Wildfire Season

My role as a commissioner for the Lopez Island Hospital District brought me to Lake Chelan, WA  for a conference for the next few days.  The remote village of Stehekin, the setting for my memoir, Hiking Naked, sits at the other end of the lake.  Last night’s rain, thunder, and lightning brought back memories of the wildfire  in Stehekin the first summer we lived there. As far as I know, this storm didn’t ignite any fires, but it reminded me of its hazards and the lessons I learned when fire blazed near us for months in 1994.

Hiking Naked Final CoverHere’s an excerpt.

Chapter 9 – Wildfire Season

Smoke rolled into the Stehekin Valley like an ocean fog, blanketing us in wintry gray. But this was July, barely one month after our move, and the haze oozing into our new home was from wildfires, not the Puget Sound marine air we were accustomed to.


A fire covering about 1,200 acres near Leavenworth forced a closure of U.S. 2 and created a massive smoke plume visible from Seattle and Tacoma. (Photo: KCPQ-TV)

Wildfire season arrived in the North Cascades after a two-week run of rainless, one-hundred-degree days and lightning strikes in the nearby Okanogan National Forest. The blazes dropped a thick, dingy curtain on the shoreline, but despite the haze and smoldering campfire smell, the Lady of the Lake kept sailing. Her crew brought news that a crack of lightning can change lives—ski slopes in Leavenworth in blazes, and three hundred people evacuated from the town of Chelan.

The thunder and lightning storms of my Midwest upbringing must have immunized me from fear when lightning cracked in ridges above the Stehekin Valley, because I wasn’t aware that we in Stehekin were in danger until a community meeting on July 29. Someone came from nearly every Stehekin household to the Golden West Visitor Center. People scooted their chairs over worn, hardwood floors for a better view of the National Forest Service map propped on an easel. Two thumbtack-sized black circles marked fires at nearby Rainbow Ridge and Little Boulder. A banana-shaped mark stretched over Purple Mountain. Butte Creek was blackened, too.

This was our first meeting with Alan Hoffmeister, one of the many specialists from the National Park Service who would come to Stehekin to try to outmaneuver the fires. Alan looked over the faces in the crowd, his index finger steadily pointing to the four darkened areas on the map. “Although the fires are several miles away,” he said, “they’ve already encompassed a thousand acres and are burning erratically.”

He predicted pines and firs, parched from diminished snow melt and eight years of drought, might burst into flame and roll down dehydrated ridges, spreading the firestorm into the Boulder Creek drainage area just a mile northwest of us. “If necessary, fire crews and equipment will be brought to Stehekin by boat or air. We’re doing everything possible to stop the fires.”

Then Alan suggested that, even though evacuation was unlikely, we should begin thinking about it. Nervous laughter floated through the cramped room as he encouraged us each to pack a single bag weighing no more than seventy-five pounds, the same amount airlines allowed then for checked luggage. I searched the faces of the long-time Stehekinites in the crowd, trying to read their expressions. Were they worried? Scared?

“These fires are more fierce than at any time ever in this region,” Alan said. “You might have as little as fifteen minutes to catch a boat to leave. Don’t wait for an evacuation notice to pack.”

At home after the meeting, I looked around the log cabin’s large open bedroom our family shared. Some of our treasured possessions were in storage, but many were in that room—worn baby blankets Rachel and Matt still snuggled under at night, boxes of photos I planned to organize into albums, the flute I’d owned since third grade, and a quilt we’d received as a wedding gift. I imagined the pages of our already bulging family journal curled and charred. I set out the four biggest duffel bags I could find.

Not wanting to alarm the kids, Jerry and I emphasized Alan’s reassurance that evacuation was unlikely. “Just pack like you’re going to Grandma’s for a weekend,” Jerry said as he supervised Rachel and Matt loading their bags.

As I sorted, I ticked off treasures that would put us over the weight limit—our broken-in hiking boots, cross-country skis, my yellow bicycle with the Minnie Mouse bell, and the Kitchen Aid mixer. Would they be there when we returned from evacuation? My stomach tightened over nature’s threat to our idyllic retreat. I knew I had lessons to learn in the wilderness, but I hadn’t anticipated this exercise in condensing my family’s life into four bags.

