Forest fire closes Lutheran retreat center
Holden Villge lost a month’s worth of visitors and their financial support
Editor’s note: This story was published during the period when Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, was temporarily closed due to encroaching forest fires. Since this story appeared, the camp has re-opened. The article is reprinted with the permission of the Wenatchee World.
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A three-sided kiosk stands void of no-tices at Holden Village, its bright billboards glaring back at the sun.
“In a non-fire year, this is village central,” said Tom Ahlstrom, co-director of the Christian retreat that usually hosts about 350 guests and 100 volunteers this time of year. The kiosk is usually filled with posters about guest speakers, special events and topics at the daily vespers, a daily evening prayer when the whole village gathers.
But during September no events were planned; and it took a full month for the kiosk to fill up again with news of what’s happening in this preserved mining town, where people come to connect with nature and God.
Life at Holden Village was disrupted this summer after a lightning storm ignited the Domke Lake fire on August 5.
Two days later, the village asked visitors to delay their plans while fire officials evaluated the threat to the community. A week after that, on August 14 and 15, guests and most residents evacuated as fire approached Railroad Creek Road — the only practical way into this community in the heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Since then, hundreds of people changed or canceled their vacation plans. One couple postponed their wedding until October 13, hoping the village would reopen by then (it did).
Holden School, where about 15 students from Kindergarten through high school are enrolled, was invited to start classes in Chelan on September 4.
The school, part of the Lake Chelan School District, was scheduled to reopen after evacuation restrictions were relaxed on September 12 to allow residents, but not visitors, back into the village.
And for 117 former miners and their families who planned a reunion 50 years after the Holden Mine closed, the fire means rescheduling after months of preparation. They are now looking to hold the Holden Olden Golden reunion next year. The reunion was scheduled for September 5-9, and although Holden Village was not in danger, the 13-mile dirt road that leads into the mountain town was in danger of being cut off by fire.
“It was a disappointment to all of us,” said reunion organizer Linda Powell Jensen. She lived in Holden Village in her preteen years, when her father was a miner before the mine closed in 1957.
Jensen said she worries that some miners who planned to come this year may be too old or in poor health next year, and won’t be able to make the trip — which includes a boat ride up Lake Chelan to Lucerne. But she’s concerned, too, about how the community will survive without the revenue, and the volunteer labor that helps bring in the firewood and prepare the town for winter.
“It’s got to have had a major impact on the village. This is a real hardship for them. They’re going to need extra support this year,” she said.
Directors of the village, which is now owned and operated by the Lutheran church, estimate they’ve already lost about one-third of their annual revenue from guests — which provides more than half of the retreat’s operating revenues. “It’s going to be a lot of money,” Ahlstrom said, adding that he couldn’t estimate how much.
The village also operates through donations and volunteer work, and without its volunteers, much of the work just won’t get done this year.
Certainly, the loss of income will be significant, Ahlstrom ac-knowledged. August is one of two peak months. The Holden Village Web page offers three ways to help: Give, work and pray.
But during this reporter’s visit to the community, Ahlstrom and Carol Lund Hinderlie — co-directors of the village along with Carol’s husband, Paul — weren’t complaining.
“We have long realized where we live, and that situations like this arise,” Ahlstrom said.
Those who live in the village face many hardships to live just below these majestic wilderness peaks. Last winter, more than 200 trees fell across the road from heavy snow and wind. There’s also the regular winter threat that an avalanche will slide across the road and block access to the outside world. When conditions are bad, those traveling the road will radio back before they go through the avalanche zone, and radio again once they’ve passed the dangerous spots.
It’s all part of living in a place where nature rules.
“This, too, is a gift,” Hinderlie said of the fire. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy. At this point, it’s seeming kind of long,” she said.
But, she added, it’s harder for those who were exiled than for the 25-40 people who were allowed to stay. For two weeks, they prepared for the nearby fire. Now, fire hoses hooked into hydrants snake their way through and around the village, and are strung along eaves, ready in case fire threatens the 1930s-era mining lodges, hotels and chalets they’ve worked so hard to preserve.
Since then the Holden staff has worked to keep the buildings and maintain the grounds. On a recent sunny day when the cloudless blue sky offered no hint that the Domke fire burned only five miles away, village pastor Erik Haaland smiled broadly as he operated a weed-eater next to one of the empty guest lodges.
The village was peaceful, and Hinderlie and Ahlstrom were preparing to welcome about 80 firefighters for a Saturday night meal of pizza and salad. The firefighters at base camp at Lucerne were abuzz with the plan. They’ve been eating only one hot meal a day, brought in daily by boat from the Forest Service dock at Twenty-five Mile.
The directors said they would open their community hall for firefighters to enjoy some bowling, pool and basketball. And they would lay blankets in the grass and show a movie on their big outdoor screen.
Still, Hinderlie expressed a “sense of longing” to rejoin with the other staff members and volunteers who left in mid-August. “We’re wanting to be one village again,” she said.
When asked what they missed most, without hesitation Ahlstrom replied, “Kids. With no kids in this village, it’s tough.”
But on September 19, after starting school in various other locations, children and their families were allowed back into Holden Village, and the Holden School reopened the following week.
Karen Walters, Holden Village School principal, wrote in an e-mail that it has been difficult for her students and staff, who had to find temporary housing and alternative ways and places to teach.
“Now that the move back to Holden has been ap-proved, school staff is as elated as the families who have been displaced,” she wrote, adding, “Everyone is looking forward to getting back to a normal way of life after living out of suitcases for the better part of a month.”
Lake Chelan District Ranger Bob Sheehan ex-plained that the community is not in danger. But visitors would expect to be able to come and go, and the narrow dirt road that winds up from Lake Chelan to the village is still threatened.
The district ranger agreed that 80 full-time residents can return, as long as they’re prepared to stay at the village.
Sheehan said this fire is unique from the perspective that it’s burning mostly in wilderness, yet two communities — Holden Village and Lucerne — were threatened.
He’s stayed in constant communication with directors at Holden Village, and worked with them to evacuate when both agreed that it wasn’t reasonable to have 300 people trapped if fire crossed the road.
And fire did cross the road, twice, although helicopters dropping buckets of water were able to extinguish the spot fires.
Fire also made a strong run at the road at one point, and crews stopped it, leaving charred and smoldering timber for at least a mile along the roadway.
When visitors come, whether they partake in all the organized discussions and activities, or simply don shorts and spend most of their time hiking in the surrounding mountains, their mission is being fulfilled, the directors said.
“We welcome all people into the wilderness, so they can be in that place where hearing can take place,” Hinderlie said.
While waiting for the visitors to return, Ahlstrom offered this winsome parable for his staff’s predicament. “Think of somebody who has a new car, and they polish it, and now it’s in the garage but they never drive it. Holden Village is like that car. It’s kind of protected right now. We want to take that car out and drive it, but we don’t have a license.”
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In early October staff at Holden Village posted a message on their Website indicating the road, and the Village, are now open again.
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If you’re interested in learning more about Holden Village, want to read a blog chronicling the reopening following the Domke fire, would like to plan a visit there, or would like to support the village financially, log onto the Web site, www. holdenvillage.org.