Washington’s Olympic Peninsula: A Corner of America Not Used Up


The storms of autumn are a signal for the return of salmon to spawn in rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, and they mark a season to examine and celebrate this furthest Northwest corner of the lower 48 states. The job is gloriously done in Salmon Cedar Rock & Rain: Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the latest photo and essay book from the Braided River division of Mountaineers Books.

The Peninsula is a corner of America that is not used up. Its wildness is represented by the pounding of ocean surf, as well as the Hoh River rainforest celebrated by writer Lynda Mapes as the “quietest spot in the lower 48.”  Olympic National Park is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the nation, recently listed as first place in a ranking of America’s “crown jewels.”

In the words of writer-conservationist Tim McNulty, “Across Puget Sound, rail lines and the Alaska gold rush spurred the frontier towns of Seattle and Tacoma into sizable cities, but the peninsula remained remote and stubbornly disconnected. Through it all, its wild heart – the mountains, rivers and ancient forests – persevered remarkably intact.”

Sure, there are the clearcuts that flank U.S. 101. On his 1937 Peninsula tour, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gazed at devastation and remarked: “I hope the son of a bitch who is responsible for this is roasting in hell.” In 1938, he signed legislation creating a National Park in the peninsula’s interior, with provision that would add more than 250,000 acres along the ocean.

“For the first time in our country’s history, large areas of forested watersheds of significant economic value were preserved in perpetuity,” writes McNulty. “Unlike earlier National Parks, which focused primarily on scenic high country, Olympic National Park protected year-round habitats for elk and other wildlife along with thousands of miles of pristine salmon streams.”

Often, lamentably, books on conservation history shortchange Indigenous peoples. Villagers in Tlingit village of Angoon, for instance, have never received adequate recognition for creation of Alaska’s Admiralty Island National Monument. Haida elders, in their robes, blocked loggers from accessing ancient forests that became part Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

Salmon Cedar Rock & Rain is the exception, laying out the culture, traditions and even language of the Peninsula’s eight tribes. The book contains essays by writers from the Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Kallam, Port Gamble, S’Kallam, and Makah tribes as well as the Quinault Indian Nation.

Notable is the long, ultimately successful effort by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to remove two salmon-blocking dams that had “tamed” the Olympics’ greatest river system. With the Elwha and 210’-high Glines Canyon dams gone, 70 miles of salmon habitat were reopened after being blocked for nearly a century. The waters are almost all protected in the National Park.

The tribes have experienced a broader rebirth. “Along with the successful restoration of the Elwha River, the Klallam people have also restored their relationship with the Klallam Mountains: Along the way, they learned about their Ancestors and the teachings and traditional knowledge that they passed down about the Olympic Mountains,” Jamie Valadez, a Lower Klallam elder, writes in the book.

With stunning photography, the book lays out life experiences of the Olympics, two-legged and four-legged creatures as well as creatures of the sea. During huckleberry system, for example, “black bears rule the day in the high country” and “are ubiquitous in the Olympics, taking advantage of high habitats from coastal tide pools to alpine slopes.”

I closed my eyes, reading that passage, and remembered when Oregon journalist Brent Walth and I did a backpack trip into remote Lake Lacrosse. It was berry season, and bears blocked the trail in several places. They were happily feeding, in preparation for hibernation, and we went around them. Looking through his binoculars, Brent spotted a herd of Roosevelt elk, 57 in number.

Just before leaving office in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt created a 610,560-acre national monument, precursor to the park, to save the elk which now bear his name. Today, they thrive. The book reports other good news, such as a “massive restoration effort” removing dikes from the estuary of the Dungeness River, and relocation of mountain goats that were munching through meadows. We learn about revival of the Klallam language.

The book’s most delightful writing is Mapes’ essay “New Land: The Elwha Estuary.” “Washington’s newest beach” was formed by removal of the two dams, which transported sediment downstream and created new land. “To walk the beach today,” she writes, “is to realize with your own eyes and ears that change is possible – and can be even bigger and faster than anyone expected.” The Elwha is “an inspiration not only here at home but around the world.”

There’s a flip side. The silence that draws campers to the Quinault and Hoh valleys is shattered by the Navy’s noisy Growler jets, headed for a practice zone on the west side of the Peninsula. As well, climate change is being felt, from more acidic waters to rapid change in high places. During a recent drought summer, a forest fire broke out in the rain forest of the Queets River. Forestry workers in Forks could not hose down their logging trucks. 

One photo shows Mt. Olympus’ great Blue Glacier, which was advancing when I was a kid. It is now in “steady retreat” and losing mass. The Anderson Glacier, where hikers practiced self-arrest for a Mt. Rainier climb, has melted entirely in the past 25 years. Its basin has become a lake. The Lillian Glacier has also disappeared.

The Olympics are inspiring. Our state’s premier conservationist political figure, ex-Gov. Dan Evans, developed a love of nature at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Parsons. Later in life, as a U.S. Senator, he would craft legislation to create wilderness areas around Olympic National Park and extend wilderness area designation to 95 percent of the park’s land.  One place added to the park was the Royal Basin trail, Dan’s first great hiking experience.

The foreword to Salmon, Cedar, Rock and Rain is written by Fawn Sharp, president of the National Council of American Indians. She describes the Peninsula as “Heaven on Earth” and notes tribes’ role in seeking to “keep it that way.”

With a sentence about Roosevelt elk and berry-eating bears, Sharp caused this writer to fondly remember a hike – to a place pictured in the book. We had been pinned down at Hart Lake on High Divide by a day-long storm. The tempest cleared near sunset. We walked up to the top of the ridge and just kept going.

Eventually, we stood atop 5,400-foot Bogachiel Peak. Before us, the Hoh Valley was filled with fog. Floating atop it was Mt. Olympus, bathed in golden angled light of a setting sun. My partner Mickie admired snags in the meadow below. Then the “snags” got up, revealing a small herd of Roosevelt elk, which moved noiselessly into nearby woods.

The Olympics that day reminded me of a passage from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: “For the good earth that God has given us, and the wisdom and will to preserve it.”

(Publication of “Salmon, Cedar, Rock & Rain” will be celebrated with pictures and discussion at Town Hall Seattle on Monday, October 23, at 7:30 p.m.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


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