Book Review:  The Last Wilderness: A History of the Olympic Peninsula by Murray Morgan

Murray Morgan was a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest who penned the entertaining history called Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle. The Last Wilderness, which focuses on the history of the settlement and exploitation of the Olympic Peninsula, is no less entertaining.

It has its limitations, to be sure; for instance, it mentions the Native Americans who lived on the peninsula long before white settlers arrived only in passing, and Morgan writes from the perspective of the 1950s, when the book was first published. Nevertheless, it is full of fun anecdotes and fascinating facts about the European explorers who first encountered the peninsula, the establishment of customs posts at Port Townsend and Port Angeles, the ravaging of the towering primeval forests by rapacious lumber mills, the attempts to run train lines into the wilderness, the establishment of Olympic National Park, and the loneliness of the crews of the lighthouses on the islands off the west coast.

Amidst this broader history, Morgan zooms in to highlight the lives of idiosyncratic individuals. For example, he tells of John Huelsdonk, also known as the Iron Man, who established a farm in a valley deep in the wilderness on the western side of the mountains. Huelsdonk made money as a cougar hunter and also by carrying incredibly heavy loads for other people through thick forests and over steep hills. He tells of Bill Gohl, who would brag about the many murders he committed in the bars frequented by workers from the lumber mills in the Grays Harbor area. And he tells of Home, an anarchist community established in a remote part of Puget Sound; eventually its free-spirited approach to life and lack of law enforcement drew the ire of the powers-that-be.

For me personally, the Olympic Peninsula has always been a place of beauty and wonder. When I was very young, my parents made yearly visits with my siblings and I to Lake Crescent Lodge on the north end of the peninsula. The lake was far too cold to swim in, but we kids would play at the water’s edge. My older sister and I once decided that we would construct a path across the lake with rocks and pebbles we found on the shore. We named our creation Walters Walk. We kept at it for hours but didn’t make much progress, which isn’t surprising considering that it is over a thousand feet deep, one of the deepest lakes in the state. Our trips to Lake Crescent ceased when my parents bought a beach cabin on the eastern shore of Hood Canal from which we could see the magnificent Olympic Mountains.

When I was a young teen, one of my brothers and I joined a CYO hiking trip into the Olympics. We rented backpacks and filled them with food and other items we’d need, and then with the rest of the group we hiked through forests and over foothills for about a week. At one point we slid down a snowfield, and at another point, while I had wandered ahead of everyone else on the trail, I came face to face with a black bear.

Later, when I was about nineteen or twenty or so, I decided that I would hike solo back into the forests I’d explored with the group as a youth. My dad dropped me off at a trailhead and I hiked for hours, eventually coming to a campsite in a meadow at the base of the foothills. As I stood there, though, instead of exultation I was overcome with a feeling of loneliness and dread. What if I encountered a bear then when I was all alone? I changed my plans and hiked back out, spending only one night in the wilderness. (I later did get over my trepidation about exploring mountains all alone when I trekked into the Himalayas along unmarked footpaths without map or guide.)

Anyway, back to the book. Morgan has an intimate, informal style that works well as he shares tales of the early history of the Olympic Peninsula. This book is recommended for armchair explorers, but be warned: it may cause you to long to come and see this incomparably gorgeous wilderness for yourselves.

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