Return to Chatter Creek
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
LEAVENWORTH — Betty Caulfield didn’t know if she’d ever return to the old ranger station that was her home for 19 summers. It’s been her goal for the past five years to return to Chatter Creek for a 20th season, maybe more, but nature and time seemed to be working against her.
“I feel I’m back home,” said Caulfield, a U.S. Forest Service volunteer since 1988. Now 80, she moved back into the tidy, historic wood frame cabin near the Chatter Creek Campground and Icicle Gorge Trail in late June.
Each summer from 1988 through 2007, Caulfield lived in the cabin four months a year to meet and greet and offer information and emergency services to hikers, bikers, horsemen, climbers, campers, fire crews and anyone else who would venture the 15 miles out Icicle Road from Leavenworth.
“She’s been the only contact to the outside world that people have out there, because there’s no phone service,” said Greg Thayer, the now retired Forest Service developed recreation manager for the Wenatchee River Ranger District who oversaw Caulfield through her many years. “She’s been a valuable volunteer, and popular. People always look for her.”
Over that span of time, she’s met thousands of travelers, helped hundreds with directions and information, befriended countless visitors with her ready smile, clever wit and entertaining stories. She became famous among Forest Service employees for her chocolate chip cookies. She taught her visiting grandchildren about the woods. Her husband George wouldn’t leave the place he loved until he had to be taken out by ambulance, days before he died of cancer in 1998. A succession of dogs — Tramp, Sophie and now Mali, her ever-present friends and guards — were as well-known to frequent visitors as she was.
“There’s a lot of love in this house,” said Caulfield, long retired from her active career as a ski company sales representative and longtime Crystal Mountain ski patroler. Her absence the past four years was due to an avalanche in May 2008 that diverted the creek permanently over Icicle Road. The upper Icicle Valley and several campgrounds were closed to traffic until a new road on higher ground was built last year. She had to evacuate the cabin for a few days several times over the years due to forest fires and floods, but had never been forced to miss an entire season, much less four.
Meanwhile, she’s undergone several hospital stays, a couple of surgeries and a minor stroke over the past few years. “My body was working against me. But here I am,” she said.
Failing health is nothing new to Caulfield. She was recovering from cancer treatments while camping with George at the Tumwater Campground in 1988 when they heard a radio announcement that a volunteer was needed for the station. They immediately agreed the job would be a perfect way for her to recuperate.
“I was 5-foot, 10-inches tall, 106 pounds and so weak I could hardly walk. I was a mess,” she said.
They wondered about their decision when they saw the cabin after getting the job.
“It had been vacant for several years and the rodents had taken over,” she said with a laugh. “The ants were a couple inches deep on the floor. There was a big hole in the wall. We were invading the territory of rats and squirrels.” The cabin, built in 1923 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, had originally been home to the Icicle Valley’s first district ranger.
The station also included a corral for horses and mules used to pack tools into the forest. The animals, when present, were also their responsibility, the Caulfields found out.
Their first days on the job were the busy Fourth of July weekend. The couple was equipped with a two-way radio to the Leavenworth Ranger Station, but little else to communicate information to the throng of campers and hikers wanting information about weather, campgrounds, creeks, roads and trails in the vast and popular Alpine Lakes Wilderness area that surrounded their new home.
“It was pretty ad lib,” she said. The Chelan County Sheriff and search and rescue teams were called in that first weekend when a 12-year-old boy wandered off from a group hike and was lost near Windy Pass on Mount Cashmere. He was found huddled beneath a fir tree the next day, but not before Betty and George got a taste of the excitement that would become nearly weekly events up the Icicle.
They sat outside for several nights and watched a fire burning on Black Jack Ridge that first year, knowing that they would have to evacuate if flames came down the mountain toward the cabin. It didn’t. But fire did threaten the cabin four times in later years. When the Rat Creek Fire blew up near the mouth of Icicle Canyon in 1994, the Caulfields were given five minutes to pack a few things together, grab their dog and a cat they were caring for, and get out. They had to drive through the fire on both sides of the road.
“It was absolutely beautiful in all its horror. I hate the word ‘awesome,’ but in that case it was appropriate,” said Caulfield, who was forced by fire to leave again in 1998, 2001 and 2004. After getting Betty out, George went back in with Forest Service workers to get the horses out.
In 1998, Betty and George went back to the cabin knowing it would be George’s last summer there. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Betty was holding his hand when he died.
“I had dozed off to sleep and was dreaming that I was going through a tunnel. It was very peaceful. When I woke, he was gone. My daughter said, ‘Mom, he just wanted you to show him the way.’ It was a very spiritual thing. Now I know, death is nothing to fear.”
There was no question in Betty’s mind that she would return the following year and every year thereafter, as long as her health and the Forest Service would allow her. The cabin had become something more than just a place to stay. It was a symbol of her own stubborn survival. Her children, grandchildren, other family members and friends look in on her often, as well as Forest Service employees.
Ironically, in the 20 years she’s been there, she’s never hiked up the trails and mountains that surround her. Her own cancer treatments in the 1980s left her bones and muscles too weak for much physical activity. She’s undergone dozens of operations over winter months, always careful to schedule her health care to leave her summers open for her return to Chatter Creek.
The many visitors who stop in at her door have been her eyes and ears on the trails, she said. “I get to see the mountains vicariously.”
Post script: Caulfield lived at the cabin for three weeks, but illness forced her and her dog Mali to leave Chatter Creek last week and return to her home in Normandy Park, south of Seattle, where she can be closer to family and her regular health care providers.
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151
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