I always wanted to be a fishing guide. Maybe I always was when you consider the luckless cohorts, cousins and relations who I suckered into crawling along a hornet infested, brush-choked creek in search of a six-inch cutthroat when I was a kid. Once we fished the creek out, we fished a bigger creek.
It is difficult to drive over the treacherous Morse Creek bridge and the devil’s racetrack on either side of it these days without remembering how things used to look in the old days.
Like every other stream entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Morse
Creek had a Klallam village down at the mouth. Traces of this village
have been hidden or obliterated like the first American homestead
claim filed in 1863. Eban Gay Morse and his brother Davis W. Morse
came from Nova Scotia and settled at the mouth of Morse Creek. By the
1890s, homesteaders had worked their way clear up to the divide with
the Lillian River.
A.E. Cox built a cabin at the head of Morse Creek in a godforsaken
canyon just below Hurricane Ridge. Legend has it that Cox, sitting on
a frying pan, slid down a snow bank into what became known as Cox
Valley in a feat that has yet to be duplicated.
Between the mouth and the mountains, Morse Creek had some of the best
fishing on the Peninsula, despite a waterfall that made it impassable
to salmon for most of its length. It was left by the Pleistocene ice
sheet long before fish passage laws were as stringent as they are
No matter, Morse Creek used to be so full of spring chinook you could
spear them with a pitchfork. There was a massive run of pink salmon
that used to clog up the creek. People used to camp along the creek
and harvest, can and smoke enough salmon to last the winter.
One day we saw an old Indian spearing salmon in the creek. He threaded
a dozen or so on a rope and walked them down the creek with the
biggest stringer of fish I ever saw. We thought spearing the salmon
was unsporting, so we shot them with bows and arrows.
I got two one day. I packed them home. Dad said we could smoke the
salmon or compost them. He was trying to be diplomatic about it, but
the fish were spawn-outs and inedible. Their meat was white instead of
the red flesh of an ocean fish, but chances are that if they were not
spawned out, I would not have got them on the beach. We started
fishing with poles after that.
Morse Creek was a sportsman’s paradise. There were so many bears
fishing for salmon you could walk down to the creek and see their
tracks on top of your own when you walked home. There were orchards
with apples free for the picking. We would build a fire and bake them
in the coals with a little brown sugar along with trout wrapped in tin
There were abandoned homesteads, old logging equipment and a meadow
with a big warning sign that said, “Danger: Unexploded artillery
shells. Do not enter, no trespassing,” blah, blah, blah. It was like a
magnet for half-wit juvenile delinquents looking to find a souvenir
from the war. We spent a lot of time looking for those shells, not
really knowing what we would do if we found one. Make our own
fireworks I suppose.
Then one day Morse Creek turned brown right in the middle of summer.
This was strange since the creek was still low and we had no rain.
Sure enough, there was a big old bulldozer running down the middle of
That was bad, but salmon are tough. Naturally occurring floods in
salmon streams can do more damage than an army of bulldozers. Salmon
can survive a flood. The volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens turned
the Toutle River into slurry of toxic ash. Salmon can survive a
volcano. Why can’t salmon survive in Morse Creek?
They spent millions of dollars buying property from willing sellers,
planting native vegetation and building log jams to bring the fish
back, but that has never worked anywhere.
As it turned out, the once plentiful salmon in Morse Creek were
planted by the Dungeness Fish Hatchery. It was there I learned some
important lessons about fisheries management. Runs of hatchery fish
always fail once you stop planting them. A river is worth more dead
than alive. Fish are worth more to the state as endangered species
than as food for people.
Once Morse Creek was fished out, it was time to move on to the rivers
we followed to lakes high in the Olympic Mountains. I wanted to catch
every fish in those mountains. The truth is you could fish the
Olympics your whole life and not cover all of the water any more than
you could learn all of its history, but I tried. I have been exploring
the Olympic Peninsula my whole life and have not seen parts of it yet.
Looking for new country just comes natural. I did not get this way by
The Neal family came from Ireland, a land known for its salmon, elk
and timber since it was first populated about 8,000 years ago. The
Irish elk was a giant of the deer family with antlers eight feet wide.
By the middle Stone Age, farmers had cut down the trees and overgrazed
the land until parts of Ireland were eroded down to bare limestone.
With the British invasion in the 16th century, the Irish elk was
extinct and salmon were no longer a food source for the common people.
The fish and whatever game that was left was owned by feudal lords.