That night, images of a cyclone of fire intruded into my sleep. Every sound in the dark mimicked the crackle and hiss that I imagined echoing through the forest. Jerry snored softly beside me, and I could hear the kids rustling in their beds. What a fool I’d been to expose our family to these dangers. During our years of visiting Stehekin, I’d learned that the potential for natural disasters is part of everyday life here. Nearly everyone had stories of floods, fires, avalanches, and backcountry accidents that had destroyed property and claimed friends and family. Firs scorched by lightning marked the cycles of their lives. Now I was experiencing this reality first-hand, faced with a situation I couldn’t control. I tried to loosen my grip with deep breathing and prayers.

Sleep finally came, and a gentle wind during the night sent the smoke another direction. The next day’s clear dawn made it easy to forget the force devouring forests just a few miles away. The respite was brief. Within hours, neon-yellow fliers describing the “Stehekin Evacuation Contingency Plan” blanketed the valley. National Park Service rangers had hand-delivered the bulletins; with no phones, and no television or radio transmission, the pony express-like system was the only way to get the word out.

The afternoon arrival of Mike Monahan, a national fire commander from Utah, signaled this wasn’t “just another fire.” At the Golden West that night, the worried-looking, red-haired official outlined for the local crowd the challenge of preventing the small fires nearby from combining into one large one.

sky crane

At the end of my [bakery] shift, I retreated to a public dock to watch a red-and-white Sikorsky Sky Crane, a military-style helicopter, pull water from the lake. A bucket, swinging on a rope from the chopper’s belly, hauled up two thousand gallons of water with each dip. All afternoon it showered me as water slopped on its way to the flames on the peaks above. The rhythmic whirl of rotors was both unsettling and comforting.

Some days over the next few weeks, the smoke cleared to reveal blue skies. Two sets of friends visited, the kids rode their bikes to the landing to swim, Jerry shuttled a few tourists between the Ranch and the bakery, and the mail and groceries arrived on The Lady.

Other days, we’d hear the helicopters again, smoke would fill the valley again, and my fear—that this place and way of life would be destroyed—returned.

Rains in late August weakened the fire’s strength. We unpacked our evacuation bags and re-packed boxes to move into the house we’d rent from the Barnharts through the school year. Mike Monahan moved on to manage a different fire. Another Incident Commander directed mop-up efforts, and local Park Service employees handled flare-ups that waxed and waned all through September. By the first week of October, the fire-fighting teams rolled up the hoses and barged them out, along with their shovels, axes, tents, and trucks. After weeks of being prepared for fire on our doorsteps, these tools of protection disappeared, leaving in their place a deeper understanding: no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t eliminate all the threats to life any more than Mike Monahan could end the fire at Boulder Creek.

I awakened one morning in mid-October to a white glisten on McGregor Mountain, just visible through the living room window. Fortunately, the season’s first snow had come early; the tension in my neck eased with this proof that the fires were over—at least for this year.

Photo courtesy summitpost.org

Reblog – Inspired for Hiking Season

There’s a lot of mutual admiration among authors, and I’m grateful for the ways we support each other in this solitary work. Here’s where the  mutual admiration part comes in. In January,  I wrote about how Lauren Danner and I met at one of my readings for Hiking Naked. Next week I’ll host Lauren when she reads from her new book at Lopez Bookshop. And yesterday, Lauren reviewed Hiking Naked on her blog, “Wilderness Within Her.” You can read it here and learn of two other books that may inspire you to hike. Thanks, Lauren!


John Muir wrote that “going out is really going in,” and these books prove his point. Get inspired for hiking season by reading about how three adventurers engage with the wild. The post What I’m reading | Three books to inspire you for hiking season appeared first on Lauren Danner.

via What I’m reading | Three books to inspire you for hiking season — Lauren Danner

It’s a Performance

In the past five months since the release of my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ve organized nearly twenty events to promote the book. I learned with my first book, Hands at Work, the importance of book readings and signings to introduce readers to my work. As I wrote in Afterthought #67, I took seriously guidance I received about author events, particularly regarding my “costume.”

Organic cotton T-shirt by Naked Clothing


Elizabeth Austen “performing”

The more I give readings, I gain stronger appreciation for the advice to think of it as a “performance.” I learned that at the first workshop I attended on the art of the author reading, and again at a workshop by former Washington State Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen. Her poetry (Every Dress a Decision, The Girl Who Goes Alone, and Where Currents Meet) is exquisite, and Elizabeth’s work in theater and radio is evident when she “performs” her own poems and those of others. Here’s some of her advice that I believe applies to readings of all genres:

  • Select what you’ll read with attention to breaking the ice, developing an arc, and leaving the audience with what you want them to remember.
  • Let the audience have a moment or two to breathe between parts you read, especially if you’re making a big transition or you’ve just finished an emotional section [I’ve found this is the perfect time to take a drink of water; it gives me a break, too].
  • uo2Practice and time yourself so you can be respectful of the audience and fellow readers.
  • Wear shoes that allow you to feel the ground and stay balanced.
  • Performing gets easier with practice—read for an audience as often as you can.
  • Remind yourself that nervousness is simply the energy required to do this special thing, and that the performance requires you, but it’s not about you.

