A little perspective…

From November 2022: I’m still out here on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That container ship that was burning sits about 20 miles from me, north, across the strait, near Victoria, fire now contained, perhaps even out. That monster storm that came through was a big one but no catastrophe, and it seems whatever struck all those waiting ships off California did not blow them all onto shore. There is snow in the higher elevations, creeping lower and lower as the air cools.. There has been a lot of rain. This has been, in fact, a fairly typical last week of October weather pattern for these parts.

We’ve been staying in a cabin not far from the Elwha River, maybe 10 miles west of Port Angeles, way up an old road near the end, among scattered houses, fields, trees, hard next to National Forest land and the national park. The other day the local herd of Roosevelt Elk, over 40 animals, wandered into the field behind this place and visited for an afternoon. They were magnificent.

This area, off Highway 101, just west of the river, was once called Elwha, one of the many forgotten local towns settled by pioneers before 1900. The little schoolhouse, built in 1908, still stands, now a community center. There is a long history of some local families here, written one Alice Alexander, grand daughter of a woman born on the homestead in the early 1890s who lived to 95, about her ancestors who came to this country when it was the remote end of civilization, to build homesteads, then houses, then a community. I am certain many of the homes out here are still owned by descendants of these families, great and great-great grandchildren of those pioneers.

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington State was one of the last settled regions in all of the continental United States. While there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the native people here knew every inch of the entire peninsula, tree and trail, including the rugged and difficult to reach interior, the river headwaters and mountains were not properly mapped and surveyed until the late 1890s. This peninsula contains many recognized tribes of First Peoples, all with treaty fishing and hunting rights, and their presence and culture here is clear. On several roads leading to trailheads in the national park you will still pass cabins of huge logs, without roofs, 12 to 16 feet square, original homes of the original homesteaders.

Some of the greatest stands of timber in all the world grow here, and logging was the original and basic industry. My father worked in the logging woods in 1935-36 and he came to love the work and this area, which may be why I moved this way myself in 1990. The land, years ago, was a federal forest, and early on some people argued for its preservation while others argued for its exploitation. The easiest to reach timber stands, the lowlands, were huge, just enormous, but demand for lumber was steady and strong.

There is this story of how Olympic National Park came to be. It might be true. It is said that in 1938 timber barons convinced the President, Franklin Roosevelt, to come visit the peninsula, and they took him on a tour to convince him to open the rest of the federal land to logging. Roosevelt, arriving and seeing the grandeur of the country, instead made it a national park, a park that has grown in the decades since with newer adjacent wilderness areas. But logging continues, some stands of trees now logged and regrown three or four times.

Back in the earliest years of the 20th century, when the first settlers were building that school for their kids, the best way to get from Port Angeles to Seattle was by taking the steam packet, or ferry. That was a lot faster than walking or taking a horse drawn wagon on the terrible roads, over 100 miles, or trying to drive those roads in the newly invented motorcar.

But we humans are industrious, creative, and energetic. Maybe the interior of the peninsula was still uncharted in 1895, but by 1920, a quarter century later, there were roads all around the peninsula, trails all through the soon-to-become park, and lumber mills everywhere.

Now, a century later, nearly every single one of those dozens of lumber mills is no more, closed, removed, taken away. The dozens of salmon plants that once lined Puget Sound’s shores are gone. Almost every single original settler cabin has rotted away, been covered by other homes, or parking lots. Here at the foot of the road this cabin is on, downhill by Indian Creek, there is second growth forest, big tall trees, and no sign whatever of the shingle mills and lumber mills once there. One of the people who lived in this little community in 1905 or thereabouts, according to the family history here, was hunting up the Elwha River and a tributary and came upon some hot springs. (I suspect the truth is the First Peoples knew about these springs and told him.) He cut a trail, got some pack animals, and began ferrying people up to soak in those springs. Then he built, up there – this was at least 12 miles from this community, uphill all the way – a building to take customers, and later more buildings. There was an Olympic Hot Springs Resort and he made a business taking people up there to soak in the pools.

In the 1920s a second dam was built on the Elwha (the first was built downstream in about 1913) to power the local city and mills, and to build that dam a road was built and this road then carried on to those hot springs, a dirt road which still exists. By the late 1930s there were three buildings up there, cookhouses, sleeping rooms, maintenance sheds, the works. But then the business began to fade, and by 1940 the place closed, by then located within the borders of the national park, so some time after 1940 the park people removed all the buildings and everything else. I have been through that area a few times, and while there is still a dirt road leading to the pools, there is no evidence whatever of any resort, none. The pools are still hot, and used, but since the Elwha River washed out the access road only three miles from Route 101 there is no way to drive to the trailhead to the springs any longer, or, for that matter, other trailheads once accessed by roads.

The reason for the road washout? Both those dams, which by the way stopped salmon migration within six miles of the 50-mile river’s mouth, a salmon run that featured 100 pound king salmon, were closed in the 1970s and 1980s and then removed, with the last dam gone in 2014 or so. This was the biggest dam removal project in United States history. The removed dams swept millions of yards of sediment downstream and the river bed shifted and shifted again and cut off the access road, and a repair is barely in sight.

And that pack trail used years ago to get to the hot springs? It is now called the West Elwha Trail and still exists, I and my wife have hiked it many times, but now it only leads to the road that was later built, maybe five miles in.

All of which to say, in just the 130 years since this land was first opened, or settled by non-native people, most of the ancient forest has been cut down but then regrown (except for the heart of the peninsula where the million acre park lies, which is still pristine), two dams have been built and then removed (and the big salmon seem to be coming back), all evidence of dozens of lumber mills and resorts has been removed, there still exists a local economy based on some logging and services and recreation to the national park and surrounding areas, but things are tough, out this way, just as they seem tough in all out of the way places.

