STEHEKIN/LAKE CHELAN — Little Fella, a 30-foot cabin cruiser, bounced violently in the rough morning chop, carrying precious cargo to some of the most remote communities not only in Washington, but in all of the Lower 48.
Soaring peaks, waterfalls and steep, snow-filled couloirs surrounded the vessel, which cruised at 17 knots.
“The farther we go, the more rugged it is,” said Jake Courtney, at the helm of the boat.
Paramedics with doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine watched from the cabin as scenery swept by.
Holden Village and the town of Stehekin, burrowed into the mountains and valleys along the upper shores of Lake Chelan, are communities among the most sheltered from the coronavirus and also isolated by it. These are places where the response times of emergency services are not counted by the minute, but the hour — or, during extreme weather, by the day.
No roads connect these communities to the outside world. Stehekin — whose year-round population is tallied by the dozen — famously resisted telephone service into the new millennium.
Visitors typically arrive by boat, by seaplane or, when hiking trails melt out, on foot via the Pacific Crest Trail and its tributaries.
The pandemic has only intensified the isolation. Last summer, COVID-19 reduced ferry capacity to Stehekin. Holden Village, which normally hosts some 400 visitors, staffers and volunteers during the busy summer months, closed last year to visitors and implemented strict restrictions for the skeleton crew remaining. This spring, staffers and volunteers numbered just 45.
Both communities welcome, and to a certain extent, rely upon mountain-seeking visitors. Helping protect these communities with vaccines promises to return what many residents have long enjoyed: seclusion with a choice of connection to the wild world outside.
Little Fella, big lake
Lake Chelan slices through the North Cascade mountains like a gash. Just two miles wide, the lake curls for more than 50 miles, traveling northwest from the resort town of Chelan to the Stehekin River, as if written in cursive across bedrock.
Ice Age glaciers carved the lake down to a depth of 1,486 feet, making it the third deepest in the United States, after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe.
On one end of the lake, pastoral hillsides envelop the town of Chelan. On the other, the finned ridgeline of glaciated McGregor Mountain lurks over the Stehekin Valley.
Little Fella typically transports workers to Holden Village or Stehekin. But on this late March morning, Courtney’s VIP is a small blue cooler carried aboard by Ray Eickmeyer, the director of EMS and Paratransit, Safety & Preparedness at Lake Chelan Health, who coordinated the vaccination excursion.
Mountain Barge Services, a company owned by Courtney’s cousin, donated Little Fella’s use by the paramedics.
The mission for Little Fella, which was named by its owner’s young daughter, is to first head to Lucerne, the gateway to Holden Village, for vaccine delivery to villagers and workers, and then to cruise up to Stehekin. By the end of the day, they’d cover more than 120 miles on land and lake and deliver 55 doses of vaccine.
And on this bluebird morning, with sunshine shimmering on wind-whipped waves, there were worse assignments.
“Most of my team was like, ‘You’re going up lake to give vaccinations? Can I go? Can I go?’” Eickmeyer would joke later.
Mistaya Johnston, who grew up in Stehekin and is sister to boat pilot Courtney, had joined Eickmeyer. She’d be vaccinating some people she’d known for years.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it had been a long, stressful year for Eickmeyer and Johnston.
Eickmeyer’s emergency medicine team, which typically operates two ambulances, received 23 calls for emergency assistance in a single day during the pandemic, the most on record.
“We’ve been talking a lot about mental health,” Eickmeyer said, adding that emergency medical services departments were familiar with intense demands but that “doing it for so long is the problem.”
Just before the pandemic began, Johnston and her husband, Jake Johnston, joined with family members to take ownership of the Riverwalk Inn & Cafe in Chelan, only to see the disease force them to close to most travelers and then cut staffers.
Early on, the couple sent their children to live in Stehekin with Mistaya’s parents because both work as paramedics and they faced so many unknowns. Then, one son developed appendicitis and needed to be rushed downlake on Little Fella.
“It’s been quite a year,” Johnston said.
But the arrival of vaccines had buoyed Eickmeyer’s and Johnston’s spirits and put them on a mission — vaccinating everyone from migrant farmworkers in Chelan to park rangers in Stehekin.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s energizing. It’s super important so we can try to stay ahead of the variants,” Eickmeyer said, referring to increasingly common varieties of the coronavirus with worrisome characteristics.
And on this sunny morning, they could deliver final doses to people among those most cut off due to the virus.
“Felt like Christmas”
Gaze out from the dock at Lucerne, Little Fella’s first destination, and you’ll see a scene so pretty that Hollywood producers brought actress Elizabeth Taylor here to shoot the 1946 film “Courage of Lassie.”
Some 11 miles uphill on a winding gravel road still partially covered this March with snow, is Holden Village, once a mining town and now a Lutheran gathering place and wilderness retreat at 3,200 feet elevation.
Copper once drew people to this remote corner of Washington. But the mine was abandoned in 1957, leaving behind an empty town, millions of tons of toxic tailings and a few old automobiles dumped in the lake.
The Lutheran Bible Institute purchased the village for $1 in the early 1960s. Since, the village has served as a peaceful, communal retreat for hikers and worshippers. It features five dormitory lodges and 14 small houses with names like “Narnia.”
