language barrier was too much, or maybe the Lower Elwha Klallam thought pulling a ton of supplies through the snowy Olympics was madness. Whatever the reason, it’s too bad this tribe didn’t advise Christie, because their history is full of stories of travels across the Olympics. This natural byway was a place for them to gather food, hunt, trade, wage war, attend potlatches, and even vacation. Olympic National Park anthropologist, Jackilee Wray, interviewed a Klallam who recalled how her grandmother traveled across the mountains with her five children to visit relatives at the mouth of the Quinault.
Trisha and I stopped for a snack on the bridge over the Lillian River and felt the cold air tumbled down the canyon along with the rushing water. By the time the Press Expedition had reached this confluence of the Lillian and Elwha Rivers in late March of 1890, their one ton of equipment and provisions had been reduced to 800 lbs. The men didn’t seem worried that their supplies were getting low, as they anticipated easy hunting and fishing in the upper Elwha. They wouldn’t have been so cavalier if they’d known the next nasty surprise that was in store.
If only James Christie had spent a bit more time with the Lower Elwha Klallam asking their advice.
Photo courtesy Matthew Dubeau, Museum Curator, Olympic National Park.
Post #10 – The comforts of Camp
The Comforts of Camp
Trisha and I finished the days’ 15-mile hike at 6pm at the confluence of the Elwha and the Hayes River where we set up camp. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe fished at least this far up the river. Joe Sampson recalled that prior to the dams, he made trips up the Hayes River where there were large chinook salmon.
It sounded like the fishing had been good for the Klallam. Trisha and I had plenty of food too, but by this point in their journey, back in the early spring of 1890, the men of the Press Expedition were running out of supplies. Breakfast was a little baked flour and water and tea. The men believed they could live off the land, but after crossing the Lillian River, they entered the high country and had no luck hunting and fishing.
I filled our water bottles from the tumbling Hayes river, named after Christopher O’Connell Hayes, Yakima cowboy and at 22, the youngest of the Press Expedition. I lit a fire, and we got dinner going, simple, as cooking consisted of pouring hot water into our freeze-dried food pouches. We mixed a little of the hot water with our whiskey ration and sipped it to smooth out our aches and pains.
By now, the Expedition had none of those creature comforts left. Captain Charles Adams Barnes, whose topography experience made him the expedition’s mapmaker, noted in his journal that they had used up all their sugar and coffee. The Press Expedition had packed in whiskey too. Yet, the men weren’t as diligent in making their supply last as Trisha and me. Barnes commented wryly, “We had some excellent whiskey in the medicine chest on starting, but during the first two or three weeks, so much palliative was required for cramps in the stomach, nausea, sore thumbs, etc., that it was all consumed. Fortunately, all recovered from these diseases, and the camp has since had no necessity for the remedy.”
In no time at all, Trisha and I had our tent set up, pads and pillows inflated, and sleeping bags unfurled. The Press Expedition had its own system for sleeping on the snowy hillsides. The men would cut out a bench of snow ten feet square, chop a giant tree into logs and place them parallel. On one end of the log platform they would light their big fire, while on the other end, they would layer boughs a foot thick for sleeping. I could almost hear the men sigh as they turned to bed after cooking their supper. “We were as comfortable as we had any right to be,” Barnes said, then adding. “The fire, replenished once or twice during the night, lasted till morning, and at the first gray signs of dawn, one can spring to his feet with the elasticity of boyhood.”
Trisha and I slipped into our sleeping bags as we fell asleep to the melodic sounds of the Hayes River just a few feet away. We had completed day-two of our five-day journey, and though I didn’t imagine we’d be jumping up with the elasticity of boy or girlhood when the sun rose, I was excited about what adventures tomorrow would bring.
For the Press Expedition, it was a life-threatening miscalculation that was about to dawn upon them.
Post #11 – A big mistake
Bridge over the Elwha at Chicago Camp
By the time of the Press Expedition, there were hundreds of trails used by the Native Nations around the Olympic Peninsula. Harry Hobucket, Quileute Tribe, wrote about a trail from Port Angeles up through the Olympic mountains, along the ridge by the Sol Duc River and down to Lake Quinault, Trisha and my final destination.