The natives were pushed off their lands. The survivors were shipped
overseas to the New World as slave labor on plantations and penal
colonies or herded into sharecropper plots to grow potatoes.
The introduction of the potato to Ireland set off a population boom
and bust cycle of famine and disease described by the British
economist Thomas Malthus, who observed the Irish population increased
geometrically while their subsistence increased arithmetically.
Jonathan Swift presented a solution to the Malthus Theory with a
“Modest Proposal” that advised Irish parents to sell their children as
food for the rich. Swift thought it only made sense since the rich had
already consumed most of the rest of Ireland.
At the time we were named O’Neal. It was most likely a British name.
Conquerors have invariably renamed their subjects with something they
could pronounce. The first written reference to a Neal was a Daniel
Neal who wrote “The History of New England” in 1720. That does not
mean he went there. Then, as now, it was common for writers to crank
out promotional copy in hopes of luring people into buying exotic real
At the time you could get passage across the Atlantic Ocean by working
6 years as an indentured servant, which is how Robert O’Neal, my
earliest documented relation, and an estimated 80 percent of the
population of the American Colonies got here.
Robert dropped the “O” in Neal and settled in Virginia in the
mid-1700s. One of Robert’s sons, Cornelius, served under Francis
Marion, also known as The Swamp Fox. Marion’s guerilla force of black
and white volunteers sometimes dwindled to 20 men. There were times
during the Revolutionary War that this tiny force was the only
resistance to the British Army in the state of South Carolina.
After the war, Cornelius Neal bought a large tract of land in
Tennessee with a warrant he was issued for his service. Tennessee was
known for its big timber and good hunting. One sycamore measured nine
feet in diameter. The herds of buffalo were so large they were known
to destroy the settlers’ cabins. Massive herds of buffalo, elk and
deer were slaughtered over the mineral licks.
The passage of the Indian Removal Act in June, 1830 declared that the
Indians would “exchange” their lands — including what is today
Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, southwestern Virginia,
Alabama and Georgia — for lands west of the Mississippi River.
In 1838, General Winfield Scott lead 7,000 troops to round up an
estimated 18,000 Cherokees and other members of the “Five Civilized
Tribes,” who began their “Trail of Tears” from Tennessee to Indian
Territory, or what is known as Oklahoma today. An estimated 4,000
people died on the journey.
The Neals moved west to Missouri. Before long it was time to go west
again. In 1843, Congress tried to pass a bill that promised every male
settler in Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington and
Idaho, 640 acres, 160 acres to his wife and another 160 to each child.
This was a political move to bluff the British out of the Joint
Occupation Treaty where both countries were sharing Oregon while
American settlers were invading it. The bill did not pass, but the
Neals headed west sure that it would.
On April 15, 1844, the Neals set out from Independence, Missouri
during the worst flood in recorded history. The Neal wagon train was
one of five trains with about 1,000 souls and oxen, milk cows, horses,
mules and dogs, including two Newfoundlands. It rained up to 80 hours
at a time. It took two days to cross the Missouri River. Most of the
rest of this journey has been described in excruciating detail by a
number of sources.
Literacy was rare on the frontier. Family legend has it that one of
the Neals learned to read by tracing his fingers along the label of a
whiskey bottle. Some of the Neal women could read and write. They kept
a journal that has survived to the present.
The Neals hired James Clyman as a guide. He was one of the greatest
characters in the history of the American West. Clyman and Jedediah
Smith crossed South Pass in 1824, which gave Americans control of the
fur trade between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In 1827, William Sublette took the first wagons over South Pass, part
of a route that would become the Oregon Trail. After years as a
trapper, Clyman hired on as a guide for the Neal wagons. When Clyman
returned from Oregon on his way back to Missouri, he rode with
Lansford Hastings over a route that Hastings was promoting as the
fastest road to California. The route had been described in “The
Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California,” a book Hastings published
before he had actually seen the pass and the impassable canyons that
lead to it. Clyman, who had a better idea of the country and where
wagons could and could not travel, warned against what was called “The
Upon his return to Fort Laramie, Clyman met many California emigrants.
Some listened to Clyman and chose to go to Oregon. The infamous Donner
Party did not listen. The Neals did not listen much better.
Clyman was a literate mountain man who kept a journal. He mentioned
how the Neal Party covered about 30 miles the first week, some of it
through knee-deep mud. The train split up as the wagons travelled at
different speeds. Clyman told us to stick together as a defense
against attacks by Indians. We ran into some Shawnee in Kansas that we
had chased out of Tennessee. Clyman describes them raising corn, beans
and potatoes in a land stripped of game.
