America’s Most Isolated Community — Stehekin, Washington

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on September 14, 2003

“Fortunately, cell phones don’t work here,” says Cliff Courtney, 44, a fourth-generation resident of Stehekin, Wash., the most remote community in the lower 48 states.

The only way to get to Stehekin—situated in a lush valley surrounded by snow-capped granite peaks in 2.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness—is to hike several days through the mountains or to take a boat or floatplane up Lake Chelan from the nearest town 55 miles away.

Although Courtney knows technological change is inevitable, he’s comforted that, so far, none of the valley’s hand-built log homes have a telephone (townspeople share a community satellite phone), and only residents who’ve barged in a huge satellite dish have a television or a radio. Freedom and self-sufficiency is what’s important to him and his family, he says; not being so wired up to the world that you get right back into the rat race you’ve come to the valley to escape.

Ironically, the name of this isolated paradise is Stehekin, a Northwest Indian word that means “the way through.” For American Indians, who discovered the place long before gold, silver, lead, and lumber drew white men to it, the valley served as a relatively easy route through the Cascade Mountains that divide the eastern and western sides of Washington state. For the town’s 106 year-round residents and boatloads of seasonal visitors, Stehekin is not so much a way through as a way away from hectic jobs, city traffic, and the other stresses of 21st-century life.

But Stehekin is no Shangri La. Like the homesteaders who arrived in the last quarter of the 19th century, residents have to plan ahead to get their provisions. They mail prepaid orders for supplies to stores in the town of Chelan, the stores box up the goods, and then boats pick up the boxes and deliver them to Stehekin. It can take days for residents get what they ordered. Along with that kind of inconvenience come the realities of life in a town without an auto mechanic, a doctor, a dentist, or a plumber.

With mining and timber cutting out of the picture now, most folks in Stehekin have to find work. About half are hired on at least part time by the National Park Service, some make a few dollars selling arts and crafts in a local cooperative, and others work in the hospitality business that serves the thousands of visitors who come to Stehekin each year, mostly in the summer. And then there’s the postmaster’s position in one of the country’s smallest post offices, and the teaching position in the valley’s log schoolhouse.

Ron Scutt has taught grades one through eight in Stehekin’s one-room schoolhouse for 25 years. He says the natural surroundings of the valley lend themselves to a kind of learning which incorporates the intellect, the body, and artistic growth. As a result, he uses very few standard textbooks and almost no technology at Stehekin School. Last year, when students decided to make syrup from maple trees near the school, they learned how trees produce energy from light, how to tell the age of a tree, why sap rises when it does, how to use tools to tap the trees and draw the sap, how to boil the syrup safely using a thermometer, and how to make a mesh strainer so the syrup can be strained for impurities. Along the way, they drew beautifully crafted pictures of everything they did.

Like some other Stehekin parents, Courtney and his wife Kerry will home school their children rather than send them out of the valley for high school. “Stehekin is a place that has less fear than other places,” Courtney says. “They can go down the road on their bicycles and we can know that they aren’t going to get in trouble. Or if they do, anybody who sees them is going to help them out.”

“This community is a friend of these children,” Scutt says. “It supports them, and they have a sense of safety here. In Stehekin, they have every potential for success.”