Story and Photo by Andy Sallee, Sequim, WA
Andy Sallee sent in this wonderful story about his canoe trip from years ago. Andy says, "I'll miss Lake Mills when it’s gone and look forward to sharing stories about it with my grandchildren." Thanks for preserving a slice of history, Andy. - The Incidental Explorer
Summer 1997. Our Adventure started on a beautiful morning at Lake Mills, which is located on the North side of the Olympic Mountain range in Washington State. My brother, Mike and I had paddled a old canoe on this lake years earlier as teenagers and decided it was time to go back twenty years later to the lake we had remembered so fondly and take a day trip in my new Hilderbrand canoe. As far as I know there were only about ten of these canoes manufactured. My canoe is a fiberglass composite with cedar strip gunnels and seats. It is 17 feet long, and weighs 56 lbs. It is a yellow vessel for good visibility on the water. It is the coolest canoe anyone could ever have. I have paddled many miles in this boat on lakes, bays, and rivers. It is easy for me to say it has been my most cherished material possession.
Lake Mills is the result of an old dam on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. The only access point is a small picnic area and dock on the north end of the lake. As we left the dock and ventured south there were a number of logs tied together to protect boaters from a dangerous spillway on the dam. After venturing past these logs into the wider expanse of this splendid lake one is easily in awe from the snowcapped mountains rising over 5000 feet above the water. These mountains are covered with a variety of beautiful moss draped trees including fir, cedar, alder, and maple. As we entered the lake at 9:30 am on a calm morning in May, the sun was shining and weather was forecast to remain nice for the next twelve hours after which rain and wind were expected.
Lake Mills is about one mile wide five miles long. We planned to spend the majority of the day circling the lake and exploring. I like jet skis and big powered boats but fortunately none are allowed on the lake, which helps keep it quiet and peaceful most of the time.
By 11:00 AM we were about half way up the east side of the lake when suddenly a gentle breeze from the North had become a 20 mile per hour plus increasing wind event. We considered trying to go ashore but there were solid cliffs in that location with no suitable place to land. Still unconcerned, thinking this was just a busy daytime breeze from the Strait of Juan De Fuca which is common this time of year during the midday hours, we ventured further from the cliffs and decided to let the breeze further assist us in our trek for the next 2 1/2 miles to the south end of the lake. As we moved further towards the middle of the lake, clouds suddenly gathered and it became apparent that this was actually the storm system arriving off the Pacific Ocean much earlier than forecast. Within five minutes the wind had increased to a steady 30 mph with gusts to 45 or more. The waves rapidly increased in size and although we were a little nervous and getting wet, we felt some relief in knowing that we were rapidly heading for the sandbar at the south end of the lake with the wind at our backs. The waves were about two feet high and increasing. We were bailing some water out of the boat but I thought the worst thing that could happen is that we would be washed out of the boat into 60 degree water and the waves would deliver us and our boat to shore within 20 minutes before hypothermia became an issue. With teamwork, careful paddling and a lot of good luck I was pleased to say Mike and I had almost reached the sandbar without going into the water.
Just as we arrived at the sandbar we turned the canoe slightly to dock at a better location about twenty feet away and often as luck goes, a large wave washed over the boat tipping us into shallow water. At this point we are wet and pulled the canoe onto the sand, turned it upside down, and placed a log over it to keep the wind from blowing it away.
The storm was reaching its peak and despite being in a rain forest there was a considerable dust storm blowing across this sand bar. During this little episode one of our life preservers blew away from the canoe over into the river and settled on the other side of the river. Losing a life preserver was a little disconcerting. We grabbed our backpacks and ran for cover in the trees for shelter. As we entered the trees we noted fresh cougar tracks, which made the situation a little tenser. After locating a place out of the wind we opened our backpacks and were happy that we had sandwiches and drinks. We sat in the trees watching large braches break in the gale on the hillside above us enjoying our lunch. As tree batches broke around us we kept looking to see if it was a cougar. We never saw the cougar and about two hours later were still wet but thanks to quality clothing and heavy coats not too cold.
In the mean time we were concerned about retrieving the life preserver. We were both good swimmers but really did not want to venture the canoe in the lake during stormy conditions without a preserver for both of us. The river was too swift to paddle up. Mike found a solution by crossing the river on a log over some rapids upstream. We now both had life preservers.
The wind suddenly slowed and although the sky was overcast. We decided to continue our adventure. There was one other person we observed at the far end of the sandbar who we had not seen earlier who had also taken refuge in the tree during the storm. We saw this boat quickly racing back towards the dock at the far end of the lake. That was the only other boat on this pristine but sometimes violent lake on that day.
We then proceeded up the west shore of this mystical and now quiet lake along its west shore moving northbound, We found a beautiful little rock beach where a snow fed creek led into the lake. This creek was crystal clear and we exited the canoe to explore. We followed the creek a few hundred yards up the canyon where there were a couple of spectacular small waterfalls with moss covered rocks on both sides in an evergreen forest. We also found a neat little pile of deer bones at the bottom of a cliff. We speculated that a deer fell of the cliff above and died or was a cougar’s dinner. Mike also spotted what appeared to be a Bald Eagle’s nest on the top of a very tall stump.
I’m sure the fishing would have been great in this creek and probably the lake too.
We then continued our trip up the west shore and it seemed to be getting dark. We were not paying much attention to time, as this trip was rather captivating. I said it must be getting near sunset but we are only one mile from the end of the trip so timing has been good. Soon it will be dark. Mike looked at his watch and said, “ It’s only 4 PM and sunset is not until almost 9 PM”. We were both puzzled by this strange darkness for a few minutes. Our bewilderment of this bizarre event was suddenly explained by a crack of thunder and sudden downpour. A thunderstorm building produced the darkness over the lake above the low overcast. Although rainfall is common in Western Washington State, thunderstorms are rare. This particular weather system had enough strength to produce a significant rain event. Over the next mile and twenty minutes of paddling we estimated that we had over and inch of rain fall into the canoe. We loaded my canoe on to the top of the Isuzu Trooper as we were being soaked by drenching rain. As we left the lake driving only three miles down the canyon the road was dry. The storm turned out to be a localized event.
For the next fifteen minutes my brother didn’t say anything. I knew this was an exciting adventure for me but I feared he might view the entire day as a disastrous episode. When we reached Highway 101 and headed east towards Port Angeles he turned to me and simply said” That was so much fun”. I suddenly felt great in realizing that my brother now had the same passion that I did for adventurous canoe trips.
The dam that creates Lake Mills is to be destroyed to open the Elwha River, which should help save salmon and help the fishing industry. We will be losing an excellent canoeing lake but will gain a new wilderness possibly for river rafting, kayaking and exploration. I’ll miss Lake Mills when it’s gone and look forward to sharing stories about it with my grandchildren. In the meantime Mike and I can’t wait until summer when we take another trip on this soon to be gone lake.
Editor’s note: If you enjoyed Andy’s story and would like to see what Lake Mills and Lake Adwell looked like soon after the dams were removed, see Elwha Lake Beds with the Klahhane Hiking Club.