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In a Fire-Ravaged Washington Town, Skiing Breathes New Life


A week later, the rains came. With no vegetation to hold them back, mudslides took more homes, followed by a dust storm that destroyed fields and leveled fences. In a little over a month, Washington's second poorest county wracked up nearly $30 million in ...


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Michael Shaffer (above and opposite) grew up skiing the LoupHe recently returned home to maintain the community that turned him into a lifelong skierMike Martin (below) lost his home in the 2014 fireSkiing helped him get the feeling his life was normal againPHOTO: Scott Rinckenberger\\nMike “Yogi” MartinPHOTO: Scott Rinckenberger\\nCarving through the eastern shadow of Washington's Cascade Range, the Methow Valley sits deep in the belly of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National ForestThree roads connect pockets of post offices and general stores to the outside world, but when winter closes Highway 20 from the north, this is the outer edge of societySet along the Methow River, the towns of Twisp, Carlton, Mazama, and Winthrop are the vestiges of a mid-century timber boom full of loggers, park rangers, and disenchanted Baby Boomers that once sought peace away from city limitsToday, health food stores neighbor $5 burgers and bingo at the Eagles Club in this forgotten valley of glacial rivers and ponderosa pine.It's that isolated beauty that convinced Karen Shaffer to raise a family in the Methow ValleyDisillusioned by the Vietnam War, Shaffer, now 74 years old, and her fighter pilot husband, Terry, 78, joined a group of families from Southern California on 240 acres outside of Twisp in the early '70sTerry continued his work as a pilot but helped the group of young families start a Christian commune, building a group of cabins and creating a slice of utopia in the Cascade foothills.\\\"At that time, other people were measuring value in how much money you had, and I didn't want to extend that to our kids,\\\" says Shaffer\\\"I wanted them to be more about people and less about things...Everyone we knew was like thatThey were our example.\\\"Her son, Michael \\\"Bird\\\" Shaffer, came of age in the mountains around their house, hiking, riding dirt bikes, and, together with a pair of Lithuanian brothers in the commune, learning to skiShaffer says she didn't have enough money to get her son into a race program, but that didn't stop Michael from skiing hand-me-down gear on the hill out their front door and building road gap jumps with the community's heavy machinery.In high school, he started taking the school ski bus 25 minutes up to Loup Loup every Saturday, spinning GS laps like his heroes, fellow Central Washington residents Steve and Phil Mahre.Loup Loup had three rope tows and a handful of trails like Bulldog, the local mogul skier's rite of passageFounded in 1958 by a group of volunteers, \\\"The Loup\\\" was also home to the only full ski school within 100 miles, and buses from around Okanagon County delivered students to the ski hill all winter long.\\\"Loup Loup makes a community out of a county that doesn't get to see each other very often,\\\" says Carlene Anders, Loup Loup's former ski school director for 17 years and the current mayor of Pateros\\\"It helps draw all of these people into one place.\\\"Now a 501c3 nonprofit, Loup Loup offers 1,240 vertical feet of skiing over 300 acres with a $389 season pass and relies on that local support, as well as a community-appointed board of directors, to keep the ski hill running--hosting annual fundraisers and volunteer days for trail cutting and brush thinning.When Mackie wanted to bring the first chairlift to Loup Loup in 1998, it was local welders, concrete pourers, and metal workers that donated their time and services to get the quad installed before the snow fell (it remains the area's only non-surface lift).\\\"Everyone has their home area, but this area is more so because everyone has been involved,\\\" says Mackie\\\"We all have a love for what this mountain represents.\\\"While Michael Shaffer grew out of Loup Loup after high school, seeking first descents on Mount Rainier and spending over a decade honing his craft on the steeps of Chamonix, he returned to Twisp for good in 2014Between working summers on Washington wildfire crews and chasing winter around the world, Shaffer, now 45, craved the simplicity of the Methow.He had made a name for himself in steep skiing circles and had helped bring Chamonix's Black Crows skis to the U.S., but, taking over his parents' old cabin on the commune--which has relaxed its religious devotions as new generations take over--he saw new life in the hills of his childhood.A 40-minute skin from his family's access road, a ridgeline snakes toward the North CascadesStuck somewhere between the wet, wintry Cascades and the rain shadow of Eastern Washington, this fin of steppe and pine is blessed by cold, dry desert air and Pacific moisture, creating a short January and February window of what Shaffer calls \\\"desert pow.\\\"\\\"When it's good to ski to the valley floor, you can ski anywhere,\\\" says Michael \\\"Yogi\\\" Martin, a former Stevens Pass ski patroller now residing in the nearby town of Carlton.Martin and Shaffer are part of a tight Methow backcountry community Shaffer calls the \\\"Freaks on the Fringe.\\\" A mix of born-here locals and jaded ex-Westsiders, they value their solitude almost as much as their skiing, making Loup Loup their low-key, lift-serviced home baseWhen conditions permit, they spend the rest of their days skinning up nearby Washington PassAs Seattle ski crowds migrate farther east, they have found more and more turns in the intricacies of their own valley.\\\"I think the Methow grows our own type of weird,\\\" says fellow Freak and Shaffer's childhood friend Jeremy \\\"Jerr Bear\\\" Hamel\\\"The ones who can't handle it move on or move away.\\\"Hamel was one that never couldRaised in the Methow, he tried Bend for a winter, but it didn't stickNow 44, he skis the valley or heads 25 minutes north to Washington Pass four days a week, and has had a season's pass at Loup Loup every year since the seventh gradeThe Loup is where he and Shaffer became friends in high school, and where, decades later, the two met Martin, who was working as a volunteer ski patroller.Skier: Michael ShafferPHOTO: Scott Rinckenberger\\nSkier: Michael ShafferPHOTO: Scott Rinckenberger\\nPHOTO: Scott Rinckenberger\\nThe Methow's isolation comes at a price. The area offers a chance to experience the untamed beauty of nature, but it also puts residents on the frontline of an exposed environment.The same landscape the Freaks love in the winter has a stark contrast come summerLike a lot of mountain towns, funneled creek drainages, coupled with extended heat waves and less than two inches of average summer precipitation make the area a natural hotspot for wildfireIn the past two decades, the valley has lit up over a dozen timesNearly every hillside bears a burn wound.Fighting fire is a way of life for most in the regionBoth Shaffer and Anders are part of the professional and volunteer crews tasked with protecting their own communities and terrainBut while the firefighters have been trained for wildfire, nothing could have prepared the community for the summer of 2014Over two weeks, the fire torched an area one and a half times the size of New York CityTwisp lost nearly 10 percent of its housesPateros lost more than half of its homes in a matter of hoursEven the town's water tanks were scorched, leaving residents without potable water for three days.A week later, the rains cameWith no vegetation to hold them back, mudslides took more homes, followed by a dust storm that destroyed fields and leveled fencesIn a little over a month, Washington's second poorest county wracked up nearly $30 million in damages.Martin's home was one of 312 destroyed in the 2014 firesAlmost half of those structures were uninsured, leaving many with nothing and nowhere to goNeighbors offered couches and tents to the displaced.That fall, Mackie saw the impact in his Twisp ski shop.\\\"They wanted to go skiing again, to get that part of their life back,\\\" says the ski shop owner, who moved his Loup Loup Ski Rental Shop from the mountain down to Twisp nine years ago\\\"So we'd get them whatever it took to get them up there againIt helps to heal.\\\"He did what he could, offering vouchers to families affected by the disasterEventually, he started lending out skis, boots, and poles free of charge.\\\"I had people come in that needed everything--it w

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