The gravel shallows of the Quinault River sparkle in rare sunlight that illuminates evergreens atop the Olympic peaks and the meadows in the valley. A broad-shouldered and burly man nods his head toward Woody Peak.
“Every day I get up and run up and down that peak,” teases 83-year-old John Olson.
Four herds of elk have been spotted in pastures nearby recently, he said. His son’s brood of colorful Bard Rock and other chickens have wandered into his fields. A dandy of a rooster, part Rhode Island Red, seems to cock his head at the hens as if to beckon them to follow.
“They like my house better,” Olson chuckles.
These are the peaks that shoved their way out of the sea’s erupting volcanoes and colliding plates millions of years ago. These are the valleys sculpted by glaciers and rivers.
This is the temperate rain forest of giant Sitka spruce, Western red cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock where the Quinault and other tribes have hunted, fished and lived for thousands of years.
This is the Quinault Valley where the Olsons and other immigrants forged their homesteads more than 120 years ago. They logged, mined, captured elk and cougars and raised cattle to make a living. They blew up stumps to make room for pasture and farm land.
His youngest daughter, Barbara Marshall, who lives nearby, has made a plate of fresh sweet bread with maple frosting to go with the hot coffee.
“That’s why I am built the way I am,” he said.
Steeped in Quinault Valley history
Olson’s grandfather for whom he is named, John August, first saw the valley in 1892, close on the heels of the first immigrants who arrived in 1888. Olson moved from Sweden to Minnesota and finally to Quinault.
The Olsons are mentioned in a segment of “Trails and Trials of the Pioneers of the Olympic Peninsula; Land of the Quinault; and Land of the Trees” by S. Criss Osborn:
“The fortitude and resourcefulness of … settlers in the Valley defy modern imagination. The dense forest, the ferocious weather, the tumultuous river as a highway and the long muddy primitive trails that led into the area were daunting. How these sturdy folk carved out a homestead, built a home, beat down the brush to scratch out a garden and a field for their animals is astonishing, and THEY DID IT!”
With John and Bothilda Olson were two of John’s older children from his first wife and seven of the 13 children that Bothilda would bear; Fritchof, Richard, Constance, Elma, Ignar and the 2 month old twins, Petranella (Nellie) and Rosella (Sellie). He also brought a small herd of Angus cattle, Olson added.
Olson loves to recount vivid pioneer stories as if they happened during his lifetime. On that first trip, his aunts, the twins, were strapped in packing crates on either side of a horse. The horse slipped and fell into the water, tossing the twins into the river. His father, then 3, was horrified.
The twins survived. Olson points them out in a long family photo of most of the elder pioneer clan. The photo made it through a house fire in fall of 1968. Olson rebuilt the home where he lives today. His grandfather was a healer who set son Ignar’s leg after an accident that broke the bone so badly it poked through skin. His father was known for slaying cougars, he posed with large carcasses in two photos. Ignar also captured and sold elk. Some are in an iconic Harbor photo of the Aberdeen Elks Club with live elk in a 1912 Portland parade.
The Olsons helped build the Grays Creek Inn, now gone, and the Enchanted Valley Chalet, which is imperiled by erosion. Olson was born the year the chalet was built.
Olson is humble about his contributions to the area, often telling his stories with a dose of self-deprecation. He was not a good guide he claims, telling a tale of pack horses who got loose near the chalet and made it home to Quinault before he did. He had to walk home to retrieve the horses so he could bring back his companion.
As a child, he watched from a chalet window as a bear invaded a fishing cabin nearby. Fishermen trapped the bear, banging the door shut, throwing their weight against it, laughing in relief. But the bear jumped out a back window and sat on his butt, watching the folly of humans, Olson said.
Olson grew up to work 30 years in the Grays Harbor County road department. His contract carried a special rider that allowed him breaks to tend to his cattle still allowed to roam free-range, he said.
Daughter Barbara, known as “Sissy,” and son Keith share stories about sanding slick roads in the winter. Mother Gertha, whom their father called his best friend, drove the truck with curlers in her hair, while her husband shoveled sand from the back. Gertha then drove the school bus to Lake Quinault School where Sissy now works as assistant athletic director.
Keith took over shoveling in junior high.
“We got up around 5 a.m. on mornings we had to sand. Those really are fond memories now, but I hated those early morning get-ups.” Keith remembered. “Dad’s greatest gift to me, besides his unspoken love, was giving me a sound work ethic to get me through life and making sure that I passed it on. With him it was always full speed ahead until the job was done.”
Since Gertha died more than a decade ago, Olson breakfasts at the Lake Quinault Lodge, which his daughter-in-law, Hiedi, manages. He is such a fixture, his breakfast is called a John Olson: two eggs, a small portion of potatoes and fresh fruit.
As an elementary schoolchild, he saw President Franklin Roosevelt at the lodge in 1937, a year before the Olympic National Park was created. “I wish somebody had pushed him in the lake,” he told friends over lunch.
They fought the park
The very wilderness that drew pioneers to the valley in the first place is now deemed less accessible by many of their descendants.
Olson is one of many who fought federal authorities to extract privately-held land on the north shore of the lake engulfed by the growing park. What Olson sees as promise after broken promise is recorded in a blue soft-side notebook detailing the battle with the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s.
If Olson had gone against his conscience he may have been able to get the north shore removed from the park, he said, declining to reveal details publicly. Though his land is south of the lake and out of the park, he takes the fight personally.
He takes a dim view of current plans to zone the park. “I am not in favor of any park zoning because they are never going to stick to it.”
Friends around the table agree, even though some present have sold their land to the park. They have seen access increasingly limited in the trend toward allowing the land to return to wilderness as groomed and easily accessible trails disappear.
“They are going to keep us old duffers out of the park,” Olson said. The only people who will be able to enjoy it are young adults who are fit and able to hike in.
Pioneer families are revered in the valley. Many descendants would choose to stay if there were more job opportunities. Now in the sixth generation, staying on the land they love is harder, Olson said. Though all of his three children, including the eldest, Janice Pumphrey, live nearby, only two of his seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren live in Quinault.
Olson has survived major heart surgery followed by a heart attack. A few years ago his car was totaled by a young man whose accelerator got stuck. The boy died.
“Sometimes you are just sorry about the fellow — it wasn’t your time,” he says. Ironically, it was a park ranger who helped pull Olson out of the car, who helped him live to fight another day.