While the tribes’ single-file trails simply wound around tree and obstacles, the Press Expedition had been slowly cutting a wide swath of forest so that the interior of the Olympics might be open to settlers. Captain Barnes said, “So thoroughly had we done it that a party leaving Port Angeles, could lope after us on horseback, and easily travel in a few days over a road it had taken us months to come.”
By the time the Press Expedition had reached the confluence of the Goldie River in April of 1889, gone was any attempt at road building. The men needed to find the headwaters of the Quinault and quickly. Their supplies were almost gone and wild game proved elusive. It was then that Christie took a gamble, deciding that the Goldie River would be a shortcut to the Quinault River.
It was a mistake that would make my earlier six-mile navigation error seem microscopic.
The Press Expedition left the Elwha behind and slogged their way up the Goldie River, climbing a valley so steep that there is still no trail through it today. When their last mule refused to go on, they left her behind to starve. They cached more of their precious supplies to lighten their load and carried what little they had left on their backs. When nobody was looking, their own hungry dogs wolfed down the last of the supply of bacon. Of the ragged looking men, Barns said. “Tougher looking tramps never bummed the roadside.”
The Press Expedition wasn’t lost, yet the men didn’t understand what was in front on them. Day after day they continued to climb through the snow, determined to reach the ridge above the Goldie to where they could look down and reckon their actual location.
Finally, when the men of the Press Expedition stood on the final crest of snow and ice, they realized their mistake. Below them was not the Quinault, but the Elwha which had almost circled them in the shape of the letter ‘C’. Their struggle up the Goldie River valley, the most difficult twelve-days of their entire journey, could have been accomplished by a three-day easy snowshoe up the Elwha. But the men spent no time on self-recrimination. “Such is the fate of explorers,” wrote Barnes jauntily, as the men quicky traversed down the other side of the ridge to join the Elwha in the vicinity of this log bridge at Chicago Camp.
Meanwhile it was the end of the day and Trisha and still had three more steep miles left to climb to reach where we were supposed to camp for the night. Exhausted, we gave up, flopped down at Chicago Camp and slept dreamlessly next to the Elwha River.
Tomorrow, both the Press Expedition and Trisha and I would leave our old friend, the Elwha River, which at this altitude was reduced to the size of a small stream. Covering the same ground—but separated by 130 years—all of us would make the final push to the pass at Low Divide and the headwaters of the Quinault River. This ground back in 1890 would be the last bit of terra incognita on the Olympic Peninsula—perhaps in the United States—not for the tribes, but for James Christie and the Press Expedition.
Post #12 – Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you
The last few miles of trail that wound its way up toward Low Divide was steep enough that Trisha and I needed frequent breaks. It was a warm morning, and I sweated heavily. There were numerous blowdowns where we found ourselves grasping for roots and limbs, just like the men of the Press Expedition had to do as they traversed this same mountainside back in May of 1890.
After a hard climb, Trisha and I reached Lake Mary and then here in the photo, the nearby Lake Margaret. Low Divide was close now. When the Press Expedition passed through here, all this was buried under so many feet of snow that they misidentified the strip of land between the two lakes as the location of the Divide.
It was near here that James Christie shot a bear. Within fifteen minutes, the starving men of the Press Expedition were consuming the bruin in an orgy of gastronomic indulgence. They fried the bear, they roasted the bear, they made bear soup with the choice tidbits of the tail and feet. The men even rolled up the sides of greasy meat, which they boiled and ate cold. After starving for so long, it was the bear’s fat the men craved. “Pure white, the consistency of butter. Add a little salt and it has the taste of the purest dairy article, together with an indescribable flavor peculiarly its own.”
Hunters from the Native Nations roamed the Olympic Mountains, but they took care not to journey into other tribes’ lands lest there be war. Whenever the Skokomish appeared at Lake Quinault, it was to fight with the Quinault tribe, until the day a Skokomish married a Quinault, and the two tribes became friends. While the mountain peaks were natural boundaries for the tribes, this central Divide where Trisha and I stood was shared hunting territory for the Quinault, Skokomish, Klallam, and Queets. Perhaps in these troubled political times, we should send opposing politicians to Low Divide in hopes they too would find common ground.
