At the start of every hitch, backcountry ranger Aaron Mines travels by ferry to a small town called Holden Village. From there, he begins an 8-day trek to various parts of wilderness to conduct trail maintenance and make visitor contacts. The following is an introduction to the unique town that serves as a launching pad for our Public Lands Stewards serving in the Chelan Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Holden Village is a small mountain village located 11 miles deep in the mountains near Lake Chelan. The area was first settled in 1896 when the first mining claim was laid to the area, and boomed in 1938 with families looking for a new beginning during the depression and to support the high demand of copper for WWII. After the end of the war, the town has transformed multiple times into its current form, as a mountain retreat for volunteers to work and learn new skills, visitors to enjoy the solace of a quiet mountain area, and trekkers stopping by on long trails through the wilderness. Because of its easy access and close proximity to an abundance of wilderness trails, I have spent a significant amount of time in and around Holden, learning about its history, purpose, and exploring all that it has to offer. The village currently has the capacity to house around 500 visitors, and in peak season can support over 100 employees and volunteers. It is very isolated in its mountain environment, and has adapted to the unique challenges that presents, such as power and waste management. Holden has a spectacular recycling program to reduce the amount of waste that must be shipped down Lake Chelan. The entire village is powered by one hydroelectric plant, and the town must accommodate to the energy available. In the summer, the river runs high and there is plenty of electricity for each building, and any activities volunteers or locals wish to participate in. The winter, however, has a significantly lower power output, and the town accommodates by shutting down half of the buildings, using natural light more efficiently, and encouraging residents to limit shower time.
Holden village is owned and run by a Lutheran organization, and so spiritual practices are built into the core of village life. The villagers work hard to build a strong sense of community, and do nearly everything together. Meals are all held in the dining hall at the same time each day and each volunteer is required to work on dish duty once a week. Employees, volunteers, and guests are required to attend a daily church service each evening, held in the gymnasium for larger crowds or in the seminary room (pictured) for days when there are not as many people in the village. However, diversity is celebrated here and no one needs to meet any religious background or qualification to be a part of the village. Volunteering at Holden Village feels more like participating in a large community that everyone else is an equal part of, instead of working for a personal benefit as we do in our daily lives.
To get to Holden Village, you can either hike multiple days in, or take a boat across Lake Chelan to the dock at Lucerne. Lucerne was a small town that supported miners during operation, and many made their lives here where the climate is warmer than the valley that Holden Village lies. Transport from Lucerne to Holden Village is done by old school buses that the village now owns. The village includes a few apartment and about a dozen larger buildings, most of which are used simply as housing for volunteers and guests.
After the war ended, demand for copper dramatically decreased, and the mine was closed in 1957. Left behind, though, were enormous amounts of copper tailings (material left over after the copper has been separated and removed). These large deposits were polluting the water supply, and a strong gust of wind would cloud the entire valley in an orange copper mist. 5 years ago, the Forest Service began an operation with Rio Tinto, the current owners of the mine, to take care of this problem. All the tailings from the mine were buried by large amounts of rock and soil, and vegetation replanted. Between the tailings and Railroad Creek, the main water supply for Holden Village, a subterranean wall was erected. This wall extends roughly 90 feet below the ground, and serves to keep water that seeps into the ground from the tailings from polluting the creek. The bulk of the work is now done, and the mining company will be leaving the site next year. Left behind, though, are vast areas of ground with no life, yet. Trees on these hills have been planted, but will take decades to resemble anything close to the forest that was once here. Some land will not return to forest for even longer, including areas where large mounds of tailings remain on the surface and areas where mines are near to collapse.
Holden hosts a significant number of trails for the small amount of land that it takes up, for users on horseback, on foot, and a couple that are built to ADA standards for those in wheelchairs. These trails take hikers to a multitude of waterfalls, lakes, viewpoints, and are used by visitors to access climbing routes on difficulty mountains such as the impressive Bonanza Peak, a mere 4 miles from the village center. Trails connect Holden Village to Stehekin, a town on the northern edge of Lake Chelan, trailheads near Lake Wenatchee, and Glacier Peak to the west. The village lies roughly 11 miles from the popular Pacific Crest Trail, however many of these hikers pass by without realizing they are so close to hot meals and delicious ice cream, served daily.
Many miners that operated the Holden Mine opted to build small houses outside of the main village. The small town of Winston laid just west of Holden Village, and was the main townsite for folks to build their home. As Winston grew, some miners wanted a bit more seclusion from town and built their homes up a steep hill overlooking Holden. This area was most popular with the younger newlyweds coming in to the area, and this overlook was dubbed “Honeymoon Heights”. Little remains of this area past the foundations of the houses those young families built. Now it serves as a popular hiking destination for visitors.
Just outside of town is the Forest Service guard station. The entire village lies on land operated by the Forest Service, and as such the Forest Service dictates the amount of development that can occur. This building was originally in the town of Winston, and has had various uses before settling in to become a permanent forest service building. There is no longer a permanent ranger here, though; this building is now used by all Forest Service employees that are working in the Holden area. Often working in Holden we met up with various Forest Service folks, including fire ecologists, mine remediation liaisons, and the district ranger will occasionally come by as well. The valley is a shining example of 3 large, vastly different organizations, with different goals, working together to make a successful retreat for the common person.
All who pass through Holden Village leave with a different experience. Staff sign on for terms up to multiple years, and volunteers sign on with terms lasting from a single week to 6 months. Those looking for a quiet mountain religious retreat, and those looking to climb high peaks will both leave satisfied. The winter is long and cold, but the town comes together to ski, recreate in the gymnasium, and teach each other crafts including pottery, mechanic work, carpentry, geology, and local flora and fauna. The village provides its own unique perspective from those of us who work with other volunteer organizations to experience an entire community build on volunteer work, and the success that such a community can have. We have a unique relationship with the villagers; though I don’t volunteer in town, I know most who do and have shared ice cream and campsites with many. The faces change often, but the spirit has and will continue to stay the same. It has been a pleasure learning about and becoming a part of this unique village for the last few months, and I look forward to returning to see what the future has in store.