Campfire Stories: “Syncing Up at Sol Duc” with Rena Priest

Join us for a reading from Dave and Ilyssa Kyu's Campfire Stories, vol. II: Tales from America's National Parks and Trails on August 10, 6pm at Village Books (1200 11th St) - another great Nature of Writing Speaker Series event. Details and RSVP at

Initially preserved to protect its dwindling forests and population of Roosevelt elk, Olympic National Park is home to diverse ecosystems that boast glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rain forests, alpine forests, and over seventy miles of wild coastline. Here one can traverse varied landscapes on or off trail, through forests and along rocky Pacific coastlines.

Olympic is a place that rewards the curious. Its diverse landscape includes glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rain forests, and over seventy miles of wild coastline. There is no road that takes one through the heart of Olympic, and 95 percent of the park, over 1 million acres, is managed as wilderness. It can take you three-plus hours to get from one side to the other by car. “It’s magical how you pop into one ecosystem and suddenly you’re in another,” says Anja Semanco, recipient of a Campfire Stories travel stipend. “If you’re in the rain forest, you wouldn’t know there’s an ocean twenty miles from you. One landscape disappears into another. This place is thick with mystery.”

In this region, native people were marginalized in their own lands, and their way of life threatened by new ideas of conservation. But through continued advocacy, ecosystems are being restored. Olympic enjoys a reputation of being one of the only national parks where Indigenous people still live on the land and even hold the right to close down areas of the park to visitors, so that tribes can conduct private ceremonies. “Just as the earth can be transformed for the worse,” writes Rena Priest, enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, “it can transform itself for the better.”

Olympic is a forest for seeking. In the stories we’ve collected, we follow people who are searching for baby elk, searching for Glukeek (also known as Sasquatch or Bigfoot), or searching for silence. We invite you into their curiosity in the hopes that you, too, will reap the rewards of Olympic National Park.

Syncing Up at Sol Duc

By Rena Priest

I have often thought about what life must have been like for my ancestors. I feel closest to them out in the forest or out on the water. I think of how they loved this beautiful place—this majestic landscape, these breathtaking waterways. How could one not have a feeling of affection and reverence for this place?

I feel this reverence most deeply when I take all five of my senses out into the woods or out onto the Salish Sea, and I am removed from the taxing and ever present crush of the evidence of human beings. I feel the pulse of my own timeline slow down. It is the earth, trying to put me back in sync with the rhythm of my own beautiful being. It is healing. It is medicinal.

I have an oral history collection with interviews from my ancestors and other Lummi elders speaking about various aspects of our Indigenous ways of knowing and being. The section on health and medicine begins with my great-great-grandmother, Aurelia Balch Celestine, talking about visiting the Sol Duc hot springs as a little girl. She guesses she was about ten years old at the time, which would mean that the visit was made sometime around 1896.

The family wanted to take Aurelia’s aunt to the hot springs to ease her rheumatism. She could hardly walk, but the family made the trek, stopping first at the little village of Jamestown, at Sequim, where an uncle lived. They loaded up a buggy with supplies and took a team of horses to Crescent Lake, where they unloaded the buggy and went across the lake on a scow. When they got to the other side, they loaded what they could of their supplies onto some pack horses. The rest, they carried. Here is her account of that journey:

“It was just a trail, just a trail. We walked and walked and walked. Every once in a while, we’d see a mark there, you know, where it says which way to go to the hot springs. We got to a river. It was nighttime and there was an old house, so we camped there. Every once in a while, you see a little shack where you can camp if you want to camp. Just a shed, that’s all. And then next day we walked.

“There were other families that went from Sequim: my uncle and two other families, I guess, went along with us. And we walked along the river. We walked up and down along the river. My dad walked up and down. He got as far as the falls, the big falls, and he come back. And my uncle was sick. He had the TB or something, I guess. So my dad and my aunt’s cousin felled a tree across the river, and it didn’t go straight; it swung and drifted away. So they had to knock another one down and it reached the other side.

“Then those little horses had to go across with them things by themselves. Then we had to go on a foot log, each one packing little things, holding one another just like monkeys going across the river. Then we got across and continued walking up, following the trail. Took us two days to get up there. We didn’t know. Finally, before we reached the place, we met the man that owned the hot springs. He was going to Port Angeles.

“He just told us what to do when we got there, and my dad paid him right away because he was afraid we wouldn’t see him when we left. We told him we were going to stay just about a week or so and the man didn’t know himself whether he was going to be home or not because he—oh, afterward, we heard that he was a drinking man. When he gets enough money he stays in Port Angeles until he’s broke and then goes home. So we paid him there.”

She goes on to describe the bathhouse (a little cabin made of fir shakes) and the smell of the hot springs (stink), then she begins to talk about different traditional medicines and their uses. She carried a lot of knowledge about our traditional medicines, all of which were available right there in that forest.

I once had a dream that I was in her house and there was nothing in it at all except for a trunk containing a few old photos of people I didn’t recognize, and lots of little glass bottles containing different kinds of plants. They were labeled in our tribal language, so I couldn’t read them. There wasn’t a person in the house with me, but I heard a voice in my dream. She told me that she wanted me to have these things. That they were a gift.

