Originally published in Hooked on the Outdoors Magazine
“The crash of timber and roar of the avalanche came to our ears like thunder --like the continued roar of artillery fire. It cut a swath through the timber hundreds of yards in width, and poured a dirty mass of snow, broken timber, rocks and earth into the canyon below.”
Fortunately for our group of backpackers, it was 110 years after author Charles Barnes penned this entry in his diary. And it was summer, and there are no avalanches to speak of.
But as I stand on the banks of the Elwha River in the heart of the Olympic Mountains, arcing my fly line through the warm morning air, the glances I cast toward the steep ridges above me reveal scars from avalanches like the one Barnes and his exploration witnessed. He was one member of a team of six, known to late nineteenth century Seattle as The Press Exploring Expedition. They took it as their quest to explore for the first time the interior of the Olympic range during the winter of 1889-90, a feat that would test them for six months.
My hiking companions and I are into the second day on the trail they pioneered, a forty six mile route that bisects the Olympics from north to south. It will only test us for five days. They, along with two mules and four dogs, battled one of the worst winters on record just to get a jump on other expeditions planned for spring, slogging through deep snow, carrying heavy loads, traversing steep, thickly wooded country.
The Seattle Press, a leading newspaper of the day who sponsored them, noted: “All these men have endured hardship and privation at different times in their lives, and are hardy and rugged in their physical make up. They have abundance of grit and manly vim.” Could we have survived the freezing cold, near-starvation, and almost continuous hardship?
I concede. It is August, after all, unmistakably summer, and the politically correct late 1990’s prohibit our modern backpacking group of 3 men and 3 women to publicly display vim, manly or otherwise. Although our endurance of rainy Seattle winters qualifies us as frontiers people in the minds of relatives in Florida, we are very different from our counterparts of 100 years ago. Margot and Kate, Patrick, and Nicho are college students on summer break, my wife Maylon is a schoolteacher, and I am an aspiring house husband. Gritty we are not.
We do share one thing in common, however, with our predecessors: an interest in exploring the wilderness at Seattle’s doorstep. So, we take it as our quest to follow in their tracks to gain some insight into the soul of adventure, past and present.
The Olympics lie on a peninsula of the same name, much of which is in Olympic National Park. The southern and western slopes encompass a true temperate rain forest, draining twelve feet of precipitation annually from Pacific storms. This has created an unparalleled support system for the growth of record specimens of Western Hemlock, Subalpine Fir, and other evergreen species in undisturbed valleys. Within a few miles, glacier clad peaks rise to nearly 8,000 feet.
In the late 1800’s Seattle had only recently taken hold in Puget Sound, but like today, folks found themselves gazing at these peaks less than fifty miles west. In that age there was one significant difference, the heart of the Olympic Mountains was unexplored.
“Washington has her great unknown land like the interior of Africa,” stated an 1889 article in The Seattle Press, “never, to the positive knowledge of old residents of the territory, been trodden by the foot of man, white or Indian.” Such descriptions are, in any era, difficult for explorers, businessmen, and scientists to ignore.
The Press put out the call to explorers to take the challenge of crossing the Olympics and to discover and record its secrets. James Christie answered the call, writing, “It is no ambitious, untried youth who now writes you, but a man tried in all the vicissitudes of mountain, forest and plain life …Why not let the Press give its countenance and support to an expedition for the clearing up of a mystery lying at the very door of Seattle?”
The Press accepted him and the team he assembled. Their names, Christopher Hayes, John Crumback, John Sims, Charles Barnes, are to this day attached to mountains and rivers along the route they forged.
In Robert Wood’s book Across the Olympic Mountains, The Press Expedition, 1889-90 these men are described as having backgrounds in soldiering, prospecting, trading, hunting, mountain exploration, and even the occupation of cowboy. The men ranged in age from the twenty-two years of Hayes to the thirty-five of Christie. Hardships, privations, and rugged in physical make-up, indeed.
Now, the log jam that looks like it could be home to trout finally proves me right with a hefty rainbow. My catch and release ethic, however, overcomes any need for meat and I return the fighters to their home before returning to camp and setting out for the day. Somehow I doubt that James Christie, who also fly fished these waters, released anything he caught.
Two days ago, we left Seattle and crossed Puget Sound on a ferry, then drove to Port Angeles, at the northern foot of the Olympics. Shuttling is a necessary evil, so Maylon and I dropped a car on the south side, the North Fork Quinault road end, following U.S. 101 around the ocean side of the park. Eight hours later we were back in Port Angeles, ready to begin our trek the next day.
Our boots first met the trail several hundred feet above the Elwha River at Whiskey Bend and Lake Mills, which is the product of one of two dams now being considered for removal in the hope of bringing salmon back to the upper river. We began along the well-maintained trail, crossing creeks and smaller rivers flowing north from the peaks above us. For the first six or seven miles the trail kept us above and away from the river, so when it was close enough to see, we took the opportunity to enjoy it and relax in the dappled sun.
We decided 11 miles was enough for day one and set camp at the edge of a grass clearing above the river. We settled into reading aloud Wood’s book, and gazed at the Perceid Meteor shower in a pitch black sky. It was obvious with every experience we shared with our predecessors thus far, that the gap between us was vast.
The Press Expedition, once they reached the site of our first camp, had been hauling loads up the river for over four months. They even built a raft, christened Gertie, to ease travel. The men set to the task of hauling her and their heavy load over rapids and around bends, all the while fighting the freezing cold. Several of the men pitched head first into the river when the raft lurched in the rough water.
After two weeks and only four miles of progress, the men abandoned Gertie and took once again to foot and hoof. Jennie and Dollie, the team’s mules, and the strong backs of the men had to suffice. Snowshoes assisted the men in breaking trail through the progressively deeper snow, but only brute strength would act on behalf of the mules. Neither of them had enough. Jennie met her demise some weeks later in a fall down a steep slope and Dollie was released to fend for herself when the snow became too deep.
