Deep in the heart of the North Cascades, isolated from the outside world by the rugged terrain in which it is situated, lies the small community of Stehekin. There are no roads or power lines into the valley, no supermarket or internet cafes. It is a sequestered land of harsh and enduring beauty, and in such, it draws a distinct breed of people; self sufficiency is a requisite, community and family paramount.
Comprised of less than 100 year round residents, the population has grown very little in the past century; and in recent years this number has actually begun to shrink as the children move away in search of work in the outside world. A few families however have roots that run too deep to leave behind; histories etched over generations in the roughshod granite and towering evergreens that stand guard over the valley.
In the fall of 2015 I returned to spend a few days in the heart of the valley with one of these families, the Courtneys. What follows then is a visual diary of this trip.
Afield Notes I // Isolated by the rugged geography of the North Cascades, Stehekin can only be reached by boat, plane, foot or hoof. It is not an island (though the concept of "island time" has been readily embraced) but rather is a valley, carved deep into the heart of the mountains and guarded by a 50 mile lake whose steep shores resemble those of a fjord at times. Isolation of this sort lends itself to a deep sense of community coupled with a pervailing air of self sufficiency rooted in the heritage of the American frontier, and kept alive by the strong bonds of family, and a unique coupling of adaptability and tradition.
Afield Notes II // We arrived at the end of the lake on a gloomy fall day. The valley cold now, the sun and any extraneous people having taken their leave quietly, their absence camouflaged for a time by the riotous chaos of vine maples, pacific dog woods and scattered gangs of alder brightly and boisterously announcing the end of summer. Higher up, when the sun peeks back into the valley, sheepish perhaps in her early departure, the ridge lines will burn bright with the march of the larch; a welcome change from the fires that marched many of those same prominences during the dry summer months of July and August.
Afield Notes III // Cliff Courtney, one of five brothers born and raised and still residing in the valley, helps his son Colter load the horses as we get ready to head out for an end of season pack trip up to the head of the valley.
Afield Notes IV // There is a rhythm, a plodding patience and effortless flow to the well trained pack team. Heads bowed, familiar trails lead towards the promise of dinner.
Afield Notes V // Flaming vine maples give way to old grove cedar. Higher in the valley we enter one of the old burns, scorched trunks and shattered limbs towering over us, dark sentinels under a foreboding sky. Each summer the cycle of fire and regrowth unfold on a grand scale, often raging unchecked in the remote areas of the Cascades.
Afield Notes VI // In 1972, Ray Courtney (Cliff’s father, and Colter’s grandfather) left the Stehekin valley in search of horses capable of navigating the rugged terrain of the North Cascades high country. Sure footed, and with strong hooves that would not chip in the rocky granite of the high country, Ray settled on a team of Norwegian Fjord orses - some of the first to be brought to North America. Returning to Stehekin with the horses, he went on to build the packing outfit that his children and grandchildren continue to operate to this day at Stehekin Valley Ranch.
Afield Notes VII // Plodding deeper into the valley, the sound of the horses is muffled by the dense quietude of the forest. The occasional glimpse through flickering branches of towering peaks, lend to the sense of scale, as the pack train wends through the evening gloaming.
Afield Notes VIII // As the light fades and the heads of the fjords hang lower, the sound of rushing water, first faint, then roaring alerts us that we’ve arrived at our camp for the night - Bridge Creek.
Afield Notes IX // Cliff ushers the last of the horses through the gap in the split rail coral that he built with his father Ray, some forty years prior.
Afield Notes X // Growing up at the one room school house we used to tease Colter - back before he hit his growth spurt. Years later, recruited by football teams around the country, we don’t tease him as much. After a few seasons working on long liners out of Dutch Harbor in Alaska, Colter chose to move back to the valley to give a go at keeping his grandfather’s packing outfit alive. He works harder than just about anyone I’ve ever met. When I ask him if he misses playing football he smiles and shakes his head, replying matter of factly, “no, I like working, I like working with purpose”. Well spoken and thoughtful, I listened with interest as he talks about plans to keep the family packing business alive. Though he speaks quietly, there is an underlying edge of steadfast determination, a quality not dissimilar to the pioneering spirit of his grandfather and the early homesteaders of the valley.
Afield Notes XI // Colter was here. With winters spent long lining on the ships of the Deadliest Catch, and summers packing horses into the alpine, Colter wields a heavy double bladed axe like a fly swatter.
Afield Notes XII // As the cook fire cracks and pops, sizzling with the aromas of a hearty backcountry meal, Cliff hauls water for the horses from the small stream behind the cabin.
Afield Notes XIV // Out on the trail the pace of life follows the swing of the sun. As dusk descends we gather around the fire, drawn close by warmth and the press of wilderness surrounding.
Afield Notes XV // "Dad can we have one hundred marshmallows?”
Afield Notes XVI // Sun filters slow through the fir. The sound of the early risers rustling is followed by a wave of delicious smells. A pot of cowboy coffee, thick and rich simmers on the camp fire, beckoning the sluggish amongst us to rise and greet the day.
Afield XVII // Breakfast. “Can we eat that too?” Fjords eye the camera hungrily. Generally aloof, the prospect of a potentially edible item never fails to get their attention.
Afield Notes XVIII // Horse hair and split rail fences, dark loamy earth soft under foot, the smell of rain thick and heady in the evening. To exist as horse (or as a human) in the North Cascades requires a certain disregard for adverse weather, one of the reasons the Norwegian Fjords have likely taken so well to the area.
Afield Note XIX // Evening rides outside of camp. As the sun sets I listen as Nancy Davis and Colter Courtney about their hopes for the future of the pack outfit and Stehekin Valley Ranch. The last few years have been tough, with fires surrounding the valley and dampening an already slowed economy. Less visitors to the valley mean less folks to pack up into the high country. They don’t complain though, that’s not their way. Rather they look towards the light, grateful to have made it through another season, and looking towards the year to come. Patiently optimistic and sticking to their roots and the ethos of hard honest work that was passed on to them by their fathers and grandfathers.
Afield Notes XX // Down the trail and around the bend, I watch as the pack train disappears out of sight, slow, steady, seasoned, and with sights set on dinner. As the seasons change and the young generations become the old, the home fire burns on, the torch passes, and in these simple rhythms and traditions the spirit of the frontier quietly endures.
With grattitude to the Courtney family for their friendship over the years and for allowing me to join them on this trip. To learn more about visiting Stehekin or to book a pack trip with Colter and Nancy please visit: Stehekin Outfitters & Stehekin Valley Ranch.