But – and this may be important – all those years ago when all that work and building was done, people fed themselves with local crops, used local materials for construction, made do with whatever they had, and, living in country they loved, appreciated what they were given and refused to complain about what they were missing. Maybe they did this because this was all they knew.

I am pretty sure, faced with our modern circumstance of hysteria imagining a delay or, God forbid, no shipment of items for the Christmas season, they would look at each other and smile before heading out back to start making toys…

Sweeping Rivers….

When the two dams on the Elwha River were removed in 2011 and 2012 – the largest dam removal project to date in the United States – the areas behind the dams which had been under water became exposed. Millions of tons of silt washed downstream to the ocean, the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A couple years after that, the river channel shifted and shifted again, twice cutting the access road leading south from Route 101 a few miles to campgrounds, maintenance sheds, and dirt roads to trailheads. The picture above is taken at the road end looking across to where the road once ran.

The Elwha River runs through some amazing canyons, and a couple narrow defiles within which the dams were built more than a century ago to provide power to local lumber mills and Port Angeles. Now, with the dams gone, you can go to a walkway and overlook where the dams were. The narrow gorges thunder with current.

The Olympic mountains are drained by a series of rivers that flow in all directions from a high central point deep in the park – north, east, south, west. None of the rivers is more than 45-50 miles long.  They drain the snow-covered marine-influenced slopes of the Olympics, which lie within sight of the Pacific Ocean. The rivers are active, flow year round, even during the summer drought, and often flood with rain and snow melt. The channels are many, deep, and swing from side to side through the narrow valley bottoms, shifting course all the time. There are sections on all the rivers where the river bottom land is generally flat and anywhere from two hundred yards to a half mile wide, at least on the lower sections below the alpine meadows and steep upper canyons.  This river bottom, especially on the western slopes of the mountains in the rain shadow, is filled with huge spruce and cedar trees, enormous, many over 500 years old.

The first years I was near the Olympics I often hiked along the Gray Wolf River, which drains the northwest area and a narrow valley. From year to year there were huge changes. The current would swing against one steep side bank, undercut it, sweep away the trail, topple trees, then swing back toward the other side, carrying the trees downstream to pile up and be filled with rocks and debris. The amount of trail maintenance needed throughout the park is enormous. The landscape is dynamic and always changing. There was a bridge crossing the Graywolf about four miles in from the trailhead which washed away about 20 years ago. It has never been replaced. Now, to get to the upper Graywolf area, you need to park at Slab Camp or Deer Park and first go downhill.

I noticed that when the Graywolf changed course it would reveal white ancient trees beneath rocks, logjams covered with debris from floods decades, even centuries before, and it struck me that the river probably sweeps back and forth throughout the valley bottom over the years such that every square foot of the valley bottom is at one point or another swept away, then re-emerges when the current goes elsewhere. In the wider valleys, the Bogachiel for example, you walk through three or four deep sub-channels before reaching the river proper, channels made during earlier channel sweeps and now left high and dry. The channel will sweep back again, back and forth, over the years and centuries, changing all, lowering the valley bed, bit by bit. If you hike the North Branch of the Quinault you go through river bottoms, as on the Queets, where you know you are crossing an earlier channel but now there are huge trees in that channel.

And this led me to a speculation – if it is true, as it seems to me, that these rivers fully sweep their valley bottoms over time, the maximum age of the trees found in those valley bottoms will be roughly the period of a full sweeping. This leads me to guess that it takes between 500 and 800 years for one of these rivers to fully sweep its course, and suggests that perhaps the reason we don’t find trees older than 800 years is not because such trees cannot live that long, but because the water gets them first. I’ll bet, too, that the first people here camped on the river valleys, maybe for thousands of years, but their villages, and evidence, was washed away, too.

Well, the river took the road into the Elwha and Elwha upper dam and the ranger complex and the Whiskey Bend parking lot road after the dams were removed, cutting the road twice against the eastern bank and isolating about a half mile of old road and a former campground. Now that road ends, with signs, and a side trail has been built to walk beyond the changed course, which undercuts the eastern bank. There have been arguments and talks about whether and how to repair the road for years. It will be horribly expensive and difficult, and as of yet nothing has been done. The road ends, you must park, and then you walk the old road three quarters of a mile to where the river has cut away. Beyond, back on the road above the second cutting, lie miles of unused road, pavement beginning to come apart, nice buildings that are no longer used, and a sense of some kind of abandonment. It is both beautiful and a little eerie. It used to be you could drive to the Whiskey Bend parking lot before hiking into the park, it was a major trailhead. Now you need to walk over 8 miles to get there. Another trailhead, to Olympic Hot Springs and Appleton Pass, and a crossover to the Sol Duc area, is similarly now miles distant.

On the eastern side of the Park, the Dosewallips road once led through a narrow canyon to a large campground and ranger station. This road, maybe 15 years ago, fell into disuse, the roadbed shifted in rains, and it has been closed for years, as has that ranger station – another formerly popular and easy access to the park interior now gone. To the south, the road to Enchanted Valley, and Graves Creek, has been undercut by the river a few times, and closed, but repaired.

It is a constant battle, always changing, dynamic, powerful. Those rivers are not long, not large, but they are intent, you know? Here we have a National Park set aside to be natural, and so it naturally changes to overcome and alter our efforts to build and maintain roads and trails, and yet these Parks are for use by the public, so they need access. A conflict, inherent in the situation, is always present.

Those rivers don’t know that, though. They’re just sweeping that river bottom, back and forth.