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Washington Voices

For Valley Woman, Strings Are Her Living; French Horn Is Her Life

The raw green and black nylon cord in Casey Traver’s hands is taking shape quickly, as if threaded through a machine.

With her fingers’ swift articulation, thin strands are twisted together to form a thick, strong bowstring for an archer. She works standing. At one point, the nearly completed string is stretched over a table until it hums like an instrument. Traver wraps a fine black nylon around the middle where the arrow’s nock will rest.

When the string is completed, Traver will make another, then another and another.

Last year, Traver’s fingers made their repetitive flight thousands of times. The strings produced in the small, basement room of her Valley home are sold to archery stores in Montana, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

When her hands rest from this labor, they turn to a more subtle and contemplative movement - coaxing music from a gold-colored French horn.

The strings and the horn: One is her living. The other is her life.

Traver, 33, has played the horn for 21 years. She agreed to take up the instrument without even knowing what it was. But when she started playing she enjoyed it immediately. Last year she was principal French horn player for the Walla Walla Symphony. She is currently a substitute for the Spokane Symphony.

Playing the horn has not brought Traver riches or fame. She doesn’t play for those reasons.

A member of the Westwind Quintet, Traver said: “The only reason any of us stick with it is because we can’t bear to live without it.”.

“This is my voice, my sound, my heart,” she said. “Every significant moment in my life I play my horn.”

She majored in the horn at Northwestern University near Chicago. In 1986, when she was 22, Traver went to Oslo, Norway, for a year to study with one of the world’s premiere horn players, Froydis Ree Wekre. “It was the only year of my life that I was completely immersed in music,” she said. “It was great.”

These days other things demand her attention, like making a living. She gives lessons, but they don’t pay the bills. Bow strings do.

“I’ve made so many I don’t have to think,” she said, her fingers working on autopilot, twisting together a new string. She doesn’t look at her hands while working.

It is a craft learned from her brother-in-law, Don McKinney, who started making the strings in 1980 for his small company, Bitterroot Bowstrings. The company was started in Hamilton, Mont., but now operates out of McKinney’s home in Valleyford.

Traver started helping her brother-in-law in 1993. By then McKinney was running Bitterroot as a sideline to his work in construction. He didn’t have time to do all the strings himself.

Over the years, Traver has taken over nearly all the string-making. Last year, she estimates she made between 3,000 and 4,000 two-color strings for recurve and long bows.

“Now when he hands me an order he says ‘I don’t have to do any do I?”’ Traver jokes about McKinney.

She makes 100 to 130 strings per week, doing about seven an hour. She is distracted from the work’s repetition by videos and a four-year-old nephew whom she baby sits. There is a shelf of toys in her workroom for this visitor.

It is good work; letting Traver stay at home, set her own hours and be independent, she said.

“I’ve been at it long enough I don’t know how I would take working for someone,” she said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo