A Poisonous Past

What started as a simple quest to dig a bucket of clams was not as simple as it seemed. There were no clams.

Usually, when the tide is out in Discovery Bay, the clams are squirting like mini lawn sprinklers, but no, they were all dead. The oysters were dead. Their shells had mysterious holes in them. A carpet of dead oyster shells with a sickly rust-colored coating covered the beach.

It looked like ground zero the day after the end of the world.

How could Discovery Bay, which in 1900 the federal government declared a shellfish preserve for native oysters to be used to propagate other areas, be turned into a dead zone a little over century later? It was easy.

In 1914, a railroad connected Port Townsend to Port Crescent. The route, which cut across tidelands at the head of Discovery Bay, operated until 1980, carrying raw materials such as sulphur used in the production of pulp at the Rayonier mill in Port Angeles.

Notorious for accidents involving land-slides and derailments, the railroad had a switching yard at the head of the bay where it stored materials spilled from the box cars. Railroad beds are notorious toxic waste sites, even if you don’t dump sulphur on them.

But this was small potatoes compared to what happened to Discovery Bay after the end of WWII.

The United States had subjected Japan to a devastating fire-bombing campaign.

At the end of the war, the bombs had to be shipped home, but all of the West Coast ports were clogged with shipping.

As a result, the U.S. Navy anchored 16 Victory Ships, aka floating magazines with 3,500 tons of 500-pound incendiary bombs on board.

The crews were stuck on the ships for almost two years while they discharged oils, sewage, garbage and chemicals into the bay.

While it is not known for sure if any bombs were dumped in Discovery Bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the presence of benzyl alcohol, chromium, phenol, methylphenol, zinc, benzo anthracene, benzoic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons along with aluminum, iron, magnesium and copper in sediments at the bottom of the bay is consistent with the chemical footprint of dumped munitions in other military sites.

In December 1945, the clams of Discovery Bay were temporarily condemned as unfit for human consumption.

The post-war boom provided other never-ending sources of pollution to Discovery Bay.

The log dump and booming ground at the head of the bay covered portions of the bottom with the bark, limbs and whole logs that smothered anything living underneath.

A saw mill and veneer plant were built in the 1950s that used the tidelands as a place to put an estimated 50,000 cubic feet of sawdust piled 50 feet tall, and it sank 6 or 8 feet below the surface of the estuary.

While the complex chemical reactions of wood waste in water are not fully appreciated, they go something like this: The rapid deterioration of sawdust leaches chemicals into the water, while the bacteria utilize all of the oxygen, creating anaerobic black muck. The process becomes more dangerous with the mixture of low-pH fresh water and high-pH salt water that occurs twice a day with the movement of the tides — causing metals to precipitate out of the water and settle into the septic layer of muck.

If this black muck is exposed to air, it dissolves the metals back into a solution where it can be readily absorbed by clams, oysters, fish and eventually all sea life.

Is this what happened to the shellfish in Discovery Bay?

Tune in next week …

A History of Pandemics.

 IN LAST WEEK’S episode, we were discovering Discovery Bay, a favorite scenic waterway known for its beauty ever since Captain Vancouver anchored up in 1792.

At the time, Britain claimed the vast area we call the Pacific Northwest along with Spain, Russia and America.

The Russians went broke, Spain lost too many wars and the Americans bluffed the English, who retreated north of the 49th parallel in 1846.

With the creation of Washington Territory in 1853, people couldn’t wait to get out of Oregon, a territory said to be run by preachers and teetotalers who had prohibited liquor in 1844. Washington had a government-sponsored land rush.

With the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, a man could claim 160 acres and his wife could, too.

That’s where the treaties came in.

Isaac Stevens was charged with extinguishing the Native American title to the land so it could be opened up for homesteading.

Stevens was Washington’s Territorial Governor, a transcontinental railroad surveyor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs all rolled into one.

Stevens used intimidation and martial law to force the Tribes to sign his treaties.

Some said he wanted to start an Indian war because then, as now, war was good for business.

The Tribes signed the treaty because they didn’t understand them and they were nervous from getting their villages shelled and burned at random by various unidentified warships transiting the Straits, and their population had been severely reduced by disease.

Vancouver had noticed abandoned villages and Native individuals with “evidence of the pox.”

That would have been small pox. Which, along with a host of other European diseases, decimated the Native Americans even before the majority of Europeans arrived.

In 1855, Captain Abernathy found a schooner adrift off Diamond Point with 32 deserting British Sailors who had died of small pox.