Clyman described how our train was full of “discontent and grumbling”
about serving night guard duty. After a night of the horses and mules
running loose to graze, 15 or 20 could be missing in the morning.
As the journey progressed, discipline became strict. As punishment for
falling asleep on guard duty, the offender was dismounted and forced
to walk on the day’s march. One man was left staked out on the prairie
in the rain for a day.
Moving out onto the Great Plains, we ran into vast herds of buffalo.
Clyman described how some men in the train abandoned guard duty,
leaving no defense for the wagons, to go buffalo hunting. Hunting was
good. We left 40,000 pounds of meat to rot on the prairie. There were
so many buffalo they ate all the grass. There was nothing left for our
stock to graze. Clyman noted herds of bighorn sheep, elk and deer. He
guarded the women on expeditions picking berries, plums and cherries.
The women described this stretch of the trail in their own journals as
“The sweetest living we have ever known.”
It took 78 days for us to reach Fort Laramie, a journey that normally
took 40. In in his classic book “The Oregon Trail,” the historian
Francis Parkman describes the Missourians as, “tall awkward men, in
brown homespun, women with cadaverous faces … being devoid of delicacy
or propriety … They seemed like men totally out of their element;
bewildered and amazed like a troop of schoolboys in the woods. I was
at a loss to account for this perturbed state of mind. It was not
cowardice. Yet for the most part they are the rudest and most ignorant
of the frontier population; they know nothing of the country and its
inhabitants; they had already experienced much misfortune, and
apprehended more; being strangers, we were looked upon as enemies.”
The Neals tried to buy supplies with our scarce money or trade with
our extra possessions, but the prices at Fort Laramie were
outrageously inflated. Clyman’s shopping list reveals flour was $40.00
a barrel and sugar was $1.50 a pint. A tanned deerskin was $2.50, and
they were all out of dried buffalo meat. This was at a time when wages
were $1.50 a day and land went for $5 an acre.
Parkman was visiting Fort Laramie on the chance he could observe a
real Indian war. He followed the Sioux around for weeks and all they
did was hunt buffalo and cut teepee poles. Disappointed, bored and
suffering from the symptoms of dysentery, Parkman went back east and
The Neals continued west. We shot out the game, polluted the water
holes and outraged the Indians. We made it to Oregon on Christmas Eve
and settled along the Santiam River at a place we named Ale, a name
that was later changed to Stayton. There we waited for the railroad to
With the invention of the chainsaw, we followed the railroads north
and west to the Olympic Peninsula where I live today.
The Olympic Peninsula was a paradise of big trees, elk and salmon. We
moved to a home along the Sol Duc River.
By chance, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
moved next door. While there is a disturbing trend among some writers
to pander fleeting celebrity references as an excuse for responsible
journalism, it was never that way with the late U.S. Supreme Court
Justice William O. Douglas and me. From the day we met until he
recessed to that big Appeals Court in the sky, U.S. Supreme Court
Justice William O. Douglas and I shared a relationship that was beyond
Appointed to the Supreme Court by President Roosevelt, U.S. Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas served our nation’s highest court
through one of the most tumultuous periods of American history.
As a conservationist, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
had a burning passion to preserve and protect the wilderness. I think
he came to the Olympic Peninsula to get away from it all. Instead, he
moved next door to the Neal Family. We were loggers. U.S. Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas was a tree hugger with a reputation
for being soft on the commies and fast with the women. Conflicts were
Things came to a head along about the summer of 1958. U.S. Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas dropped by the house and mentioned he
was going on a hike to protest a new road the Park Service wanted to
build out on the Pacific Coast.
At the time, I was a road builder. I had a dump truck, a road grader
and an Army tank. Heck, I had my own army with flamethrowers, mortars
and machine guns all on a dirt pile in the driveway. Every once in a
while I would bomb my own fort with dirt clods just for fun.
I had big dreams for a four-year-old: a dump truck army building roads
across my dirt pile and beyond. And here this big shot, city slicker
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was trying to shut down
my job before I even got one. I may have said some things he
I wanted to go on that beach hike to protest the protest. I had my
blanket and my pet stuffed monkey all ready. All I needed was a sack
of jam sandwiches and I could have hit the trail. Instead I got some
static from the war department. Mom said I could not go off on a beach
hike with that “pinko judge and his floozies.”
