Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 9 miles – Time out: 8 hours
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: Sea Level
February 18-19, 2015.
Here in this quiet corner of Olympic National Park, the Cape Alava Trail starts at Ozette Lake and ends at Cape Alava on the Pacific Coast. Hiking the trail is like following two parallel threads of European and Native American history. Ozette Lake was once ringed with Scandinavian homesteaders, and Cape Alava was once home to a large Makah fishing village. Today, where these two communities once thrived, there are only whispering forests and crashing waves. Recently, I had an opportunity to hike the scenic Cape Alava Trail with Donovan and Bruce, friends and park rangers who know the trail’s secrets.
The Cape Alava Trail begins at the Ozette Lake Campground. Today, big trees grow all the way to the lake’s edge, but in the early 1890’s Scandinavian families hacked 130 homesteads out of the dense forest. The homesteads surrounded the lake, one-half to one mile apart. Their Ozette Lake community was vibrant but isolated; travel to the outside world was either down the Ozette River by canoe and rendezvous with a ship off the Pacific Coast or via a muddy, twenty-five mile trail along the Hoko River to the settlement at Clallam Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Their isolation led to self-sufficiency. The Scandinavian homesteaders were a tough bunch. Out of the wilderness, they built stores, schools, a church and three post offices. The land was cleared, livestock raised, and their surplus cream, butter, beef and pork was shipped to Seattle. There was a community band and frequent celebrations as these hardy folk strove to acquire title on the land they lived upon by “proving-up.” The Scandinavian homesteaders turned this inaccessible frontier into a remarkably lively and cohesive settlement.
Donovan showed me the Nyland Family plot, hidden in the dark woods behind the Lake Ozette Ranger Station. The Nylunds were one of the early Scandinavian settlers on Lake Ozette. The family built a nine-room house and lived there with their five daughters and one son. The son, Alfred, grew to be a handsome boat-builder. Alfred was adored by a girl from Ozette Lake named Marie Wesseler, but Alfred lost his heart to a girl from the city. In 1928, soon after the city girl rejected Alfred’s offer of marriage, Alfred disappeared. Eleven years later a skeleton was found in the woods, sitting with its back against a tree. It was Alfred – dead of a broken heart. Alfred’s remains were brought back to the family plot, and there he rests, having left behind Marie, who while she was in her mid-forties, was still writing poetry about the handsome boat-builder whose memory she adored.
Today vast Ozette Lake is known mostly for its natural beauty and solitude. Ozette Lake remains the largest unaltered lake in Washington State. The forest has reclaimed almost all the homestead sites. Other than a few cottages on the lake shore, and the Olympic National Park campground, only Rob Snyder, owner of the Lost Resort is left. Like a beacon on a hill, the lights of the Lost Resort still shine through the forest. Donovan and I enjoyed Rob’s stories over a few micro brews. (Yup, he has some great beers on tap and food too). Rob had a well-stocked store and he rents camping sites and rustic cabins. For reservations call 1-800-950-2899. When we were there Rob had an off-season special: The cost for the cabin was the temperature outside!
The three-mile Cape Alava Trail began in back of the ranger station at a bridge over the Ozette River. Donovan, Bruce and I walked through the dark forest over swampy ground that was bridged by hundreds of feet of boardwalk. The tunnel-like trail opened up to blue sky at a field of brown grasses called Ahlstrom’s Prairie. Here is where Lars K. Ahlstrom and Pete Roose, the last of the Scandinavian homesteaders, lived.
Next to the trail was a stack of lumber and behind the stack was a barely noticeable gap in the brush. Donovan and Bruce parted the brush and showed me the trail to the Peter Roose homestead. We followed the twisting footpath until we came upon a clearing which held a tiny house, barn, shed and well. Thanks to the diligent work of the National Park Service, these buildings from the 1920’s are in good order – an island of Scandinavian history in a forest of wilderness.
We returned to the prairie where Donovan relaxed in the sunshine while Bruce showed me the few remains of the Lars Ahlstrom shack, hidden in the woods at the prairie’s edge. Originally, the shack barely fit a small bed, table, two chairs and a wood stove. Lars Ahlstrom and Pete Roose were cousins, related by blood and by a tragic event: Cousin Pete burned down Lar’s magnificent, two-story home when he lost control of a brush fire. As late as 1954, when Lars was an old man, he still dreamt of rebuilding his beautiful home. He would crowd visitors around his tiny table and unroll his plans for rebuilding his long-lost house. While Pete Roose’s home remains standing to this day, death caught up with Cousin Lars before he could rebuild his dream.
It wasn’t lost loves or brush fires that drove off the Scandinavian homesteaders at Lake Ozette. It was a single political act – the 1909 Mount Olympus National Monument declaration by President Theodore Roosevelt. Suddenly their community at Ozette Lake was inside forest land designated to protect the endangered elk herds that lived around Mount Olympus. With the political uncertainty surrounding their ability to prove-up on their claims and get title to the land, all their work would be for nothing. The practical Scandinavians abandoned their farms and walked away.