In 1859, the Bark, “What Cheer” sailed north from San Francisco.

Sailors were dying of smallpox. Their clothing and bedding were thrown overboard and picked up by villagers, spreading smallpox from Ozette to Port Townsend.

So many people died that they put the bodies on the beaches, where they’d be washed away with the tide.

At the S’Klallam village formerly located at Discovery Bay, only two people, a man and a woman who seemed to be immune to the disease, cooked and cared for more than 100 men, women and children.

In 1893, the Diamond Point Quarantine Station was built to prevent the spread of disease from incoming ships.

No alien could enter the country without a health examination.

If disease was detected on a ship, it was fumigated and quarantined for two weeks.

If the crew was sick, they were put in the hospital until they recovered or died.

These days, smallpox, polio and tetanus been eradicated.

Other diseases are controlled with vaccines, but simultaneous COVID-19 and opioid pandemics have overloaded our health care system to the point where people are dying from previously preventable medical conditions that we cured years ago.

In spite of this, Clallam County has managed to administer an aggressive campaign of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Ironically, it’s largely due to the efforts of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, people who suffered European diseases and a genocidal policy of ethnic cleansing we used to call, “How the west was won.”

The S’Klallam stepped up and organized an effective COVID vaccination campaign, and they are building a treatment facility for opioid addiction.

Critics suggest the S’Klallam are only trying to keep the white man alive so they will spend money at their casino — but who cares?

The life they save could be your own.

Next week: Railroad’s coming!

Discovering Discovery Bay.

IT WAS GOING to be one of those days. With the razor clam season shut down, the blackmouth salmon season shut down and the steelhead fishing restricted to where you could only keep imaginary hatchery steelhead, seafood harvesting on the Olympic Peninsula has been limited.

Then the first daylight low tide exposed the clam beds and oysters just like the old days when the old-timers said, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

Nothing compares to the succulent steamers, meaty butter clams, monster horse clams and oysters there for the picking. Unless it’s the jumbo Dungeness crab, prawns, scallops, halibut and cod lurking offshore beneath the massive balls of bait fish, being chased by schools of salmon, that are stalked by seals and sea lions, which are all prey to the Orca. It was a web of life that made Discovery Bay the most fertile body of water in the Pacific Northwest. Until now.

Discovery Bay was carved by a lobe of the continental ice sheet that covered the area with about 3,500 feet of ice and melted roughly 16,000 years ago. Geologists consider the bay famous for having more tsunami deposits than anywhere else in Washington. There are 10 layers of these deposits that average about 300 years apart, hidden beneath the surface of the salt marsh. These represent Cascadia Subduction Events as recently as 1700.

Native Americans were probably living at Discovery Bay since the melting at the last Ice Age — if the nearby Manis Mastodon site in Sequim, where a spear point was stuck in a mastodon rib about 13,000 years ago, is any indication. That’s about how long people have been digging clams here.

The Englishman Robert Duffin was the first European to visit Discovery Bay in July 1788. He had been sent by Captain John Meares to examine the Strait of Juan de Fuca to see if it connected to Hudson Bay, claim land for Britain and establish trade with the Natives. Duffin traded halibut with the S’Klallam at what is now Port Townsend. Things did not go so well at Discovery Bay which Duffin didn’t have time to name before his long boat crew was wounded and the boat was pierced, “in a thousand places with arrows.”

English claim to the North West was based on Sir Francis Drakes’s voyage of 1579 and the discoveries of Captain Cook in 1778. Spain had based their title to the territory on Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1510 when he claimed all of the land it touched. The Spanish had come north to preclude the Russian advances to the south and confront the invasion of British explorers looking for furs to trade in China and a chance to claim the ₤20,000 the British Parliament would award to anyone who could find the fabled Northwest Passage.

By 1789 the English Captains, James Colnett, Thomas Hudson, William Douglas and John Meares had been arrested and their vessels seized at Nootka by the Spanish for violating Spain’s Territory. Meares had been trading along the Northwest Coast for sea-otter pelts flying Portuguese flags and using a fake Portuguese papers that would allow him to sell furs in Portuguese Macao to avoid the licensing requirements of the British East India Company and the South Sea Company in Canton all in an effort to save on the expense of Chinese port charges.

These arrests resulted in what was known as the Nootka Crisis in which the British Prime Minister William Pitt and the press were ready to go to war over freedom of navigation on the high seas. Spain had suffered repeated military defeats and rebellion at home and could not afford another war with England. The Nootka Convention of 1790 established a joint occupation between Spain and England where sovereignty would be determined by occupation.