Looking back with the hindsight of history, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
William O. Douglas might have been right all along. The deterioration
of our National Parks infrastructure is a national disgrace. The
National Park Service can’t maintain the roads they have. They have no
business building anymore. Later we moved to Sappho, and that is the
last we ever saw of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Sappho was once the largest and most modern logging camp on the
Olympic Peninsula. It is now nothing more than a wide spot along
Highway 101. Logging camps had long been considered to be like
an American gulag with cork boots. Conditions were rough, working six
11-hour days in a row with Sundays off to boil the lice out of your
woolies and change the straw in your bed.
During World War I, Colonel Disque of the Spruce Division built a
railroad to haul spruce from Lake Pleasant through Sappho into Port
Angeles. The colonel insisted on humane living conditions for his
soldier-loggers, so even though not one stick of spruce came over the
railroad before the war ended, conditions in the logging camps
improved. Not that the loggers would admit it. Each logging camp was
said to have three crews: one quitting, one working and one getting
The railroad was very important to the history of Sappho. It was
blamed for starting a fire just west of Lake Crescent in the summer of
1951. Rangers put the fire out but they can burn underground in tree
roots for weeks undetected. On Sept. 18, a 50-mile an hour east wind
kicked up and pushed the fire all the way to Forks, almost burning the
town before the wind shifted and the fire stopped at the Calawah
Suddenly Sappho was all set to salvage 35,000 acres of prime timber
from what has been known ever since as The Forks Fire. My old man was
a timber cruiser; he determined the number of board feet in a forest
before it was cut.
Loggers were using diesel-powered high lead towers and
gasoline-powered chain saws. The Spruce Railroad was replaced by log
trucks that delivered 200 loads of logs into Port Angeles every day.
We lived in the upscale section of Sappho, kitty corner from the
cookhouse where fine dining was to be had with three heart-stopping
meals a day. I still remember my first peanut butter sandwich. It was
My neighbor Larry had a pool. I had a swimsuit. Larry’s dad was a log
truck driver. My dad said they would drive for free if you would just
paint their names on the door of the truck. I wondered how they could
afford such a big pool. It must have been six feet across and a foot
and a half deep when it was blown up.
Larry was a real card. I remember when all us kids were herded over to
watch them hoist an elk out of a crummy, (a truck used to transport
loggers to the job). Larry said, “That thing is as big as a buffalo.”
I thought that was the funniest thing I ever heard.
At some point tragedy struck. We moved to town. As September
approached, each day was like another day closer to the end of life as
I knew it: the first day of school.
I am not blaming anyone for my fear of school, but it is probably my
big sister’s fault. She said I was adopted from an orphanage for the
criminally insane so I had better watch my step. My big sister was two
years older than me and more than happy to tell me anything she wanted
me to know about school.
“They put you in a big dark room with no windows. They have a big
spotlight,” she said. “They shine the light on the teacher who stands
up in front of the class talking all day long.”
“What if you have to go to the bathroom?” I asked.
“You’d better not. They’ll shine the spotlight on you and everyone
will know,” she said.
Try as she might to look on the bright side, my big sister could not
shield me forever from the harsh realities of that first day of
school. There were the fellow students, a half-wit gang of
sucker-punchers who remain my friends to this day. There were the
teachers who I try to avoid to this day.
There were student activities like lunchtime. That was an opportunity
to share whatever special treats mom packed in the old lunch box with
your new friends … if you knew what was good for you. Some of the
big kids had been stuck in grade school for so long they had started
shaving. So if you had a problem sharing your blackberry pie for a
rotten banana, you would better wolf it down first thing in the
morning before you got on the bus.
There was recess, with games like Crack the Whip, Dutch Knuckles and
Indian Rope Burn. The teachers didn’t seem to care what we did. We
thought they were in the basement smoking or something. No one wanted
to bother the teachers unless we couldn’t get the bleeding stopped on
On a good day, we’d head out across a gravel pit, through a brush pile
and into a real live haunted house with a hidden treasure: a stack of
old National Geographics that would have made Caligula blush.
Before you knew it a teacher fired a signal shot out of an old Luger
she brought back from the war and recess was over. We’d line up for a
drink at the water fountain. Just when you were ready to gulp down a
drink, some joker would plow into the back of the line crushing the
unfortunate drinker face first into the fountain. Sometimes the
fountain was plugged up with blood and teeth so you almost didn’t want
a drink but that’s all there was.
That was the old days, the late Pleistocene I think. We used fountain
pens, which could shoot ink quite a way when you got them sighted in.
Once you got inked, you were bound to get pasted, with the white gooey
stuff you could never wipe off. Mix in the rotten fruit and dirt bags
you were constantly getting pelted with and you could come home from
school looking like a modern art painting.
