"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

The remote community of Stehekin

By on August 24, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
The Stehekin River flows into Lake Chelan, the Lake’s headwaters.

‘A way through’ for some; 

a way away for others

Story by Linda Reid

Photos by Ken Reid

“Stehekin” is a Native American word which means, “the way through.” 

Lake Chelan, the Stehekin Valley and Cascade Pass were used as a trade route between Eastern and Western Washington tribes for many generations before Alexander Ross (of “Ross Lake” fame), the first Euro-American, “came through” to the Stehekin Valley. He represented the Pacific Fur Company and was assigned the task of establishing a trade route in 1814 (even though one had existed for perhaps hundreds of years). 

 I am writing about Stehekin as a kind of sequel to the story I wrote in the August issue of The Good Life about a daytrip my husband and I took from Chelan to Stehekin on the Lady Cat. 

After our day of exploring the Stehekin Valley and the time we spent with our new friend and Stehekin year-round resident, Krissa Jester (customer experience and public relations director for the Lake Chelan Boat Co.), we became obsessed with learning more about the history, culture and people of this remote community. 

I am indebted to Krissa for providing much of the information about the Courtney family, who are in their fourth generation of living and working in the Stehekin Valley. 

The Courtney cabin where Ray and Esther raised five sons.

The questions that I kept pondering were: Who and why would people be motivated to settle and live in such an isolated place? When and how did Stehekin become what it is today? What entices 90-plus people to live there year-round? How does someone make a living when they are more or less disconnected from the rest of the modern world? What attributes are most important in a person’s character if they are to successfully make Stehekin their home?

The Stehekin Guidebook 2020, a free publication we picked up in Stehekin, has been published every year since 1987, and it was a great place to begin to answer my questions. As I read through the introduction, I began to visualize a parade of interesting, motivated people making their way to, or through the Stehekin Valley. 

After the original indigenous people, surveyors from the railroad and the U.S. Army came through charting possible routes over the Cascades. They were followed by trappers, selling their furs to companies such as Ross’s Pacific Fur Company. 

Behind them in the parade came miners and prospectors in the 1850s looking for gold, silver, lead and copper ore, and other precious minerals. Some of them staked claims and were successful. Some failed to make a profit, and a few made their fortunes. 

The historic Buckner Orchard, planted 100 years ago.

Stehekin became the central hub between the mining claims and the town of Chelan. 

Early adventurous tourists began to discover the area when innkeepers welcomed them to come stay at places like the elegant Field Hotel. Finally, there came the homesteaders.

Prospector William Buzzard sold land to Harry Buckner who planted a commercial apple orchard that proved successful in the 1920s, ’30s and beyond. This orchard is now an historic landmark. 

There is a charming trail we took that leads from the main road (near Rainbow Falls) and follows the original hand-dug irrigation canal that provides water to the orchard. The trail rambles through the forest with small bridges crossing back and forth, until you arrive at the orchard itself. If you can walk a mile (without elevation gain) you would enjoy this unique, picturesque walk.

Other people settled in the Valley as the 20th Century progressed. Ray Courtney grew up in Stehekin and decided to stay there.  He purchased 20 acres of land in the 1940s and lead packing treks into the mountains. 

The dining room at Stehekin Valley Ranch.

Some of this land includes the present-day Stehekin Valley Ranch, which was started by his son Cliff Courtney in 1983 as a full-service base camp for these expeditions. Ray and his wife Esther raised five sons in a tiny cabin, but when Esther was pregnant with their sixth child (a daughter this time) she insisted on larger living quarters, so they built a lovely log home. 

Esther served as the cook on many treks into the high country (known as “Hike It and Like It” trips) where visitors explored the North Cascades. 

Today Ray and Esther’s sons, their wives, some of their grandchildren, and even some of their great-grandchildren, provide the business backbone of the Stehekin community. 

Cliff and Kerry Courtney are the proprietors of the Stehekin Valley Ranch; Cragg and Roberta Courtney own the Stehekin Pastry Company, Stehekin Outfitters, and an excavation business; Reed Courtney took over the Mountain Barge Company from his father, Tom Courtney, and is one of the owners of the Lake Chelan Boat Co.; Mark Courtney provides carpentry services throughout the valley; Jim Courtney works along with his nephew Reed on the Lake Chelan Boat Company and Barge Service; and the Stehekin Ferry is run by grandsons Logan and Colter Courtney. 

What a legacy the Courtney family has built in this Valley.

Going back to 1921 for a moment, a one-room schoolhouse was built for grades one through eight to serve the resident families. After 68 years, a new building was planned on a different site. It was completed in 1988. 

Ron Scutt was the Stehekin teacher for 40 years until his retirement. Liz Courtney (wife of Tom Courtney) now carries on where he left off, providing a unique environmental education that emphasizes physical and artistic activities along with academics for students in grades K-8. Both the Old Schoolhouse and the new one are on the main road.

The majestic North Cascades, as seen from Buckner Orchard.

That brings me to the questions that interest me the most: How do people make a living here? 

Obviously, the Courtney family helps with many employment opportunities. Quite a number of the residents work for the National Park Service (at least part-time). The hospitality industry thrives, especially late spring through early fall. Artisan arts and crafts that are created locally are a source of income for the artists who call Stehekin their home. 

The why is less straightforward and has to do with what character traits are most important for the year-round residents to possess. 

Living here requires the ability to plan ahead for provisions, manage without an on-site auto mechanic, doctor, dentist, or plumber. 

Residents must be self-sufficient and less dependent on technology than most of the rest of us, and they seem to crave the freedom that comes from that self-sufficiency. It calls for people with a desire for less chaos in their lives and more peace and solitude. 

The people who make their home here are willing to trade convenience and connectedness for a simpler, quieter life with fewer 21st Century stresses. 

The reward they receive for living in this out-of-the-way place is the daily inspiration of being in a place that has 2.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness as their backyard. 

These determined inhabitants do not see Stehekin as “a way through” but as a destination for a quality life. 

Linda and Ken make their home in East Wenatchee where Linda writes about travel in NCW and beyond, and Ken documents it through his photos. 

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