An Old Fish Story.

IT CAN BE educational to look back at the history of the Olympic Peninsula and realize how much things have changed.

One of the most vivid accounts of what was once known as “The Last Frontier” comes from Pvt. Harry Fisher, a member of the 1890 O’Neil Expedition which set out to explore and map Terra Incognita, the rugged mountains between Hood Canal and Quinault.

O’Neil sent four men from the expedition to map Mount Olympus, which three of the men climbed, on Sept. 22.

A fourth, Pvt. Harry Fisher, got lost and separated from the group.

He decided to head west alone down what would later be determined to be the Queets River.

His supplies consisted of flour, bacon, bear fat and some salt. He also had a knife and 36 rounds for his revolver.

Fisher cooked grouse in bear fat, finding it surprisingly good and after spearing a salmon, he declared it better than bear or dog meat.

Fisher reported that sleeping along the Queets was like “a camp in Barnum’s Menagerie as far as sleep was concerned.”

Between the thrashing of the salmon in the river and the breaking of brush by the large animals hunting the salmon, he had a hard time sleeping.

On Sept 26, Pvt. Fisher was hailed by an Indian who was also named Fisher.

He offered the private a canoe ride downriver.

Fisher described the Native American method of taking salmon — how his friend could nail a salmon 20 or 30 feet away with a forked spear. When his host had speared six large salmon, he quit fishing. Fisher describes his “staunch friend” watching the many splashing salmon with “pride, as a farmer would his cattle.”

A recent float down the Queets River revealed a far different world than the one described by Fisher.

There are no homesteads or fish-drying racks.

There are no V-shaped ripples in water 4-feet deep, made by giant king salmon swimming upriver in uncounted hordes.

You have to wonder how, in a few short years, our rivers could be fished to extinction.

It might have something to do with a Native American legend about where the salmon came from in the first place.

It was believed the salmon came from a big house at the bottom of the ocean where they lived in human form.

When it was time for the run, they put on salmon robes.

The salmon runs were a voluntary sacrifice for mankind, the animals and the forest.

As long as the salmon were treated with honor, their bones washed and returned to the river, the fish would run forever.

To say we do not treat our salmon with honor these days is an understatement.

Instead of treating our salmon with honor, we treat them like a crop picked from a garden that we don’t plant.

Predictably, the harvest has gotten smaller.

We have not allowed enough spawners up the rivers to fulfill their role as the most important part of the ecosystem by feeding the watershed with their bodies.

Our rivers used to stink with dead salmon during the fall run.

In the last few years, our rivers have become sterile and silent.

The fish have become threatened or endangered.

In the last 20 years, the Salmon Restoration Industry has spent somewhere over a billion dollars attempting to rescue 15 endangered steelhead and salmon populations in the Puget Sound Region, with no corresponding increase in fish populations.

Still, we continue these same vain efforts.

Einstein said repeating the same failed experiment was the definition of insanity.

Today, we call it salmon management.

Living in a Smokehouse.

This week has been like living in a smokehouse with swirling masses of smoke blowing in from every direction. We are reminded of the value of what we take for granted, clean air. People wonder if things have ever been this bad. A short look back into history will tell us things have been this bad and a lot worse.

All you have to do is look at a map and notice names like Burnt Hill, Burnt Mountain, Mt. Baldy and Baldy Ridge or look at some of the old photographs of the mountains above Sequim and Port Angeles with the bare hills in the background to know that almost all of the Olympic Peninsula has been burned at one time or another.

Native Americans traditions confirm this theory with legends of fires sweeping across the entire region. These fires may be connected to the Medieval Warm Period between 900 and 1300 AD when global temperatures were warmer than the present.

The arrival of the Europeans caused still more fires. In 1868 smoke from forest fires was so thick that sailing ships in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound had to navigate by compass. One captain gave up and anchored in the smoke reporting that dead birds fell by the hundreds around the ship.

The early homesteaders looked upon the forests as weeds that got in the way of agriculture. They used fires to clear their stump ranches and fires got away.

The book, “Dungeness, the Lure of the River,” describes a Happy Valley feud in the 1870’s where one neighbor tried to burn out another by starting a forest fire. The wind shifted and the fire burned south. That’s how Burnt Hill got its name. The fire traveled west across Blue Mountain to Mount Angeles.   

September 12, 1902 saw the smokiest day on record when homesteaders on the Queets and Hoh Rivers noticed that the sky got so dark the chickens went back to the roost shortly after sunrise. This was caused by a cloud of smoke and ash coming from the Yacolt burn on the Lewis River in Clark county. The smoke from the Yacolt Burn was so thick in Seattle the streetlights came on at noon. One theory claimed the fire was started by some boys trying to burn up a hornet’s nest down in Oregon. The fire jumped the Columbia River travelling 30 miles in 36 hours. 38 people died in the fire.