Then there were classes like math where they tried to teach us to
count without taking off our shoes. At some point, they hit us with
the new math, which I didn’t get either. The math teacher said, “pie
are square,” when anyone knows pies are round. Blackberry cobblers and
apple crisps are square. I must have been a child genius to figure
that out, but the know-it-all teachers just laughed.
Discipline was strict. They impacted my self-esteem, sometimes with
large pieces of wood. Like many Catholic schoolchildren in the ’60s, I
was convinced I was going to hell. That was the bad news. The good
news was that all my friends would be there.
A lot of my friends were altar boys and I was too. These days it is
very popular to make fun of altar boys with jokes like “Why doesn’t
the Catholic Church allow birth control? Because altar boys don’t get
pregnant.” But in the old days of the Latin Mass, you had to have your
act together to be an altar boy. Those unfamiliar with the Catholic
faith probably don’t know what a big job that was. After you learned
Latin, you were in charge of the water, wine, bread, candles, incense,
bells, a medieval wardrobe and in some cases crowd control in
everything from baptisms to funerals.
Meanwhile there was no slouching, fidgeting, or worse, sleeping
allowed. Well maybe that wasn’t the worst thing you could do as an
altar boy. The worst thing would be dropping the bread, which
represents the body of Christ. Go dropping Jesus during Communion and
you’d find yourself serving 6 a.m. Mass with the new guys for the rest
of your altar-boy career.
Screw-ups who couldn’t light the candles, fire up the incense or pour
water were never going to fast track their way up to the big time, the
Holiday High Masses. That’s where you made the big bucks, up to $5 for
a midnight Mass.
Then there was that other special perk that few realized. Being an
altar boy meant you could skip a lot of school on religious grounds.
People died all the time so there were funerals during the week. We
called it “the graveyard shift.” At the time I would have skipped
school to go frog hunting if I could get away with it, but serving
Mass at funerals was the only alibi that would pass the parental
It didn’t take long for the money and the free pass out of class to go
right to our heads. We thought we were better than everyone. We could
look down our nose at the drunks who only came to church once a year
at midnight on Christmas Eve or Easter while we went almost every day.
Never mind that we were sneaking the sacramental wine, what the heck.
We smoked and chewed, so pounding a little vino first thing in the
morning was no big deal.
Still, being an altar boy was not without its special challenges and
humbling episodes that confirmed our worst suspicions, that we were as
rotten as anyone.
People talk about seven deadly sins, but they never mention the one
that might have been worse than all the others put together to an
altar boy: flatulence. You had only one chance to get away with it.
You wanted to be ringing the bells during the attack and maybe move
along and light off a big lump of incense really quick before the
guilty party could be identified. I often think of this when people
refer to Catholic Mass as “bells and smells.”
Eventually I started going to a bigger church. It contained one of the
Earth’s greatest treasures: silence. This church was so big it had
mountains, giant trees and a river running through it. I took my
priest friend out to my church on the Queets River and confessed I was
a poor excuse for an altar boy. He caught a nice silver and all my
sins were forgiven.
After what seemed like a year of school and church and church and
school, we made it to the best day of the year: the last day of
I wonder if any words in the English language filled me with such a
sense of wonder as a child. I wondered if I would ever get to the next
grade. By the last day of school, the dread of getting that final
report card hung in my gut like a chunk of lead.
The teachers liked to make a big deal about how much they would miss
us when school was out. I thought of how much I’d miss my fellow
classmates, if I was lucky. Some of them had BB guns and weren’t
afraid to use them. Others had gangs or fighting dogs so you wanted to
plan on missing your classmates all summer long if at all possible.
The best way to avoid your classmates was to go camping in the Olympic
You hear a lot these days about getting close to nature and camping
without leaving a trace. We did that. If our camps had been any closer
to nature, they would have been underground. Since then all our old
camping places have been bulldozed, subdivided and suburbanized
without a trace.
I’ll never forget camping under the bark shelter. We set a pole frame
against a log and covered the works with slabs of cedar bark. There
was a carpet of moss for a floor. It was snug as a bug in a rug, for a
while. Peeling that bark must have awakened every bug in that log. No
one noticed the bugs once the skunk showed up.
When we got older, we wanted to camp in Olympic National Park. If the
millions of tourists who visit National Park each year built a bark
shelter, they could have the place clear-cut in no time. It was time
to go hi-tech. I had to get a tent.