We enjoyed breakfast as the sun warmed the valley. When we finally set off on the trail, we hike through massive stands of Douglas Fir. A few miles up valley, the Goldie River joined the Elwha from the west. It is here that the Press Expedition took a time consuming wrong turn. They battled the steep, avalanche prone snow of Goldie canyon for weeks, later returning to the Elwha. After reading about the rough country that made up their detour, none of us wanted to follow this part of history. The trail was much too smooth to be abandoned for vertical bushwhacking. It led us very comfortably to our riverside destination for the day.
No trip in the Olympics is complete without a sampling of rain. We wake to a drizzly day three and I am brought closer to what the Press Expedition must have felt every day for six months. Will I be able to stay dry, and if not, can I fend off hypothermia? Will it ever stop raining? From our camp the trail plays hide and seek among monster trees. Rounding a corner into a stand of Godzilla-footed Hemlocks makes us feel young and small, and we find ourselves whispering, as if we have entered a cathedral in Rome. We place our hands on the trunk of the largest, taking the pulse this primordial place.
Several meandering miles later we leave the Elwha behind and begin a steep ascent to Low Divide, which separates the north-flowing Elwha from the southward tumble of the Quinault River. The trail has, so far, gained only 1500 feet in just over twenty miles, but now a series of switchbacks doubles that in less than three.
Above the steep section the trail skirts lakes Mary and Margaret before leading us to a broad meadow between Mt. Seattle and Mt. Christie. As it had been for the Press Expedition, Low Divide seems a good place to camp, so the tents go up in a grove of trees on the edge of a broad meadow.
Maylon’s dinnertime reading reveals that Low Divide had been significant to the men in more immediate ways. Early in the trip they had been eating lean elk and deer meat, but during the weeks prior to arriving at Low Divide they had been eating almost entirely flour. So it was with great excitement that the men were able to kill two bears here. Thus naming their small outpost Bear Camp. Charles Barnes commented, “No food ever tasted so good to starving men as that fat tasted to us…we sat around the fire and kept the frying pans going and drank the grease as fast as we could fry it out.”
Looming above Low Divide, Mt. Seattle draws us out of warm sleeping bags on day four. Following game trails through the woods and up into an alpine basin, we scramble to a lunch stop on a high ridge, now and again engulfed by the clouds above us. Thick clouds deny us the summit and views of Mt. Olympus, the monarch of the range, so we retreat to camp.
At lunch, Kate reads to us about Charles Barnes’ climb to the top of Mt. Seattle and the night he spent on its slopes. “The rising sun at my back swept over the mountain ranges as far as the eye could reach and the view was all that I could have hoped for…The sides were so steep and precipitous that even snow could scarcely lodge, and it lay piled in sweeping curves from the base far up toward the summit.” We all agree that the newspaper articles were right when they described the men as gritty, but they failed to reveal the poets among them.
After lunch and a discussion with a group of girl scouts performing a slow self-rescue of a sprained ankle, we start down the south side of Low Divide. I am struck by how, in only a century, the Olympics have gone from a mysterious spot on the map to the training ground for the next generation of explorers. Reasonably fit hikers can follow in history’s path in the Olympics without risking much more than a sprain. Ten miles a day gets the job done.
From the divide the trail drops steeply into the valley of the North Fork Quinault River. Passing through several overgrown camp spots, we push on to where Elip Creek crosses the trail. Half an hour before dark we stumble to a halt for a meal and a fire.
When the Press Expedition started down the Quinault, the men knew by the change in vegetation that they had moved into the southern part of the range and the last leg of their trip. Barnes commented, “There is so much moisture that a stick begins to rot as soon as it falls…Everything is rotten.” As wet as the Elwha River watershed is, the southern and western slopes of the Olympics bear the brunt of the Pacific Ocean storm machine. The carpet of moss is thicker and the underbrush greener, if that is possible.
The fifth and final day of our trip finds us reluctant to return home, so we dawdle whenever possible. The Quinault has become wide and deep in a short distance since the divide. The Press Expedition must have thought the same because they constructed another raft and pushed off into the current not far from where we sit. After all the men had endured and overcome in the previous six months, the idea of floating to the Pacific Ocean must have been overwhelming.
The raft they built was similar to Gertie, but her fate was to be more catastrophic than her prototype’s retirement. As the men rounded a bend in the river they slammed into a logjam and cargo and crew were pitched into the whitewater. Several members of the group narrowly escaped being swept under the obstruction, saved at the last moment by Christie, still aboard the raft. Everything but the pack containing film, expedition records, and the maps made by Barnes were lost. The men built a fire and passed the night cold and wet, but the next day were fortunate to happen across a trapper who agreed to canoe them to the ocean where they made contact with civilization.
Our last few miles are not nearly as eventful. The trail meanders along the river and eventually finds its way to the North Fork Quinault road and the site of our second car. And just like that our trip is over. Where the Press Expedition had made a bit of a sensation in Seattle upon their return, we settle for sensational memories and a healthy respect and understanding of the explorers that preceded us.
The men of the Press Expedition went their separate ways and never came together as a group again. Some went on to more mountain adventure and others pursued business ventures abroad. Before leaving on a National Geographic expedition to Mt. St. Elias, Christie submitted his narrative to The Seattle Press along with a bill for $60 for hotel expenses when the team met civilization. According to Christie, “They generously returned me a check for $75, allowing me $15 for consideration of six months of damned hard labour for their benefit. So ho.”
It seems we share something else with our outdoor role models of old. A willingness to accept that wilderness exploration is its own reward.