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Songs of construction echo through village

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Mary Koch

Around 3 in the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. Usually I love my office with its view into the forest, windows open to the sounds of a rushing creek and pine-scented air. But I fled to escape the noise of heavy construction — the whine of engines, pounding of boulders being scraped across the earth, buzz of chain saws, clank of hammers hitting metal, and most irritating — incessant beep-beep-beep of machinery backing up.

This is life in Holden Village, an idyllic retreat center high in the North Cascade Mountains, where for 50 years people have been coming for peace and quiet, rest and refreshment. Now it is the site of a massive construction project aimed at cleaning up pollution created when the village was home to large-scale copper mining from 1938 to 1957. After mining ceased, a group of Lutherans turned the quaint chalets and lodges into a mountain valley getaway which every year draws thousands of people from all over the world.

The legacy of mining pollution provides an ominous backdrop to this wilderness setting: eight million tons of ore tailings tower over the village in giant piles covering 90 acres; metallic acids contaminate Railroad Creek, which would otherwise be a pristine mountain stream. For decades, the U.S. government studied, pondered, debated and negotiated the complexities of who would clean up the mess and how. Now, to the amazement of those who were involved through those decades, it’s actually happening. Rio Tinto, one of the largest mining companies in the world, is spending $100 million for the largest remediation project under way on national forest land.

As Holden’s communications coordinator and before that a longtime journalist, I’m here because I love a good story. Mix hard-core construction workers, corporate overseers and federal bureaucrats with a bunch of religious types, and you have no end of good stories. If you can hear them over the noise.

As I escaped my office in search of a quieter corner of the village, I spotted one of the many musicians who happen to live here. “What note is that?” I asked, humming the pitch of the beeping machinery. We ultimately established it was E, an octave above Middle C. 

Who, we wondered, decides the pitch and tonality of warning signals. Then we wondered, what if all the machinery were pitched differently, so we could hear lovely harmonies instead of this irritating continuum of a single note. But then we worried, what if one or two of the machines went out of tune — how irritating would THAT be!

That’s life at Holden at these days: occasional irritation resolved with creative laughter. During the cleanup disruption, we can’t host guests so volunteers are working on village projects, upgrading infrastructure and aging facilities. We work, we pray, we escape the construction hubbub with hikes into the adjacent Glacier Peak Wilderness, and we laugh. We’re here because it’s a place unlike any other, and there will never again be a time quite like this.

Mary Koch, Omak, is living and working at Holden as the village’s communications coordinator during the Holden Mine Remediation Project. She can be reached at communications@holdenvillage.org.

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