Donovan, Bruce and I continued west. The Cape Alava Trail began to slope downward, and we could smell the salt air and hear the crashing waves. When we reached the beach, we looked north and south and what I saw was something that is very rare along sandy ocean beaches – for as far as I could see there was just forest, beach and waves and not a sign of the hand of man. We turned north and walked along the beach to a grassy slope, pointing into the sea. This was the site of the Makah village of Ozette.
For perhaps a millennia and right up until the 1930’s, Ozette was home to the Makah who lived next door to the sea. The Makah people lived in five large villages in the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The most southern of these villages was here at Ozette. The Cape Alava Trail between Lake Ozette and the beach followed the same footpath used by the Makah for generations. Today Cape Alava has the distinction of being the westernmost point of the contiguous United States.
Around five hundred years ago, part of the Makah village at Ozette was buried by a mudslide of wet slippery clay. In the 1970’s, archeologists excavating the site found so many detailed artifacts that were perfectly preserved in the clay that the dig was called the “Pompeii of the North.” Not only were stone and bone material preserved as well as at other drier sites, but the damp, oxygen-deprived clay even conserved such perishables as wood and plant fiber. Ozette was unique because its tens of thousands of artifacts provided a complete record of daily cultural activity.
The Makah that lived at Ozette were a strong people. They hunted whales and seals from large canoes and lived in wealth and abundance that they gathered from the land and the sea. They had a rich and elaborate artistic tradition and lived together in houses that were larger than the houses of the Scandinavian homesteaders that would come later. They were one of the most respected tribes along the coast of northwestern America.
While the Scandinavian Homesteaders at Lake Ozette brought with them European concepts of farming and husbandry to work the land, the Makah at Ozette village learned how to turn to the sea for their wealth. The Makah leaders recognized the foundation of their power. During the negotiations of the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, Makah Chief Tse-kaw-wootl from Ozette told Governor Isaac Stevens, “I want the sea. That is my country.”
Over the centuries, the Makah learned how to hunt whales for their oil and their blubber. There were thousands of whaling-related artifacts found at the Ozette village site. It wasn’t just the courage of these young men that amazed me, though courage must have been in abundance when hunting whales from a canoe at sea; it was that the Makah had accomplished the same results as my New England whaling forbearers, but with stone-age tools and without the use of metal. Think about that: no nails in their boats, no gunnels for oars, no iron for their harpoon shafts, no hemp for their ropes, no barrels for their buoys. It was all cedar log canoes, wooden paddles, shell and elk bone spear points, braided kelp rope and inflated seal skin buoys. With amazing ingenuity, the Makah gleaned all they needed from their natural world.
Recently, I had an opportunity to paddle an 18-person canoe across Lake Crescent. The design of the canoe reminded me of a Makah whaling canoe. We matched the stroke of the person in the bow, digging deep into the calm water. You couldn’t pay too much attention to the beauty of Lake Crescent because you needed to be visually and muscularly in sync with your fellow paddlers. The slightest mistake in timing and you cracked your paddle against the person’s paddle in front of you and nudged the bow off-course. But when all of us concentrated on bow-man’s lead, the canoe surged forward straight and true and we quickly crossed Lake Crescent in the early morning sunshine. It was a thrilling experience that allowed me to, just for a moment, glimpse what it must have been like to be in a canoe with the powerful Makah Indians headed to sea in search of a whale. In reality none of us amateurs would have been in that whaling canoe, because according to anthropologist T. T. Waterman, “Better canoe men than the Makah probably never existed”
The whale oil that the Makah produced was an important trading commodity to British and American settlers on the Northwest Coast. Makah oil heated and lit homes and businesses in nearby towns such as Victoria and Port Townsend. At the heart of the history of colonialism is the idea that the Europeans brought light to the natives, but here in communities on the Salish Sea, it was Makah whale oil that fueled the settler’s lamps and greased the skids of local logging operations. In 1850, it was reported that the Makah traded tens of thousands of gallons of oil annually.
The Makah whaling fishery had been sustainable for perhaps a thousand years. But within little more than a generation after Europeans began whaling from their large ships in Pacific Ocean, the prolific population crashed and by the 1920’s the Makah no longer paddled in their canoes out to sea in search of whales.
Ships that sailed from San Francisco to Puget Sound passed by Cape Alava. Some ships never made it. If you look carefully on the beach at Ozette during low tide, you can find artifacts from the ship Austria that was wrecked during a storm in 1887. Interestingly, the amateur anthropologist, James G. Swan, who lived among the Makah beginning back in 1859, also had difficulties acquiring artifacts and information. Swan was employed as a collector by the nascent Smithsonian Museum, and the Makah were suspicious of him. Though Swan tried his best to be accurate, mistakes were made. A hundred and fifty years later the Makah were still lamenting these errors. “They (anthropologists) always write wrong things about us. All the time. But they never come back and change it… We had to go through and fix Swan’s vocabulary. It was full of bum words. Swearwords. People were giving him the wrong information just to be mean to him.”
Some of James G. Swan’s most accurate observations were of the Makah’s whaling culture. Swan documented how a harpooned whale was processed. After the dead whale was towed to shore, the villagers cut the blubber from the carcass in two foot square blocks. The blubber, after being skinned, was cut into strips and boiled, to render the oil. Makah whale oil was a valuable commodity because it had many uses, domestic and industrial. Swan admitted that, “Dried halibut, dipped in fresh sweet whale oil is not an objectionable repast to a hungry man.”