There many fine ones on the market. They all shared one thing in
common: They leaked. A leaky tarp was cheaper than a leaky tent and we
were on a budget.
As luck would have it, mom got a new shower curtain on the last day of
school. I got the old one. It was perfect for camping with little
holes around the edges you could tie string to and batten down the
hatches when the bad weather hit.
I’ll never forget that first and last night under the shower curtain.
We’d slogged into a high mountain lake right when the ice was off.
That was the best time to fish but the wind was blowing so hard it
made casting impossible.
I made a lean-to out of the shower curtain. It lasted until the wind
picked up, howling across a snowfield. I wrapped up in that shower
curtain and waited until dawn.
Back then summer vacation wasn’t all just camping and fishing.
Children were considered farm machinery. There were many fine farm
careers to choose from, and I couldn’t wait get started.
Picking strawberries seemed like easy money, to start out early on a
summer morning, gorging down an endless row of perfectly ripe berries.
That was strawberry heaven, until your gut hurt so bad you could not
walk upright, which started the endless trips to the outhouse where
you spotted a fellow sucker-puncher from school, which started the
That’s where you had to be careful. You could get fired for berry
fights. Once you got fired, there was no more dough for the things you
really needed for a happy childhood, like illegal fireworks and
fishing gear. This was the bad old days before enlightened parents
gave their kids credits cards to manage their money.
So you didn’t want to get caught throwing berries even at somebody who
was asking for it by throwing berries at you. No. Revenge could wait.
There would be many trips to the outhouse those first couple of days
of berry picking until you were so sick of eating berries you’d just
as soon chew on a dirt clod.
As luck would have it, the boss kept all the boys picking together
where he could keep an eye on them. No matter what, the other guy’s
row of berries always seemed to be a little riper with a few more of
the really big strawberries that could fill up your boxes faster. It
was against the rules to pick on another picker’s row, but nobody said
anything about swapping boxes with them.
Just for fun, I liked to exchange a specially prepared “sucker-box”
with my friend while he was busy in the outhouse. That was a box of
rocks covered with a thin layer of camouflage berries. It was a dirty
trick but my friend had it coming. We both did.
As the day in the berry field wore on, your back began to ache from
the constant strain of bending. Your knees were shot from crawling
down the endless rows. You only got paid for the berries you picked
and if you ate all the berries you picked you paid in many ways.
Gastric distress that kept you dashing for the outhouse was the bad
news. The good news was it was probably the only shade in the field.
After what seemed like all day, it was quitting time. The pickers
lined up for their pay, but my pay was short. It seemed I had a box of
rocks in my berries. I’d been sucker-boxed!
I went on to pick many other crops after that — berries, beans and peas.
Then, regular as rain, a magic thing would happen every summer:
Grandma would come for a visit.
I had a fishing Grandma. When she retired to go fishing, the trout
population took a severe hit. She had a flame-red Valiant with a big
V-8 and a push-button automatic transmission. It had plenty of
get-up-and-go and a trunk big enough to hold enough supplies for an
expedition. It could take several people to help unload the fiesta
cake, 24-hour salad, cookies, oranges, grapes and more from the vast
Her motto was, “You should never give up an opportunity for an outing
or a trip.” She believed, among other things, that cherries should be
canned with the pits taken out. Embroidering pillow slips and quilting
on Tuesdays keeps your fingers nimble. The cookie jar should always be
full and it is perfectly acceptable for growing boys to eat a whole
pie. Her banana crème pie was a monument to the culinary arts. She did
not skimp on the butter.
I could hardly wait for Grandma to show up for her yearly clamming and
fishing trip. When fishing with her, you didn’t go around looking for
pop bottles to turn in for money for treats, no. Grandma Neal not only
had the classiest ride in the county, she had plenty of cash to go
with it. We’d hit the road for the beach at low tide and dig a washtub
of clams then go out for burgers in a little shack right on the beach.
Once Grandma got her fill of clams, we’d go fishing in the Elwha, a
legendary trout stream in its day. We’d drive up the Olympic Hot
Springs road and fish the holes along the road.
There is some fast water in that stretch. I was fishing downstream
from Grandma when she tumbled into the river. I tried to help as she
went bobbing by, but just then I hooked a 12-inch rainbow on my
Herter’s spinner. Grandma made it out okay though.
After that Grandma Neal dropped us off along the river while she took
a rest. We’d come back to the Valiant for lunch with a couple limits
of trout. A Grandma Neal shore lunch was a banquet fit for a king.
After lunch we’d head out for another limit while Grandma took a nap.