The Spanish began their attempts to secure their territory by exploring the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1790 the Spanish Ensign Manuel Quimper landed in Neah Bay where he took formal possession in the name of the king of Spain calling it, Boca de Nunez Gaona. Quimper was the first Spaniard to see Discovery Bay naming it Puerta de Bodega y Quadra after his commandant at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island.

By 1793 the Spanish viceroy, Revilla Gigedo, wrote a report about the Northwest coast that said once the sea otter were gone there would be few reasons to colonize the area. There was no gold. It was too forested for farming. There were no major rivers to the interior so there was no reason to keep other countries away.

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca looking for the fabled Northwest Passage. He anchored in Discovery Bay, naming it after his ship Discovery. The S’Klallam traded with Vancouver while he made his astronomical observations and the crew made spruce beer. Vancouver described Discovery Bay as, “Almost as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds of Europe.”

S’Klallam tradition relates that about 1800, what they thought was a British Man of War anchored in front of their village at the head of Discovery Bay. Two S’Klallam men were invited to go aboard the ship, where one was dressed in European clothes and shot. The other escaped. The villagers scattered into the forest. That night 11 sailors from the ship went to shore to spend the night in one of the longhouses, where they were found clubbed to death the next morning. The bodies were taken aboard and the ship sailed away.

By the early 1800’s the Spanish had retreated south. The Russians were retreating north leaving the British and Americans competing for title to the Pacific Northwest. Confrontation was avoided. After the War of 1812 Britain did not want another war. With the Treaty of 1818, Britain and the United States agreed to a joint occupation of what became known as the Oregon country.

In the 1840’s American emigrants were arriving in Oregon in increasing numbers by wagon train from across the continent. The American President Polk’s militant expansionism had encouraged revolt in California and declared war with Mexico in 1846. Britain had its own problems with a famine in Ireland and a war in India. England did not want another war with the U.S. at the time so they agreed to a complete withdrawal from what is now western Washington retreating north of the 49 parallel.

In 1850, the English Captain Hinderwell started the first logging operation for her Majesty’s Navy on the shores of Discovery Bay, with a crew of 100 S’Klallam, who spent four months falling, trimming, skidding and loading 18 spars on his ship Albion. Then an American Customs Inspector appeared on the scene. He seized the Albion, towed it to Steilacoom, where the locals raided the ship’s liquor stores.  

The first thing the Bostons, a name given by the Native Americans because that’s where the first Yankee trading ships came from, noticed about Discovery Bay was the timber growing down to the water’s edge.  Trees could be felled and floated to a mill with a minimum of effort. In 1853, Captain Talbot and Cyrus Walker anchored their schooner, Junius Pringle, in Discovery Bay and went ashore where they measured a fallen Douglas fir 280 feet long and 14 feet in diameter. They got an idea to build a sawmill.

The California Gold Rush had created a huge demand for lumber. In 1858, the first saw mill was built on Discovery Bay. A clipper ship, The War Hawk, sailed lumber from Discovery Bay to San Francisco in a record four days before she sank in Discovery Bay. This began a legacy of environmental degradation we will continue next week.

A Short History of Hurricanes.


IT WAS A dark and stormy night.

The wind roared through the timber like a freight train. I thought it would rip the roof off the shack, but it didn’t.

Eventually the morning came. The crows woke up and flew around in crazy circles like they were glad to be alive, and so was I.

People don’t think of the Olympic Peninsula as hurricane country, but it is.

There was the Hanukkah eve storm in December 2006, when hurricane-force winds of 70 to 100 mph hit Washington, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, killing 14 people.

Although, most of the deaths occurred after the storm due to asphyxiation caused by people using gasoline generators and charcoal barbecues indoors.

Then there was the 1979 big blow that took out the Hood Canal Bridge.

The bridge withstood a south wind of 80 mph that gusted to 115 mph until a severe list developed, allowing water into the flotation devices that kept the floating bridge afloat.

Replacing the bridge took three years and cost $140 million, and headaches for anyone traveling to or from the Olympic Peninsula.

Who could forget the Columbus Day Storm of 1962? This big blow began life as Typhoon Freda out near Wake Island in the Central Pacific.

She grew to become the most powerful extra tropical cyclone to hit the Washington coast in the 20th century. Wind speeds were recorded in excess of 145 mph at Cape Blanco, Ore., until the anemometer, an instrument used to measure wind speed, was destroyed. A 160-mph wind gust was observed in the Willapa Hills of Southwest Washington.