Post #13 – She’s over the top
Astride the mighty Quinault River
Trisha and I continued uphill after leaving the shoreline on Lake Margaret until we noticed a stream emerging from the lush undergrowth, which, instead of trickling toward us, was flowing away from us. When Trisha put one foot on either side of the creek, she straddled the headwaters of the mighty Quinault River. We had finally reached the legendary Low Divide. Here at the mythical center of the Olympics, there was no grassy prairie, no massive lake that drained great rivers, no cannibals, no Israelites. Low Divide, the great unknown, the place that the men of the Press Expedition had struggled so mightily to reach over the last five months, was a barely discernable rise on a nondescript section of dirt trail.
Here where Trisha and I turned our backs on the northward flowing waters of the Elwha and faced the southward flowing waters of the Quinault, the age of exploration ended for the Press Expedition. While the tribes had roamed these mountains for eons, it wasn’t until this moment that white men fully understood the Olympic Peninsula’s geography. There was no more blank space on the map. For the first time on that sunny day back in early May of 1890, the men of the Press Expedition knew precisely where they were and where they were headed.
Barnes was eager to bid the Olympic Mountains good riddance. “Down the gap of the Quinault, a second range appeared, and beyond them, sky – thank heaven, there was an end to them.” At the mouth of the Quinault River was the sea, civilization, home.
What was the former polar explorer James Christie thinking at this moment when he gazed down the Quinault River valley and realized he had nothing left to explore? His journal is silent, so free to speculate, I turned to this poignant passage from Jonathan Evison’s novel, ‘West of Here,’ where his fictional explorer, Mather, stands on the same place as Christie and the real Press Expedition.
“Yet standing on the divide, with the wind whistling past his ears, Mather could not shake a certain disillusion in knowing that what lay in front of him had already been discovered, had no doubt seen the restless footsteps of other men. Paradise, if it existed, lay somewhere behind them—perhaps they’d trudged right through its midst without even recognizing it. Mather would not be the man to discover it. He’d known that this day was coming, or at least sensed the day when everything before him had yielded to discovery. Thus it felt to Mather less like he had arrived here and more like this place had been following him all along.”
So sadly beautiful. I bet that was what James Christie was thinking.
Post #14 – It’s a jungle out there
Both Trisha and I, along with the Press Expedition, recognized that the Quinault valley was a wetter, lusher climate than the Elwha. The air felt thick from the furious exhalation of the breathing jungle surrounding us. For much of the year, Pacific storms ran unimpeded up the valley dumping prodigious amounts of rain and snow. Watered frequently, the green blanket of moss and ferns wrapped itself over the earth’s contours while massive trees blotted out the sky.
As the Press Expedition descended this same valley back in mid-May of 1890, the snow disappeared, and the men occasionally followed “an ancient Indian trail.” Barnes wondered, with elementary logic, if the reason he didn’t see evidence of a continuous trail on both sides of the Divide was that all signs were buried under the snow.
Here on the south side of Low Divide, the Press Expedition was following in the footsteps of the Quinault Tribe. It was through this riotous forest that the Quinault traveled over well-worn trails to their favorite hunting locations. They were so at home in these woods that the Skokomish and the Klallam called the Quinault, the “forest people.”
Now, Christie’s insistence on traveling in winter was beginning to make sense. Instead of snowshoeing on many feet of snow that blanketed the tangles of blowdowns and smoothed over the steep canyons, the Press Expedition now found it slow going over uneven ground as they hacked their way through the matted bush.