We’d fish until we ran out of worms and head back to the Valiant with
another basket of trout, then style back home for a fish fry.
Back at school I once bragged I had “the fishing-est” Grandma there
was. Those were fighting words at the time.
“Your Grandma doesn’t fish,” a punk who used to be my friend said.
“She just sits in the car.”
He should know. Grandma took him fishing the summer before. He didn’t
understand a fishing Grandma. She didn’t have to fish. That’s what the
grandkids were for. They were all fishing fools. She could park that
Valiant almost anywhere in the Western United States, turn the
grandkids loose and go home with a basket of trout. That’s a fishing
Grandma in my book.
The good old days were too good to last. I turned into a worthless
teenager tumbling down the slippery slope to the dark side. I started
fly-fishing. Before long I was too busy to go fishing with Grandma
Neal. She started going to Reno. She said it had a beautiful cathedral
and playing cards kept your mind sharp. She had always believed in
supporting the local bingo games. It might have affected her health.
She only lived to be 100. When she died, the trout population in
heaven took a severe hit.
Grandma was a wise and spiritual woman. She walked to church every day
until she was 97. She once told me to stay in school because no one
could take an education away from you. Those words stayed with me.
Staying in school required my participation in a number of careers
that no longer exist. I got a job cutting the logs out of creeks. Now
we put them back in. I was a member of the Shingleweavers Union
working in a shingle mill. Now there is no more union. I cut off fish
heads, trolled for salmon, cut shake bolts.
I got a job thinning trees in the Forks Burn up on Bonidu Mountain.
These baby trees were growing amid the stumps of the big old growth
they had logged. We thinned out the young Douglas fir, Pacific silver
fir and hemlock so they would grow faster.
Years later I was snooping through a timber cruising notebook of my
now deceased father. By chance I opened to the page to where he was
cruising the Douglas fir, silver fir and hemlock timber on Bonidu
Mountain. Out of the millions of acres in the working forest, we
worked the same land. I thought that was pretty cool.
Eventually I graduated from college with a degree in history. I got a
job with the government identifying and locating historic sites,
artifacts and objects on the Olympic Peninsula. It began a life-long
study that continued after the job ran out, to the present day. It was
the late ‘70s. The sons and daughters of the original pioneers of the
Olympic Peninsula were still alive. I interviewed these people, and we
became fast friends.
There was Lena Fletcher, daughter of John Huelsdonk, the “Iron Man of
the Hoh,” and his granddaughter, Missy Barlow. There was Kate
Flaherty, daughter of Chris Morganroth; Boston Charlie’s niece, Lavern
Hepfner; and old Abe Cameron’s kid, Emerson Boone Cameron. He was
known as Boone. I met him through Harry Reed, who had hunted, fished
and trapped the Dungeness country with Boone for 40 years or so. Harry
must have been in his 70s. Boone was 80-something. What Harry and
Boone didn’t know about the Dungeness wasn’t worth knowing.
The Dungeness was a haunted valley of abandoned farms, mines,
distilleries, and logging and hunting camps connected with trails,
roads, railroads and lookouts that have long since disappeared. I
thought I would write about it someday, so here goes.
Harry and Boone were the last of the mountain men, self-described
reprobates and moonshine connoisseurs. They homesteaded, hunted,
fished, trapped, logged and guided decades before I was born. They
were living historic monuments.
My job was to remember everything they said. I had to remember it. I
didn’t have a tape recorder. I couldn’t write it down. That’s
impossible while you’re driving on a muddy road where one slip will
put you in a quagmire or off the side of the mountain while your
guides are arguing over which way to turn and the names of every
creek, hollow and knob along the way.
Geographic place names are a record of the past. Graveyard Spit was
named after a massacre. Whiskey Flats was named after the town’s
leading industry. Wildcat Creek was named after one of Boone’s old
girlfriends. That’s what Harry said anyway.
We were road hunting at the time since both of the guys were too old
to walk very far. Harry had his Long Tom, a single shot 12-gauge,
which, together with Boone’s lever-action rifle, looked like a pile of
scrap iron, but that’s how they killed their game. Boone said he
killed two elk in his life, big five-point bulls. One was shot at the
head of Lost River and the other was up the Lillian River. Boone
figured that might be in Olympic National Park these days, and I said
Boone and his father, Abe, hunted and guided up in the Olympics before
there was a park. His father had named Cameron Creek and named the
valley it flowed through “Boone Valley.” Boone offered to draw me a
map of his old hunting country with all their cabins and trails in his
own style, with the letters backwards so I would have to look at it in
a mirror to read it. I thought a map like that would be worth a
fortune just for all the antique whiskey bottles you’d find around
where the cabins stood, but Boone died before he drew that map. It
became a real problem for my research. All my friends were dying of
One day when we were driving up the river to go fishing, Harry said he
was having a stroke. I turned the truck around. Harry seemed surprised
we were going to the hospital. He said not to worry, the stroke
wouldn’t hit until the next day.