In 1907 a rotten log that had been smoldering just west of Lake Crescent burst into flames with a strong east wind burning 12,000 acres. The burn was replanted by 1910 only to be burned again in 1926 when a passing motorist tossed a cigarette out the window and started another fire.

That’s nothing compared to the Forks Fire of September 1951 when another east wind fanned another smoldering log into another fire that burned 30,000 acres and almost incinerated Forks.

After the fire, roads were built through the Forks burn for timber salvage and fire protection. Unfortunately, instead of maintaining our forest access roads for fire protection and recreation many have been removed as an excuse for salmon restoration. Building the forest roads caused erosion but taking them out causes still more erosion. Erosion from roads is bad but erosion and collateral damage from forest fires is worse.

When and not if we have another fire, these roads would have been a valuable asset to fire fighters. With forest access roads eliminated we have one less tool to fight forest fires. Which could prove things can always be worse.

The Love Boat

And so, another tourist season passes astern. This year’s tourist season has been a record setting invasion that’s caused miles-long traffic jams to get on the ferries. Olympic National Park was packed with people. They closed Lake Cushman. There were hour-long waits to go to Hurricane Ridge and get into the Hoh Rain Forest.

The tourists were rarin’ to get out and go anywhere after being cooped up in quarantine for months. Anywhere that is within the confines of our borders. Americans are not welcome in other countries. We cannot even escape to Canada. The tourists panicked with their new found freedom. They got lost, fell off rocks and someone started a forest fire keeping our wild land’s emergency responders hopping all summer.

This summer, it was tougher than ever to get away from it all. We weren’t going to raft at all this year but then the Covid 19 restrictions lessened to phase two and every other raft company in the country was doing it so we did it to.

That meant there could be no mixing of groups of rafters in the raft or shuttle van with sanitizing all equipment between each use and using gloves and masks where appropriate. There’s been a lot of controversy about wearing masks. Some folks would rather pack a pistol than wear a mask and that is their Constitutional right as Americans and another reason why, with only 4% of the world’s population we have 25% of the world’s Covid 19 deaths.

Internet rumors hint that masks can endanger the wearer with sickness or even death which would be news to doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care workers who spend their entire careers wearing masks.

Sure, masks are a hassle but so is intubation. They say you can’t exercise with a mask on and that may be true. I can only row 18 miles a day down the river while wearing a mask but that’s far enough for me. I tend to look on the bright side. They say you can tell if a guide is lying if his lips are moving. When you’re wearing a mask it almost isn’t fair. Wearing a mask, it’s possible to spawn any half-baked fable you can dream up and the tourists will suck it up like the Gospel truth.

The crowds and the traffic did not improve anyone’s temper. The tourists were tired, hot and cranky. Then they got in the raft. Most enjoyed the scenic tour through a rainforest canyon while watching elk, bear, otters and eagles beneath a canopy of giant trees. Unless they were American teenagers.

The American teenager and children in general have little inclination to enjoy a nature experience that does not involve a video game. Faced with the prospect of a two hour raft trip, they invariably claim to suffer from a variety of physical maladies and chronic pain issues with bad backs, arms, necks and legs. The symptoms of which they freely share throughout the trip to which I respond,

“Wait till you’re my age.”

These pampered, (American) children sit in the raft like they are going to the dentist while mommy and daddy ask them if they are ok every thirty seconds, offering drinks and snacks or to put on or take off their hat or coat or sunglasses or sunscreen.

The parents only want the child to smile for a picture for a memory of a family vacation where they spent thousands on plane tickets, rental cars, RV’s, hotels, motels, meals, souvenirs and yes, raft trips but no, the kid refuses to smile for a picture.

Then there are other days. The ones we will remember all winter. We watch the mood of the river change with the passing of the seasons. Every day brings a new hint of fall with random patches of red and orange vine maples splashed across hillsides that echo the bugling elk. A quiet young couple sat in the front of the raft. While we were watching an eagle circling far above another eagle caught a fish in the river just downstream and landed on a log on the shore to eat it. I said we’re just going to sit and watch the eagle eat the fish if they didn’t have anything better to do. They didn’t.

They put down their paddles and sat together in the center of the raft. He gave her something and she started crying. Then she said yes and he started crying. Things were getting weird so I asked them what the heck was going on up there.

He said he asked her to marry him and she said yes so, I started crying. I told them that by the powers vested in me as captain of the ship I could get them hitched right then and there but they were going to plan a big family wedding back home.

So, I started singing the theme from the Love Boat and rowed them down the river. It was the best raft trip this summer.