It rained and rained on the Press Expedition. Their clothing rotted until the men were nearly naked. Meanwhile, they watched the Quinault River, swollen by snowmelt, rush past them to the sea. Tempted, the men decided to build a raft and float down the river. Like the ill-fated Gertie on the Elwha River, this raft on the Quinault would prove another costly mistake. They collided with a log jam only a mile downstream from where the Press Expedition launched their unwieldy craft. The raft was sucked under the swift-moving waters, and Christopher Hayes almost drowned. The men lost their guns, ammunition, bearskins, fishing tackle, and mineral samples. Barns narrowly averted a complete disaster as he managed to save his pack, which contained all the maps and records.
The men stumbled on, buoyed by the single thought that they were close to homesteaders who had recently settled in the upper valley. With the perfect hindsight of history, trying to raft the Quinault during the spring rains and melting snows seems foolish. Still, Trisha and I didn’t blame the men of the Press Expedition for wanting a speedy return to the comforts of civilization. Tired, after a long day of following the Quinault River and unable to hike any further, Trisha and I decided to make camp at Trapper Shelter, in a boggy, waist-high thicket of ferns. We lit a fire to ward off the cloud of mosquitoes and the coming darkness.
It was time for all of us to go home.
Post #15 – Conclusion: who was the first to cross the Olympics?
Our journey’s end at Lake Quinault Lodge
Day five, the last day of our journey dawned clear and bright. With a quickness of step energized by proximity to the luxuries of civilization, by early afternoon Trisha and I had reached our final destination, Lake Quinault Lodge.
The Press Expedition had finally emerged from the wilderness too. With the help of a Quinault tribal guide and a large canoe, the men paddled across Lake Quinault in front of the wide lawn where Trisha and I now relaxed. On May 21st, 1890, Christie and his men ended their journey in Aberdeen, where, like Trisha and me, they found themselves feasting on restaurant faire and sleeping in a comfortable hotel room bed, which Charles Barnes sighed, “It was a luxury to be appreciated.”
In July 1890, the Seattle Press ran a special edition of their newspaper with the expedition’s exclusive story. The newspaper gushed, “With pardonable pride, the Seattle Press speaks of its presentation of this account. It is believed no handsomer paper was ever published on the Pacific coast. Certainly, the illustrations have not been excelled by any other newspaper.”
The newspaper pages were filled with plenty of boasting and backslapping among with the entries from Christie’s diary, expedition photos, and a full-page reproduction of Barnes’ topographical map. Yet, buried on page twenty was this subtle change to the original theme of the journey Christie and his men undertook: “There is no doubt whatever that his is the first time the country illustrated had ever been traversed by white men.”
In the end, the men of the Press Expedition themselves realized they weren’t the first to cross the Olympics.
The idea that the ancestors of the Makah, Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Skokomish, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, Quinault, Hoh, and the Quileute were all frightened away from the Olympic Mountains by some spooky legend was just that, a legend. We now know that humans have fished, hunted, and worshipped in these mountains for thousands of years. Olympic National Park anthropologist Jackilee Wray concludes, “The mountains were not terra incognita, but a part of the landscape that is important to tribal people’s lifeways.”
If the Press Expedition wasn’t the first, what did they accomplish? Christie and his five men may not have blazed the original trails up the Elwha and down the Quinault, but they did fill in the blanks of the written map. Starving, they could have turned back, yet they persisted forward, slugging their way through the Olympic Mountains in the dead of winter. Today, even with a well-known trail and GPS for guidance, repeating our journey during winter isn’t something Trisha and I, nor many other backpackers, care to attempt. Perhaps, the one statement the newspaper reporters of the Seattle Press didn’t hyperbolize was that Christie and his team were explorers with an “abundance of grit and manly vim.”
Trisha and I immensely enjoyed our five-day journey across the length of the million-acre jewel that is Olympic National Park. Not only is the Park filled with unspoiled natural splendor, but if you look hard enough, the trail up the Elwha and down the Quinault is filled with human history too.
Here are my sources for this story. If you’d like to learn more. All three sources are great reads:
- Across the Olympic Mountains, The Press Expedition, 1889-90. By Robert L. Wood.
- Olympic National Park Ethnographic Overview and Assessment. By Jacilee Wray, Anthropologist
- West of Here, a novel that includes a fictional account of the Press Expedition. By Jonathan Evison