0LYMPIC TRAIL TALKS By Francis Caldwell
Herbert B. Crisler was born July 23, 1893 in Elberto County, Georgia. By the time he was 16 Herb was operating his family’s photo business, his father having left the family destitute.
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Herb arrived on the Olympic Peninsula in 1918 with an Army detachment ordered to assist in the production of Sitka spruce for the war effort. After discharge he elected to remain in Port Angeles, where he soon began a photography business. He bought a surplus Pathe newsreel camera that weighed nearly 100 pounds and began taking motion pictures of local wildlife and attractions. Since the camera’s format was suitable for standard movie projection, in 1924 he produced a documentary, From the mountains to the sea and showed it at the Lincoln Theatre.
This first locally produced movie was a tremendous success and established his name in the community as a photographer.
He showed his films to churches and schools and by 1930 the name Herb Crisler had become a household word. He sometimes received mail addressed simply, Herb Crisler, Port Angeles, WA.
Lois Brown was a writing and English instructor at the University of Washington. Although a city girl, bookworm and schoolmarm, she belonged to the Seattle Mountaineers Club and had climbed Mount Rainier and Hood. She met Herb in 1940, in of all places, Elwha Basin, then again the next day in Queets Basin, where the Club set up camp in order to climb Mount Olympus.
That Lois was attracted to the handsome mountaineer was obvious to her women friends. Herb promised to look her up in the fall in Seattle. Little by little he wooed Lois at her house by showing her wildlife and nature pictures. Although she had spent her entire academic life teaching others to write, she had never tried to have her work published. She showed Herb something she had written but he only commented, “Marry me and we’ll move into a log cabin in the wilderness and you’ll have plenty to write about.”
After much coaxing, Lois asked for a year’s leave of absence. They married December 7th. 1941. That day, Herb always said, “A war started.” Herb was 48 and Lois was 45.
Lois’ friends, in various fits of jealousy, gave the marriage to a mountaineer who went around shooting skunks and marmots a year.
The cabin they moved into was Humes Ranch, two and a half miles up the Elwha River Trail from Whiskey Bend. Built around the turn of the century by the Humes brothers, had long been abandoned, except by a family of skunks that lived under the floor and innumerable packrats. Moving into this cabin in the dead of winter was so traumatic for Lois it was years before she could write objectively about the experience. No radio, no phone, no newspaper, little money, Lois soon realized that her conversion to wilderness wife would require years. A stranger in a strange land, her “education” was just beginning.
Herb, always an avid gardener, set to work on a 100 foot by 100 foot garden, knowing it would be the difference between going hungry and eating fresh vegetables. Always there was wood to cut and carry to the cabin.
In 1934 Herb took Lois and Robert, Herb’s son by a previous marriage, on a backpack trip to Hotcake Camp, Cat Basin, then along the narrow spine of the infamous “Catwalk”, the only way from the west into the Bailey Range and Cream Lake. Eventually the Crislers would establish seven camps along the spine of the Olympic Mountains, from Appleton Pass to “Far Camp” in the Quinault watershed, to use as base camps for their wildlife photography. Supplies and film had to be carried upon their backs to each of the camps. There were no trails.
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Lois was a rare type of person, highly educated, familiar with the famous literature of the day, she was capable of writing high prose. Instead she chose to write for the common man, the truck drivers, loggers and auto mechanics. Most important of all, she resonated perfectly with the housewives burdened with children to care for and men folk to feed, the people one might meet at a Dry Creek Grange Bingo game.
Well aware of Lois’ background they expected a snob. Instead they discovered that she was “one of them” and they loved her all the more. To her credit and increased popularity, during her long publishing career, including two books, her author’s voice never changed.
By 1947 the Crislers were spending winters touring, lecturing and showing their pictures around the United Sates. During this period Americans were itching to travel, but the roads were terrible and autos not very reliable. Reading the Crisler’s experiences only whetted their appetites.
Charles N. Webster, publisher of the Port Angeles Evening News was quick to recognize that people were anxious to follow the Crisler’s travels. He asked Lois to send in frequent dispatches about their location, film showing, schedules and travels.
The first of 28 dispatches was published January 15, 1947 As Webster expected, subscribers raved. Especially they wanted to keep track of the Crislers film showings so they could alert friends and relatives. By the time the Crislers returned to Port Angeles in the spring, they were local celebrities.
The last Dispatch was published February 1, 1949.
Encouraged, Webster called Lois into his office and asked her if she would be willing to do a regular weekly column about their experiences while at Humes Ranch and while in the mountains. Lois hesitated. This would mean walking many, many miles, sometimes by herself, to file the story. After talking it over with Herb she agreed to give it a try. The column would be called, OLYMPIC TRAIL TALKS.
The first was titled, Spring Chores Occupy Returning Nature Photographers, and appeared in the June 10, 1949 issue. The Trail Talks were an immediate success. There was a lot of interest in what this nationally-known photographer-writer team were up to. Altogether, 100 Trail Talks were published.
Caldwell’s book, Beyond the Trails
, documents Herb Crisler’s experiences, and later on, Herb and Lois’ adventures in the wilderness. When ordering, mention ifish for free shipping.