My first glimpse of Holden Village was the tailings.
I was 10, and my family was nearing the end of a 32-mile backpacking trip to Holden. Soon after leaving Hart Lake, about 4 miles up Railroad Creek Valley from the village, we could see our final destination. Or, at least, the huge orange piles of mining waste across the creek from it.
The tailings were the leftovers from a mine that operated for two decades, extracting 212 million tons of copper ore, plus silver and other minerals, from Copper Peak in the North Cascades. The mine shut down in 1957, and a few years later the property was gifted to the Lutheran church. Soon teenagers, including my parents, were making visits to Holden. The village’s mission grew from its initial focus on Lutheran youth to be inclusive of all ages and all faiths, though it’s still very Lutheran. Individuals and families come from all over the U.S., even the world, to visit. Many, like my family, come time and time again.
You don’t have to backpack in, but you can’t just hop in your car and drive up to the village. To get to Holden, visitors – or villagers, as they’re called – first get to Lake Chelan, then board the Lady of the Lake for the trip up the lake. At Lucerne, guests load onto old school buses – but only after forming a human chain to ferry everyone’s luggage and probably some food for the kitchen from the dock to the luggage truck. The buses drive villagers the 11 miles from the lake, with 12 switchbacks in the first mile or two, to Holden.
In other words, Holden is remote, which is part of its charm. There are no phone lines or cell towers (these days the village does have internet, but access is limited mostly to staff). Any electricity used is generated on-site, which means when Copper Creek is running high, there’s plenty to go around. When it’s not, everyone’s on light switch patrol.
My first visit was in 1983. And while we didn’t return every summer, we were there at least every other summer.
At Holden, it’s a little like being at summer camp with your entire family. A bulletin board lays out the options for the day. There’s weaving, pottery and more in the Craft Cave; classes or talks on topics ranging from Mark’s Gospel to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, from global warming to poetry; and hiking and other outdoor pursuits.
None of that sound interesting? There’s a library and comfy places to sit. There’s a pool hall and bowling alley, where a human is needed to set the pins. Or, the coffee is always on and the bread always fresh in the dining hall. And for kids, it’s one of those places where you instantly make friends, then you run as a pack.
Holden is all about community. It’s tie-dye T-shirts and church services served up with huge (and cheap) ice cream cones from the snack bar. People gather on Main Street to welcome the busloads of new arrivals, who are later welcomed by name at the nightly worship service. As people leave the village, they are sent with a blessing, and again crowds gather to say goodbye as the buses take them down to the lake.
My childhood memories of Holden are colored by the tailings – literally. The breeze would carry orange dust from the huge piles into the village. But the tailings and other mine remnants were also a source of fun and adventure.
They were the place where we kids flew the paper kites we made. They were the open area needed for games. There were stories of more adventurous types skiing down the mounds’ steep edges. The eerily colored water that ran from the mine – what I now know was acid mine drainage – fueled tall tales of hands melting off and mutant deer.
I don’t remember when I realized that the tailings were something to be dealt with. Early efforts sometimes sounded like bad jokes: Jerusalem artichokes could be grown on them, so in the late 1980s, a joint project between the village and Forest Service grew Jerusalem artichokes (not for consumption), among other things, in an attempt to cut erosion. But a bigger cleanup project was needed.
It took years to decide what exactly should be done. In the run-up to the final decision, the prospects dominated conversations in the village. Selfishly, many of us had a major concern: Access to the village would be limited during mine remediation, especially during the summer when most visitors come.
By this time, I was an adult, bringing my own daughters to Holden. In fact, I met my husband, Erik, in the village. It was the perfect Lutheran meet-cute scenario: We were both there for a high school youth event over Memorial Day weekend, he as a chaperon for his church’s youth group, me as an extra adult because I knew the coordinators.
The first time we met was in the pool hall/bowling alley, but both of us were on the job. The next day we saw each other in line at the snack bar. That conversation continued long into the evening. The next weekend it continued at a Spokane restaurant. Two years later we married, and two years after that we brought our 3-month-old daughter for her first visit to Holden.
So the remediation work meant that our family would miss seeing Holden in the summer. We survived the separation by visiting in the winter instead. For others, Holden created “Holden on the Road,” to bring the classes and sense of Holden community to the people who were missing it. And it seemed like we would all survive the planned three-year separation, until lightning struck.
In late July 2015, a wildfire that had been started by lightning earlier in the summer shifted and was threatening the road between the lake and the village. Because that’s the only way out, it meant the village, including all the mine remediation workers, had to evacuate. As the fire got closer to the village, I watched for updates online. And I wasn’t the only one. Posts on Facebook got hundreds, even thousands, of likes. At churches and homes people gathered to sing Holden Evening Prayer.
While Holden is just a place, it felt like losing it would be losing a piece of myself, of my family history. So I continued to watch for updates, as workers covered buildings in foil and used the new sprinkler system to create a dome of humidity around the village. The sprinkler system and other infrastructure upgrades happened in conjunction with the remediation work. The fire got closer and closer to the village, but, in part thanks to the mine remediation work, the village was spared.
It was a relief. It also meant that our return to the village would be delayed. Forest Service officials were concerned about the safety of the road. And the evacuation had slowed the remediation work. In December 2016, guests were allowed to return and my family was there. With snow, it was hard to see the impact of the fire and the remediation.
In June, we returned again. It was our first summer visit since 2010. Things were different: There was new paint and carpet, new landscaping and more outdoor seating areas. Power lines were now underground and the water system had been updated. Swaths of forest were black. One day I took my girls on an old favorite hike to a waterfall, only to discover that the fire had burned the viewing platform.
But much was the same. People still gathered for bus arrivals and departures, the community still gathered each night for vespers, the ice cream scoops were still huge and cheap at the snack bar.
That week Erik and I hiked the trail between Holden and Hart Lake. High up on the mountains there are still a couple of (relatively) small tailings piles. But those huge orange piles across the creek from the village are gone. More than 8 million tons of tailings covering close to 100 acres have been reshaped and capped. Gravel, mulch and logs have been strategically placed, and seeds and seedlings have been planted. In June, the area was mostly a big gray expanse, but trees and plants are growing. It may be that one day that view of the old Holden mine site just looks like more forest.
And I have to say, I’m a little sad the tailings are gone.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.