It was February. The temperature was in the low 30s with rain just
turning to snow, perfect steelhead weather. The Dungeness was loaded
with steelhead. Harry said he could probably catch our limit in an
hour. I drove up the river feeling like an accessory to
Harry didn’t even own a tackle box. He carried a wicker creel. Inside
he had a few leaders tied up, some split shot and a jar of eggs cured
in sugar and salt. Once in a while Harry would get fancy.
“We started tying yarn on our leaders after the War,” he said. That
would be the big one, WWII. The rest of Harry’s gear looked like it
had been through the war. The guides on his rod and his reel were held
on with electrical tape. He would strip out some line and swing his
little glob of caviar out into the river, usually less than 10 feet
from shore. Harry caught both our limits before I got my fancy gear
“You have to feel the bite,” Harry said. That hurt. A fishermen’s ego
can be as delicate as the most fragile ecosystem. Harry had a 50-year
steelhead fishing head start on me. I thought it would be only fair if
he let me catch a fish once in a while.
Still there was more to a hunting or fishing trip with Harry than
hunting and fishing. It was a treasure hunt. Harry brought a metal
detector. He found all kinds metal tools and stove parts buried under
the sod of long-abandoned homesteads, along with the remains of the
Olympic Mountain Moonshiner. This was an endangered species, which,
like the 100-pound salmon and the Olympic timber wolf, went extinct
shortly after they were “discovered.”
The moonshiners left a network of trails and camps that ran from the
tidewater dock on the Dungeness far into the mountains packing grain,
sugar, yeast and dynamite to supply the many thirsty mines, logging
camps, fishing lodges, hunting camps, bawdy houses, dance halls and
homesteads that used to populate the last frontier.
In 1897, much of the moonshiner’s home range was declared a national
monument to protect the elk. This brought law to the Olympic
Peninsula. The year 1920 brought Prohibition, which, as Will Rogers
said, was “better than no liquor at all.”
There were conflicts. “Dodger Bender” manned the fire lookout on the
mountain that now bears his name, Dodger Point up the Elwha River. The
story goes that Dodger discovered a still and got knifed and killed by
The rich farmlands of the Dungeness provided the grain that, when
combined with pure Olympic mountain spring water, could supply the
20,000 sailors of the U.S. Pacific Squadron with refreshments. The
squadron had spent summers on maneuvers in Port Angeles Harbor ever
since 1895 when Old Admiral Beardsley spent so much time fishing Lake
Crescent they named the trout after him. For the next 40 years,
thousands of thirsty sailors enriched the social scene of the
Peninsula. That was until 1933 when the do-gooders ended Prohibition
and killed the moonshiner’s market.
In 1938, the National Park took over, putting the last nail in the
moonshiner’s coffin. Today the remains of the moonshiners are not much
to look at. Often there is just a collection of metal barrel hoops
sticking out of the forest floor. Other times you might see an old
10-gallon milk can. These were “borrowed” from dairy farms in the
valley. Harry would find what was left with his metal detector.
Many of these pioneer remains were soon obliterated by a logging
industry that had no appreciation for cultural resources. Logging was
really taking off at the time.
By the 1970s, the Japanese post-war economy had developed to the point
where they bought American wood. We shipped what was the finest old
growth timber on the planet to the Orient as raw logs. Up to 300
truckloads of logs came into Port Angeles every day to be shipped
overseas. Meanwhile, American mills were being forced out of business
from a lack of wood.
By the 1980s, we had logged and burned the last remaining watersheds
of the Olympic Peninsula from the saltwater to the National Park
boundary. The Japanese economy crashed along with the logging
industry. My government job ran out. I became a fishing guide for
salmon and steelhead and have fished ever since.
There have been many changes to the Olympic Peninsula since I started
guiding. The salmon, elk and timber for which this land was famous is
mostly rare, endangered or just plain gone. Still what is left of our
rivers represents the best of the last or the last of the best salmon
and steelhead fishing in the country. Fishing may be bad and getting
worse, but you can still have an awesome day on the river. Which may
prove the old theory: The worse fishing gets, the more you need a