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Originally published April 4, 2014 at 9:26 PM | Page modified April 5, 2014 at 12:56 AM

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Residents recall a haven on the Stillaguamish River

For the residents of Steelhead Haven, the hodgepodge community of cabins, mobile homes and new houses along the Stillaguamish was “God’s country,’’ a place nestled among seemingly protective hills.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For many years there was a weathered wooden fish along the highway, bearing the inscription “Steelhead Drive,” and pointing to a small road cut through the trees.

Ron Thompson, a Steelhead Haven resident, painted it in his wood shop.

But the sign that neighbor Ruth Hargrave liked best was the one that summed up the sweet life of macaroni-salad-and-salmon dinners at the fire station, Santa arriving in a sleigh, and dinners out on the deck: “Oso Good.”

Today, two weeks after a devastating mudslide, instead of the sound of chickens and the rush of currents over rocks, heavy machinery roars, pushing through the wreckage. The cluster of homes called Steelhead Haven is a mass of mud, heating oil, septic and propane tanks, splintered wood and the broken pieces of houses once nestled near the river.

For those who retired to Steelhead Haven or chose to raise children there, the hodgepodge community of cabins, mobile homes and new houses along the Stillaguamish River was “God’s country,’’ a place nestled at the flanks of seemingly protective hills with the sharp white peaks of Three Fingers and Whitehorse jutting into the horizon.

Davis Hargrave, a retired architect who had fished the river for years, saw all the elements that he, as a designer, wanted. “I was looking for privacy, I was looking for beauty.”

“Water,” added Ruth, his wife of 46 years. They bought an old cabin and restored it, spending weekends and vacations there, inviting in neighbors and friends from the city to fish and sit on the deck overlooking the river.

Ruth Hargrave recalls how her husband and his friends Roger Carlson and Mike Galbraith used to go out on the river at dawn. Davis would use the handmade bamboo pole Carlson made and the hand-tied flies so carefully chosen the night before. The pole had Carlson’s name on it and had just the right flex, the right cast. Their lines would dance across the water and they’d catch fish, but always too small to keep.

Ruth loved winter days at the cabin, when she could relax by the wood fire as rain pelted the roof, the river roared and she could devour an entire book in a weekend.

They came to love the funky community that enveloped them in green trees and bird songs when they turned off Highway 530 onto the narrow road.

The survivors, those like the Hargraves who weren’t there two Saturdays ago, tell of their community of full- and part-time residents, some with a bit of money, and some who scratched out a living by doing odd jobs.

For entertainment, many looked to nature, or each other for company. Oso, two miles down the road, population 180, is a mere speck along the highway.

According to the office of Gov. Jay Inslee, most residents live well below the poverty line — per capita income there is $15,801, about half that for the state — and of the 25 primary residences destroyed in the mudslide, and four or five that were flooded, all were considered low income.

When it came to being a neighbor, income didn’t matter, residents said. They were family and grew closer over the years.

“At first we came up for the weekend,’’ said Cheryl Forsman, who ran a sandwich shop in Everett. Gradually, she and her husband, Larry, who ran a lumberyard, began staying an extra night or two and making the long commute.

Then 30 years ago, they sold their home in Everett, going from 3,000 square feet to 900 and became Steelhead Haven’s first full-time residents.

Cheryl, 65, kept her hope chest of family heirlooms, photos and her high-school diploma at the house perched on a hill above the river. And they bought another lot, hoping other relatives would join them.

A few months ago, her son Brent Flinn put in electricity and water and parked a 38-foot trailer, intending to spend weekends there fly-fishing. He never got the chance.

The years passed easily

The years since the Forsmans first came to Steelhead Haven passed easily, they say.

For Larry Forsman, 76, just walking out to get the mail on Highway 530 was the day’s big social event, depending on how many neighbors he stopped to talk to along the way. And there was nothing like trimming shrubs for guaranteed company.

Lon Slauson, 59, lived across the road and if he saw Forsman outside, he’d come over for a beer and sometimes Forsman went over to Slauson’s.

Slauson died in the mudslide.

Often the Forsmans would watch fishermen on the river. Once in awhile one would bring them a fish in appreciation for being allowed to fish on private property.

Forsman and his wife were also surrogate grandparents for Wyatt, 4, and Hunter, 6, Ruthven who lived at Steelhead Haven, roaring up the street on their mini-four-wheelers to tease Forsman. He’d tease them in return.

“We were all a big family down there,’’ he said.

Now Wyatt is missing and Hunter and his parents and grandparents are dead.

Ron Thompson, known as the mayor of Steelhead Haven, and his wife, Gail, always extended invitations to everyone to come over whenever they cooked chili or had a St. Patrick’s Day party. Thompson took care of his neighbors’ lawns unasked, should they happen to be out of town and was known for his well-kept sprawling green lawn, his brown ranch house and American flag.

The volunteer-staffed fire station in Oso was the community gathering place for dinners every few months. There was a local swimming hole along the Stillaguamish the Steelhead Haven residents flocked to. And even though for years it was a “gated’’ community — the gate installed to keep Seattle-area fishermen from parking on residents’ lawns — everyone around knew the 1-2-3-4 lock combination.

Ruth Hargrave recalls how her neighbor, Mike Pearson, whom she hasn’t heard from, was a loner so good at hunting, fishing and chopping wood he could have lived off the land. She said he’d occasionally join them for dinner on their deck, or bring them steelhead steaks.

“We’ve been here in Kirkland since 1980 ... We don’t know anybody,’’ Hargrave said.

“But we have community up there.’’

What stuns those who survived is how life can turn at a moment’s decision.

That morning, Ron and Gail Thompson and Ron’s mother, Sandra Thompson, 85, were on their way to get bread at Costco. They passed Jerry Logan as he was driving into Steelhead Haven and waved.

About the same time, Cheryl Forsman, who was in Idaho, was on the phone with JuDee Vandenburg, grandmother to little Wyatt and Hunter Ruthven. They talked about a girls’ weekend they had planned and whether Logan, the neighborhood’s beloved handyman, had put down the new vinyl in Forsman’s cabin.

“I hear Jerry coming right now!’’ Vandenburg told Forsman. “I’ll go ask him.”

It was their last conversation. Moments later the slide hit.

Logan, 63, was killed, as was his longtime partner Shelley Bellomo, 55.

For those who survived, or lived outside Steelhead Haven in nearby Oso, the loss is not only the loss of friends and homes, but loss of community.

The Hargraves grieve for the cabin they lovingly rebuilt and that had been home since 1998. And just when Davis Hargrave thought he’d lost everything connected to those years, he found a precious memento in the umbrella stand at his Kirkland home: his handmade fly rod.

Nancy Bartley: or 206-464-8522

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