I’ve found that the Question and Answer segment is always rich, and although I never know what people will ask, I follow Elizabeth’s advice here, too, about how to prepare:

  • Think about what I’d do for an interview.
  • Ponder what I want to leave someone with.
  • Consider the stories I want to tell about the book and my process.

I’ve had some surprises at readings, and so far, they’ve all been a delight. For example, an entire book club came to a recent reading and sat in the front row.

CJW cover hiresAt another event, a woman in the audience told me she’d seen advertising for my memoir at a bookstore where she’d just read. I was thrilled to learn that her book (Crown Jewel Wilderness, conveniently displayed on the shelf behind me), is a history of North Cascades National Park. Danner-author-photoIn March I’ll host Lauren Danner for a reading at Lopez Bookshop.

Another time, a young man around my son’s age claimed a front row seat and jotted notes in a spiral notebook throughout the reading. He asked a thoughtful question about relying on memory when writing memoir, so when he came up for me to sign the book, I asked if he’s a writer. Turns out he’s studying writing, and his instructor assigned students to attend a reading (I LOVE this teacher) and write a report about it. At the same reading, an audience member brought her journal, along with my book, to the table where I was signing. After she had a friend take a photo of her with me, she told me she has journals devoted to author events and asked me to write a note on the page she dedicated to my reading. I’ve also been moved by health care providers telling their own stories of burnout and questions about their work.

I now have my own list of author event do’s and don’ts:

  • Always take extra books.
  • Always have water.
  • Don’t worry about silence when you ask who has a question. As a Quaker, I’m quite comfortable with waiting for people to be ready to speak.
  • Remember—if people close their eyes at readings, they’re probably not asleep. That’s just how some people listen.
  • Be prepared to learn something about your own journey through the questions from the audience.
  • Send a thank you note to the event host.
“Goode Ridge” by Jean Vavrek

Perhaps the greatest joy is when I receive comments about my book from people far away. Recently, a friend emailed that while she was on vacation in Mexico and reading Hiking Naked, she met another American from Seattle who knows me but didn’t know about the book—so my friend filled her in. Another email came from a woman I met in Stehekin when she was a teen. Now a midwife, she resonated with my experience of burnout and is planning a sabbatical from that role.

god section

A text message showed up from a friend of my son who had spotted Hiking Naked in a bookstore he visited.

book in cafeAnd just the other day I received a photo and Facebook message from a woman who was reading my book in a coffee shop in Great Britain and wondered why she got some funny looks!

Now I offer some suggestions to those of you who attend readings about how to support the author who has not only written the book but has prepared for this performance:

  • Applaud!
  • Buy a book.
  • Thank the author after the reading (even if you don’t buy a book).
  • Recommend the book to others personally, through social media, and reviews such as on Amazon and Goodreads.
  • Thank the venue for hosting the event.

As I plan for more events through 2018, I look forward to more performances.

iris reading2

If you’re an author, what advice would you give to writers preparing for readings?

If you’re a reader, what is it about readings that you enjoy?



Stehekin Christmas

Writing a memoir requires mining memories, and I did plenty of that during the 15+ years I worked on Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.  This year, I’m recalling vividly my family’s first Christmas in Stehekin, WA in 1994. The following excerpt and photographs will give you a glimpse of Christmas, Stehekin-style.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Roof-alanche!” Matt shouted as a slab of snow slid off the steep metal roof and thumped to the ground, creating a wall outside one of our living room windows.

“That’s what Mr. Scutt called it when the same thing happened at school the other day,” Rachel said.

Rachel, Jerry, and Matthew building the igloo base

For days we’d watched the layer of white that glazed the rooftop like cake icing grow deeper. Temperatures had seesawed between the single digits and the low teens and then crept up to the thirties, turning the snow into a wet, leaden coating. Now, with the window blocked by a curtain of white, our place looked like the Alaskan Eskimo houses Rachel had studied for her “Living Environment” assignment at school. Matt and Jerry bundled up in snow pants, boots, gloves, down vests, and hats and went to work digging out the snow. When daylight once again streamed through the window, Rachel joined them outside, all three of them piling snow into a dome shape to construct their version of an igloo.

