Ashley Eddings and James Brown had made their peace with their Covid wedding.
They had gotten engaged on Valentine’s Day. It was a sweet story, though — with much hindsight — their timing could have been better.
Ashley, who works in administrative support at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, had a bad day at work. In no mood for romance, she went straight to bed.
James, a landscaper and volunteer firefighter with the Lyons Fire District, surprised her — not with a ring — but a rock. A heart-shaped rock a teacher had given him in the sixth-grade with the admonition, “You only give your heart away one time.”
“And that was how he proposed to me,” Ashley says. “He gave his heart to me that day.”
It was another couple of weeks before they told their families. (“James made me wait to tell people until the ring got resized and had come back,” Ashley explains.)
They shared the big news on Feb. 29 — one day after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Oregon.
The Perfect Venue
By the time Ashley’s mother had booked a flight from Tennessee to help her pick out a wedding dress, the global pandemic was beginning to set in. Airplanes weren’t going anywhere. Dress shops were closed.
“I bought my wedding dress online,” she says, the voice of a bride who had long ago accepted that her 2020 wedding wasn’t going to be exactly like she’d pictured. “I tried it on for the first time in my living room, by myself.”
Two things that they did have going for them: They had picked a date in October (Ashley: “We’re not really summer wedding folks.”), and they had a venue: Camp Cascade, a retreat center and sports camp located near Lyons, on the banks of the Little North Fork of the Santiam River.
It was the first of three that Ashley had arranged to see in early March. After one visit, she canceled the other two. It was the perfect venue for them, for lots of reasons.
To keep things simple, the camp was willing to host the wedding, reception and rehearsal dinner and were taking care of all the details (catering, linens, tables, chairs — “just, everything that goes with a wedding,” Ashley sums up).
“There’s one location there that the camp staff referred to as the ‘sacred tree,’ which was a natural clearing under a huge, old-growth pine next to the river,” Ashley says. “The space was just big enough to hold our wedding party and our guests, so that’s where we decided we were going to have our ceremony.”
They reserved the camp lodge for their reception, a grand, old building with a massive indoor fireplace and outdoor firepit that came stocked with firewood. True to the camp theme, they decided to toast s’mores for each other instead of sharing a wedding cake.
The couple also has personal connections to the place. James’ uncle was the director of Camp Cascade when he was growing up, and he had spent summers working there as a “camp ranger” (which James now realizes was a glorified name meant to make the guy who has to fix everything that breaks and take the garbage out sound cool).
When James wasn’t working, he and his cousin hiked from the camp down to the Santiam River to hunt for “North Fork yos”: strange, doorknob-shaped rocks of mysterious origin, which are found only in clay beds along the river and are well known to the canyon folk.
Ashley hadn’t visited the camp before, but her grandmother used to work there. She was the camp’s longtime cook — and a notorious prankster.
“She’s such a rambunctious lady,” Ashley says with a laugh. “She told me stories of taking her co-workers’ pantyhose and running them up the flagpole. She would do harmless pranks like that.”
Ashley and James did a final visit to Camp Cascade at the end of August to finalize their plans and review the latest coronavirus guidelines.
“We had contingency plans for everything,” she says. “Like, if folks showed up without masks, we were going to have masks available. We went through the whole nine yards. And we thought it was going to be fine.”
‘I’m a Worrier’
Sept. 8 started like any other day in the Santiam Canyon. James and Ashley had spent the weekend camping.
The Lyons Fire District — like most fire officials across the state — were on high alert, afraid that the dry conditions, an abundance of fuel and high winds predicted for that week would create a “perfect storm,” ripe for dangerous wildfires.
The signs were there, but no one knew what was coming.
“Initially, we got called out to a fire that was between Mehama and Stayton,” James recalls. “We were there for a couple hours. Then, once that scene was wrapping up, we heard over the radio that Gates had a fire up on Potato Hill.”
The couple had been in contact throughout the day. Up to that point, James had told her he didn’t think evacuations were a likely scenario. But…
“I’m a worrier,” Ashley says. “I packed our whole house.”
Everything changed when James’ crew got to Gates.
“We were sitting at the bottom of Potato Hill,” he says, “and the entire hillside was on fire.”
In almost 17 years of rural fire service, it was — by far — the largest inferno he had ever seen.
They reached the area they had been assigned to do structure protection and were just getting the lines set up, when a new order came in over the radio. James relays a censored version of it: “You guys need to get the f— out of there right now.”
“The winds had just changed direction and the embers were raining down,” he says. “The yards were catching on fire all around us. We hopped in the truck. I looked for our exit, and our exit was on fire. So, we basically drove through flames to get out.”
As the nearest firehouse not engulfed in flames, Lyons Fire District soon became a hub for most of the crews fighting the Beachie Creek conflagration. James spent the next three and a half days there, or at the fire lines, or in a truck shuttling between the two.
He also borrowed a truck from his employer to cart supplies down Highway 22 to the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District, which lost an engine and its main station along with most of the buildings in Detroit.
He, and the dozen other volunteers that comprise the Lyons Fire District, would each log more than 150 hours over nine days. Their main concern now is that — despite the governor’s emergency declaration — they may not be reimbursed for wages lost while protecting homes and infrastructure in the area.
Call for Help
The status of Camp Cascade is still uncertain. It’s known that Beachie Creek rolled right over it, but it’s possible that some buildings may have been spared.
The road to the camp is closed and will require extensive clean-up before it reopens. Even the owners won’t be able to visit until then. What information James and Ashley have was shared very unofficially, through a network of firefighters and sheriff’s deputies working throughout the area.
At any rate, things were not looking good for Oct. 1 — Ashley and James’ wedding date.
Ashley posted on Facebook, in some of the many Oregon wedding groups of which she is a member. It was part an opportunity to vent, to grieve, and part a cry for help. The wedding was 20 days away, and the thought of starting from scratch felt overwhelming.
The responses flooded in. Planning a wedding in less than three weeks is no easy feat — but Ashley would not be alone.
“There was such an outpouring of people really wanting to help out, and everyone who contacted me was a stranger,” she says. “They were all, ‘How can we help? We have things to donate. Tell us what you need, and we’ll get it to you.'”
One of those “strangers” was Lesley Wise, of Lavender Owl Farm, a brand-new wedding venue that has been taking shape this year at a former nursery property south of Canby.
She insisted on providing the stage for James and Ashley’s big day, free of charge.
“Lesley is an amazing woman,” Ashley says. “She reached out to me and said, ‘We have this place. Please come see it. If you love it, it’s yours.’ She is so fabulous. She, and all these other amazing women — they have given us a chance to have the special day we thought was destroyed.”
She visited a few days later with her mom and her maid of honor.
“As soon as I saw that place, I was like, ‘This is it. This is where we want to be,'” Ashley says. “I can’t even explain how well it has all worked out. It is just an amazing outpouring of community support for us.”
Ashley and James laugh when asked about the traditional wedding vow — “for better or for worse” — and are hopeful that the worst is over, at least for a while.
“A couple of days ago, it finally hit me, you know: We’re getting married,” she says. “This is a cool time. And we’ve got a heck of a story to tell the grandkids one day: Guess what Grandma and Grandpa went through, right before they got married.”