I woke with a secret hope that the dream meant I would learn her gift of healing, but it hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps I will have to wait until my hair turns white, or maybe writing about the beauty of the natural world, encouraging people to allow themselves to be transformed by it—maybe this is a type of healing. I have been healed by time on a trail. I have been healed by time in the trees.

Someday I will have a shower underneath those falls on the Sol Duc River. I will let them wash away all my grief. I know how to get to those falls, but I’ve never actually been. When I think of this little rheumatic auntie and tubercular uncle making a two-day trek out into the forest to have a medicinal bath in the hot springs, it seems an oversight that I made my first visit to Sol Duc in 2021, though it’s only a car ride away from where I’ve spent most of my life.

My great-great-grandmother, Aurelia, was born in Port Angeles. Her father was born in La Conner. We have ties to Jamestown S’Klallam, but the family settled at Lummi during the allotment period after the signing of the treaties. With the little I know—the little that is given in these oral histories—I am forced to wonder so many things. I have so many questions about their trip from Lummi back to Jamestown, and their journey to Sol Duc.

Sol Duc is a Quileute word meaning “sparkling waters.” But it must have been significant to my S’Klallam ancestors as well. For them to have taken such pains to get there, surely the place was regarded as a powerful place of healing. Having been there, I can understand why. I paid my twelve dollars to sit in the pools with strangers as I thought of my ancestors in the little bathhouse made of fir shakes, my great-great-grandmother as a little girl, burdened with supplies, crossing a river on a felled tree.

I only have vague memories of Aurelia. There is a fifth-generation photo of her holding me when I was a baby. When I think about this connection, I think of how I was alive at the same time as this woman who was raised by people who were alive before clocks came ashore and stole their connection to time, before treaties were made to steal their land.

Before the land was given to strangers from far away—strangers like the “drinking man” who then “owned” the hot springs and funded his benders by charging Indians to access their sacred homelands—before the forests were clear cut, rivers dammed, salmon runs ran dry, before invasive mountain goats were tranquilized and helicoptered out. Before this was a park.

If so much can be transformed in eleven short human lifetimes, there is hope for the future. Just as the earth can be transformed for the worse, it can transform itself for the better. It can heal, sync back up with its own radiant, life-giving rhythms. What would happen if the first step toward that healing was to give this glorious land back to its original inhabitants? Yes, it’s a bit worse for wear since the mid-1800s, but nothing a few brief centuries of affection and reverence won’t fix.

About this Story

Water defines Olympic National Park. Hurricane Ridge traditionally records 30 to 35 feet of snow a year. The coast and western valleys receive 100 to 170 inches of rain annually. From Lake Crescent to the Hoh River, the flow of water powers the glaciated mountains, rugged Pacific coastline, and lush temperate forests of the region.

Enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation and Washington State Poet Laureate, Rena Priest shows us how just one of those bodies of water can carry memories over generations. Rena remembers her great-great-grandmother telling her that if you wash your eyes in the water of this region, you can see clearly. “I’m not sure,” recalls Rena, “if she was speaking medically or metaphorically.”

In looking back, to an era before clocks and a time before we preserved the park, Rena also looks forward. Just “eleven short human lifetimes” have brought about these changes—why couldn’t they change back, under the right leadership, in the next eleven? Both practical and radical, Rena challenges our sense of time and change with one profound suggestion.

About the book

Inspired by America’s beloved national parks, Campfire Stories Volume II is a collection of modern prose, poetry, folklore, and more, featuring works from a diverse group of writers who share a deep appreciation of the natural world. Award winners such as Lauret Savoy, Rae DelBianco, and Terry Tempest Williams; newer voices including Derick Lugo, Rosette Royale, and Ed Bok Lee; and even a poet laureate, Rena Priest – all share their unique perspectives on our national parks and trails. These new campfire stories revel in each park’s distinct landscape and imaginatively transport the reader to the warm edge of a campfire ring.

ILYSSA KYU is a design researcher focused on inclusion at frog design, a global creative consultancy, and the founder of Amble, a sabbatical program for creative professionals to take time away with purpose in support of nature conservancies.

DAVE KYU is a socially engaged artist, writer, and arts administrator. Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in the United States, he explores the creative tensions of identity, community, and public space in his work. They live with their two daughters outside of Philadelphia and are always seeking adventure and connection in the outdoors. Find them online at and on Instagram @campfirestoriesbook.

RENA PRIEST is a poet and an enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. She has been appointed to serve as the Washington State poet laureate for the term of April 2021–23. She is a Vadon Foundation fellow and recipient of an Allied Arts Foundation Professional Poets Award. Her debut collection, Patriarchy Blues, was published by MoonPath Press and received an American Book Award. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

Excerpted and adapted from CAMPFIRE STORIES VOLUME II: TALES FROM AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS AND TRAILS edited by Dave Kyu and Ilyssa Kyu (April 2023). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher. Olympic National Park illustration by Levi Hastings.

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