Spotlight on: Wendy and Michael Mickle

  • Tue Dec 10th, 2019 10:49am
  • Life

Wendy and Michael Mickle were shaped by Lopez in their tender years, and they’ve spent the past five decades returning the favor. Several cherished Lopez lands and institutions owe their existence to the Mickles’ efforts.

Both attended Henderson Camp (later Nor’Wester) in the ’50s, from different parts of California, though they didn’t meet till the 60s, as counselors. After falling in love, they maintained a long-distance relationship, with Lopez summers, as Wendy finished college in Vermont, then joined her family, who’d moved to Detroit. She worked for a year as a computer programmer. Michael was beginning graduate study in ecology in Oregon when the Vietnam draft intervened. So he joined the Coast Guard, which sent him to Alaska. In January. After six months in Alaska, he and Wendy married, starting wedlock in “wild west” Kodiak.

Wendy got hired as an assessing clerk, keeping land records. This required some flying around to inspect properties, the pilot sometimes banging his frozen wheels onto the runway to de-ice before landing. During the long winter nights, Wendy entertained herself in a theatre group. Out in the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutians and the Bering Sea, Michael’s adventures mostly involved rescue work, though his ship once received encrypted orders to “go west till they tell us to stop” — probably testing Russia’s defenses.

After 18 months, in 1969, Michael was transferred to Cleveland. The river had just caught fire; “I burst into tears when we first saw it,” Wendy says. In Cleveland, She “basically ran the office” in a big corporation’s tech center, setting her own hours. Again she made the most of her new town, taking a dance class, and then, with Michael, night courses in design.

Michael’s talents got him recommended for Detroit’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, and when his Coast Guard time ended he enrolled, earning a Master of Fine Arts in Metalsmithing. Wendy was hired by her old boss in Detroit, and returned to programming. But the Northwest called.

After all those summers at Henderson Camp, the Mickles knew where they wanted to settle. So in 1973 they bought Lopez acreage and began homesteading with a tipi, an outhouse and a kitchen shack. Others were doing the same then, Wendy says, “all making it up as we went along.” Michael had planned to make a living doing metalwork, but, he laughs, “I was sadly mistaken on that count.” Instead, he got a construction job, which later led to a career in residential construction with Christopher Elliott. Both Mickles worked at Richardson Store for a few years, Wendy clerking and Michael delivering gas. Wendy also drove for UPS, getting to know Lopez and Lopezians.

The couple survived two winters housesitting. By the third, Michael had built a studio—lacking indoor plumbing, but “still an upgrade”—where they lived for 12 years until they finally finished their house. Meanwhile, Wendy became an activist for the county’s controversial Comprehensive Plan. She also raised sheep with Sally Bill as a mentor; cataloged the school library onto a computer; and mapped land usage for the county. Knocking on doors, color-coding every Lopez field and building, Wendy learned Lopez by the square inch.

As a library trustee in the late ’70s, Michael facilitated the building’s move across the street to its present location. More importantly, he helped get a statute passed allowing Lopez Library to become the state’s first publicly-supported district of that size. Both Mickles helped rehab the building and volunteered there for years.

In 1981, Wendy became the first executive director of the San Juan Preservation Trust. Along with Asha Lela and Cynthia Dilling, she successfully fought to save Shark Reef from clearcutting, and then, with Friends of Chadwick, to preserve Watmough Bay and Chadwick Hill.

Though grounded on Lopez, the couple was bitten early by the travel bug — starting with seeing Macchu Pichu alone, by night. Then a Nepal trek hooked them on Asia. They returned to Nepal a dozen times for trekking, mountaineering, jungle exploration, rafting and socializing. Most visits suggested another country to explore. The Mickles have climbed Himalayan peaks, Mexican volcanoes and many of the Cascades; snorkeled in various pristine reefs; and, in the desert southwest, rafted whitewater and searched out petroglyphs and slot canyons.

Traveling in the developing world led the couple to work with Michael’s family’s foundation to fund clean water and sanitation projects. With modest grants, nonprofits like Water 1st International and PATH in Seattle achieved remarkable results, and for eight years the Mickles got to join grantees, inspecting projects in Ethiopia, Honduras, Bangladesh, and Nicaragua. Seeing clean water improve people’s lives was even better than adventure travel.

These days the water work continues, but the Mickles are more content to stay home. Both are National Monument monitors; Wendy’s been one since the Bureau of Land Management program started in 1992. She also enjoyed six years’ service on the clinic board and is currently Garden Club treasurer — the perfect job for someone so deeply rooted on the island.