During that time, Holden Village has faced a string of existential threats. Most recently, the Wolverine fire in 2015 forced villagers to evacuate. Whether it was firefighters’ bravery, divine intervention, luck or a combination — the village remains standing, but flagpoles of torched timber sticking out of the snow remind how near flames have come.
COVID-19 presents a different threat. For more than a year, the village has been closed to the public due to the pandemic. Upon arrival, new and returning staffers and volunteers must quarantine for nine days in a special lodge. Then, they receive a rapid test for the novel coronavirus that must come out negative before they’re allowed entry.
So far, the village has reported no cases of coronavirus, according to Sarah Moore, a professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Puget Sound, who is on sabbatical and came to the village in August with family. By now, more than 100 people have quarantined and received testing, crucial because Lake Chelan Health is so far away.
Vaccination offered new hope.
When Eickmeyer and Johnston arrived at the “Koinonia” lodge, a group of 20-something women gathered on its wooden steps, sipping on lattes or hot chocolate. Within minutes, Eickmeyer and Johnston gave each a quick jab of a needle and the group gave a little cheer upon completion of second doses.
“I woke up this morning and it felt like Christmas,” said Victoria Kerssen-Griep, 27, who came to Holden Village in search of community after losing a nannying job during the pandemic.
Moore said it was stunning to see a vaccine reach such a remote place, where not even cell service can touch.
“It’s a long way to get here,” Moore said, grateful. “People went so far out of their way to do this.”
Those hunkered down at Holden are hoping to broaden their summer social circles.
“These places can only stay closed for so long until it’s not financially tenable,” Moore said. “If all goes to plan and the crick don’t rise, we could open again this summer.”
Half an hour later, Eickmeyer and Johnston hit the road again, stopping by a bunkhouse about a mile from the village. Crews here trade shifts working at a wastewater treatment plant.
For years, the remnants of the abandoned mining project allowed heavy metals to flow into Lake Chelan from Railroad Creek, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 ordered the Superfund site’s cleanup.
The Rio Tinto mining company never operated the mine but ultimately succeeded the Howe Sound Mining Company that had left the pollution more than 60 years ago. The wastewater treatment plant, constructed by Rio Tinto, removes metals so clean water dumps into the creek.
Most treatment plant workers spend two weeks at the site and two weeks at home, making it difficult for some to coordinate their shots. Rio Tinto partnered with Holden Village and the barge company in asking the paramedics out.
And so, at 10:30 a.m., Bruce Albert, a sleepy-eyed night shift worker from Moses Lake, rumbled out of bed — in the middle of his time to sleep — to receive a shot from paramedics on the building’s deck.
He was looking forward to seeing his recently vaccinated 85-year-old mother.
“She’s all taken care of. I’m all taken care of,” Albert said.
A talkative “hermit”
Just after noon, Eickmeyer and Johnston pulled the cooler up a gangplank and into Stehekin. They posted up on a picnic table a few dozen yards from the dock. Within minutes, about a dozen people who were scheduled for appointments began to arrive, some chattering in anticipation. This was the most people some had seen in weeks.
Johnston greeted most everyone by first name as each went over paperwork and then received a quick jab.
“It builds trust. They know her,” Eickmeyer said.
In Stehekin, daily life hadn’t changed too much from the perspective of Courtney, who lives with his wife and their six children on a small farm with cows, chickens and a garden.
“Everything’s spaced out anyway,” Courtney said.
The one-room schoolhouse, which serves eight children, had enjoyed a relatively normal school year, Courtney said. The kids — including three of his own — just spent more time outside.
Some businesses had struggled with closures, he knew. And a handful of people had contracted the virus, though most had avoided serious cases.
With summer approaching, Courtney anticipates a fresh wave of arriving adventure seekers and pent-up travelers.
“Once things open up again, I think Stehekin will take off like crazy,” he said.
Meantime, for many, the virus has made life more isolated. Trips to see family, get supplies or visit the doctor can feel fraught.
Ursula Abelsen, a 25-year-old Western Washington University student studying remotely from the town where she grew up, said her family used to travel downlake once every few weeks. But she hasn’t left for months.
“It’s so beautiful. But it’s isolating,” Abelsen said.
Billy Sullivan, a 77-year-old former logger who retired to Stehekin years ago to live where he’d spent memorable time as a child, said he often didn’t see or talk to another soul.
“Eleven days I spent without seeing or talking to another person,” Sullivan said. “It was like heaven.”
Sullivan, rather chatty for a self-described “hermit,” admitted that COVID-19 had been a bit of a bore.
“I’ve been sleeping about 16 hours a day — getting old. And there’s not much to do when you’re dodging the virus,” he said. Lately, he’d been watching cat videos on his iPad by demand of Little Miss Mischief, his feline companion.
When Sullivan travels, he typically sleeps in a van he keeps in Chelan. Nights can be cold. Interactions feel risky. It’s stressful. He wouldn’t go downlake just for a vaccine.
During the pandemic, Sullivan, who has diabetes, has relied on deliveries from neighbors, namely Courtney.
“Real angels have brought stuff up — diabetes medications, food,” Sullivan said — and now a lifesaving vaccine.