We’d decided to make most of our Christmas gifts, both out of necessity (no malls in Stehekin) as well as a desire to simplify and personalize our presents. I sewed quilts and potholders. Rachel and I used our new skill carving linoleum blocks to create a dozen images that I printed and bound into calendars. Matt knitted hats and whittled miniature wooden black bears and cougars. Jerry sanded and glued dowels and bases for the wooden “Stehekin Slicer” bagel holder I’d designed. Stehekin might have insulated us from the Christmas shopping frenzy I’d witnessed when I was downlake, but just like everyone else, we were counting down the hours to the holidays.

“Sir Arthur” getting a rest in the snow; the Suburban did the heavy hauling in the winter

The same fluctuating temperatures that had caused the roof-alanche earlier in the month challenged our hunt for a pine to cut for our Christmas tree. I thought back to years when the kids were little, squeezing between rows of stacked, compressed Douglas firs, blue spruces, and white pines in the lot at Seattle’s “Chubby and Tubby’s” hardware store on four-lane Aurora Avenue. This year, a hike through pristine, unplowed snow in a mountain valley just minutes from our home sounded blissful.

My vision of the tree search derived from watching too many Walt Disney films and episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” rather than the reality of propelling our knees and thighs through a mile of three-foot snow drifts coated with a layer of ice, the winter air chapping our cheeks. Sweat seeped from under my wool cap as I huffed to the first tree I came to.

“How about this one, guys?”

Jerry and the kids trudged yards ahead of me, pausing at a tree, rejecting it, and moving on to another.

“No,” Jerry shouted back over his shoulder, “I see some better ones up ahead.”

“But what’s wrong with this one?” I called out.

“Over here,” Matt said.

Just as I caught up with the three of them, I heard Jerry say, “It’s pretty, but I think it’s too big for the living room. Let’s keep looking.”

“What about the one we just passed?” Rachel asked. “It was nice and round.” Her rosy cheeks were coated with sweat, and every time she took a step I could see the marks of melted snow on her pants.

“Let’s just go a little further,” Jerry said. “I like trees that aren’t so bushy. It looks like there are some good ones not too far ahead.”

“Just remember, once we cut it, we have to haul it out,” I said.

“Dad, I’m getting tired,” Matt said.

“Come on,” Jerry said, “where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Da-a-ad,” the kids said in unison.

“Okay, okay. How about this one?”

“Great!” I shouted.

“Perfect,” said Rachel as Jerry took the first swing with his axe.

The trudge back to the Suburban was slower going than the way in as we jockeyed for handholds on the tree trunk and dragged it over the snow. “I never realized we had such different preferences for Christmas trees,” I said. “This one’s pretty, but I think I would have been just as happy with the one we saw when we first got here.”

“But that wouldn’t have made nearly as good a story, would it?” Jerry said.

Later, revived by warm showers, dry clothes, and mugs of steaming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, we adorned our fresh tree with the ornaments and a string of lights I’d pulled out of storage. Finally, I was able to take in the splendor of the day and the satisfaction of the hard work we’d shared.

Boris enjoying the quiet of the snow

The next morning, Matt and I woke up before Rachel and Jerry to find another foot of fresh snow. I hadn’t imagined the quiet could become even quieter, but all sounds were muffled as gray clouds continued to dump fresh powder. I lit candles, Matt turned on the Christmas tree lights, and we slid a CD of Christmas music into the boom box. This was exactly what I’d hoped for in this season usually frantic with buying and consuming. I expected the mood would change when Jerry’s family arrived in a few days, but in the stillness of the morning, I savored the tranquility. Soon, the entire household was awake, and Jerry fired up the Suburban to drive the kids to school for their last day before the winter break.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Much has changed for me and my family since that first Christmas in Stehekin, including a new home on a rural island, some gray hair, more facial hair, the addition of partners, a different dog (though I’m still wearing the same Sorrel boots). But our love for the Stehekin valley and its community has only grown deeper.  Early next year, Matthew and his wife Jenn will add to the clan with the birth of a daughter (and our first grandchild). We look forward to telling her stories about our time in Stehekin and to introducing her to this place that shaped her dad, her aunt, and her grandparents.

Stehekin Christmas 1994. L to R:  Rachel, Iris, Jerry, Matthew, front:  Murphy



Stehekin Christmas 2015. L to R: Kylan, Rachel, Iris, Jerry, Matthew, Jenn, front: Buddy