Swan observed that the Makah at Ozette lived in a stratified society led by their whaling chiefs. While the entire community worked to process dead whales, the choice cuts of blubber were always the property of the person who had first struck the whale. The other portions were distributed according to rule, each man knowing what he was to receive. The following day Donovan and I chatted with Michael, a Makah salmon fisherman who was tending his nets at the mouth of the Hoko River. Michael told us that now his tribe designates salmon fishing rights by rotation instead of ancestral claims. I thought that was an egalitarian way to spread the wealth of the river. Michael didn’t seem to be mired in the past, but he respected it. It seemed to me that this is how the Makah view their whaling culture. By reviving their dormant (but not dead) whaling customs, the Makah were saying that whaling isn’t a tradition that chains us, but an identity that defines us. The Makah’s desire to hunt whales again was a reasonable response to the long list of challenges in their constantly-changing world.
By the beginning of the 1900’s, the whale population off the coast of Ozette had crashed due to overfishing by American and European whalers and the Makah no longer hunted the whale. The Makah eventually abandoned the Ozette Village, not because of the lack of whales, but mainly because their children were being required to attend school at far away Neah Bay.
When you leave the silent Ozette Village site and walk south along the beach, you’ll find the petroglyphs at Wedding Rocks. The dates of the carvings are uncertain, but according to legend, when an Ozette or Quileute marriage proposal was rejected, the humiliated man would carve a design on a beach boulder to describe his sorrow or shame.
When our children were little, we hiked out here with friends, and the kids climbed all over these haystack rocks. Three miles south from Cape Alava is Sand Point. There you will find the Sand Point Trail which will take you back to the Lake Ozette Ranger Station.
We arrived back at the campground just as a cold rain began. We took shelter in Donovan’s warm and dry camp trailer. I looked out the window at the whitecaps that were being whipped up on Ozette Lake. I thought of the two peoples that once shared the heritage of Ozette, but lived on opposite ends of the Cape Alava Trail. On the surface their skin color was different as was their culture. One harvested their wealth from the land, and the other from the sea. One used technology imported from the outside world, while the other developed their skills through centuries of trial, error and practice. But they had much in common too, both understood their environment and created communities that thrived. In the end, the life of both communities ended not because of internal mistakes but because of outside economic and societal pressures.
The world of the Scandinavians and the Makah were shaped by their natural environment and their ability to live off the wealth generated from their isolated communities. They lived in isolation and in harmony. Unfortunately both cultures found that in the end they really weren’t isolated after all. Political and economic forces from far away ended the life of both these communities. Laws that were passed for the common good were not good for those living in the Ozette. The creation of Mount Olympus National Monument and the law requiring all children to attend school had disastrous consequences, the former on the Scandinavians at Ozette Lake and the latter on the Makah at Ozette village.
Blunders were made at Ozette, but a century or so later, we’ve begun to change. We no longer tolerate unilateral political decisions that decimate entire communities. That’s because today’s political system allows for races and cultures with opposing points of view to come to the table, and though this subjects us to messy debates and compromised decision making, all of us are better with this inclusiveness. This change to examining issues from multiple viewpoints is because of past mistakes made at places like Ozette, and that is part of the legacy of these two long-gone communities.
Acknowledgements: I enjoyed learning about Alfred Nyland and Lars Ahlstrom in Hideaway: A Memoir by Brenda Ray. The information on the Scandinavian settlement at Ozette Lake was from the Historic Resource Study of Olympic National Park By Gail H. E. Evans, published by the National Park Service in 1983. Much of the information on the Ozette Village and the famous archeological discoveries were from The Ozette Archaeological Expedition by Dr. Richard D. Daugherty. The 1994 dissertation by Joshua L. Reid, “The Sea Is My Country”: The Maritime World of the Makah, an Indigenous Borderlands People caused me to rethink how I look at political borders. The Olympic Peninsula historians and anthropologists of today are indebted to the diligent collecting and documenting accomplished by James G. Swan. Though he made mistakes, and his personal life was a shambles, he is still my hero. Swan’s views and quotations were from two of his books, Almost Out of the World, published in 1971 by the Washington State Historical Society, in which they reprinted articles Swan wrote between 1859 and 1862 and The Indians of Cape Flattery published by the Smithsonian Museum in 1870. The estimates of the viability of the Pacific Coast whale population prior to European contact was from the manuscript, The Economic and Ecological Context of Northwest Coast Whaling by David R. Huelsbeck. The quotation from Helma Ward about Swan’s anthropological mistakes is from the book, From Voices of a Thousand People by Patricia Pierce Erikson. The legend of the Wedding Rocks is from Gods & Goblins, A field guide to place names of Olympic National Park by Smitty Parratt and edited by Gary Peterson and Glynda Peterson Schaad. Finally, I’m indebted to my friends Donovan and Bruce, who take me to these magical places on the Olympic Peninsula and then show me where to scratch the surface to find the real stories.
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