I remember that storm. It blew down the fire lookout that was located on top of Mt. Pleasant.

All of which pales in comparison to the worst weather disaster to hit the Olympic Peninsula in historic times, the “Big Blow” of Jan. 21, 1921.

The storm came ashore at about 9 a.m. near the mouth of the Columbia River. The North Head lighthouse recorded gusts estimated at 150 mph before the anemometer was blown away.

The storm headed north, where an estimated 2.5 million trees, or almost half of the trees on the southwest side of the Olympics, were blown over in a path of destruction said to be eight times larger than the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

Sixteen homes were destroyed in La Push. The lighthouse keeper’s bull was blown off Tatoosh Island. A herd of 200 elk was killed near Forks, along with hundreds of farm animals. Only one person was killed. He was scalded to death at a mill in Aberdeen when a smokestack fell on top of him.

The scariest description of the ’21 Blow occurs in Elizabeth Huelsdonk Fletcher’s book, “The Iron Man of the Hoh,” where she relates her father, John Huelsdonk, was upriver tending his trapline when the storm hit just before dark.

The Iron Man said he would stand under a tree until he felt the roots move, then find another tree to stand under.

With the ground-shaking impact of big timber hitting the ground and the roar of the wind, it must have been a terrifying night to endure.

Huelsdonk provided for his family by varmint hunting and trapping in winter in the mountains, so he must have been well acquainted with surviving big winds in big timber.

It’s not a question of if the next big wind will hit the Peninsula.

It’s only a matter of time.

When it does, please remember — don’t fire up your barbecue or generator indoors.

Digging the Ozette Potato

POTATOES MUST BE my favorite thing to dig, next to clams, but clam season is closed so I’m digging potatoes.

I know what you’re thinking, people are supposed to dig potatoes in the fall when the vines ripen and die down. But what if you’re too busy fishing? Then you dig potatoes in the winter.

That’s the best time to dig them in this country.

Spuds get soft if they are stored improperly, but if you keep them in the ground they stay hard as rocks.

You may lose a few to the mice, but that is a small price to pay. Some may freeze and rot, but for the most part, a light frost gives the tubers a sweet taste that is impossible to buy in a plastic bag.

There are many types of taters — red, white, blue and yellow — but my favorite is the Ozette potato, Solanum Tuberosum.

It isn’t the biggest tater in the patch, but it stays hard and fresh until spring, with a sweet creamy flavor the foodies tell us tastes vaguely like a chestnut. We’ll take their word for it.

All I know is the Ozette potato is a living piece of Olympic Peninsula history that goes back to May 29, 1791.

That’s when Salvador Fidalgo, captain of the Princessa, anchored in Neah Bay with some 70 seamen and 13 soldiers.

Fidalgo had been sent with instructions to monitor shipping in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and build shelters, an infirmary, storehouses and an oven to bake bread for the crews of visiting Spanish ships that were anticipated to reinforce their claims to the land.

Nunez Gaona is considered the first settlement by Europeans in the American Pacific Northwest. There were seven Peruvian Indians aboard the Princessa, so we might assume they brought the potatoes for vegetable gardens.

A member of the nightshade family, it is estimated that the potato has been cultivated in South America for 8,000 to 10,000 years. The Spanish conquistadores invaded South America looking for gold, but they also found the potato. The value of the humble potato has probably exceeded the wealth of precious metals since then.

That was the good old days when all you had to do to own land was to plant a cross, claim you owned it and you did!

The problem was Spain, England, Russia and the United States all claimed the same land that we now call home.

The Nootka Convention of 1790 allowed joint occupation by British and Spanish invaders in the vast area we call the Pacific Northwest. This was a diplomatic effort to avoid yet another of the wars in Europe that had devasted the continent.

Nunez Gaona was not a happy place. The anchorage was treacherous. There was no gold.

A Spanish First Mate was killed.

In a case of random retaliation, Capt. Fidalgo blew a canoe containing a Makah family out of the water. Two children survived.

Fidalgo realized his position was untenable. Nunez Gaona only lasted three months.

The potato stayed.

The Makah grew the potato instead of gathering camas. They traded garments of woven dog hair and bird feathers for Hudson Bay blankets, and the bow and arrow for firearms. It was part of the Manifest Destiny cultural grab bag that included alcohol, smallpox and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

For more than 200 years, the Makah kept the Ozette Potato for us to remember and enjoy today.

The Makah traditionally dipped their potatoes in whale or seal oil, but since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we’ll have to settle for the garlic butter.