Brenda Schwartz-Yeager spent 17 years as an emergency services employee in Wrangell, so when Monday’s massive landslide resulted in six people dead or missing the idea of getting on the ferry the next morning so she could sell the watercolors she’s well-known for at the Juneau Public Market was a difficult dilemma.
She is among at least two vendors from Wrangell at the three-day public market that continues through Sunday, with both describing their presence as a difficult yet somewhat inevitable decision.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the fact that my staff and all this artwork was already on its way up here because of the ferry schedule prior to the landslide in Wrangell,” Schwartz-Yeager said at her two-section booth Saturday at Centennial Hall. “My husband John and I hadn’t left yet — we went out the next morning after the slide, so it was a really difficult decision. But my artwork was landing on the ferry here and I thought ‘I’d better go.’”
Schwartz-Yeager has been a vendor at the public market for countless years, selling everything from full-size framed original paintings to refrigerator magnets featuring artwork from her travels throughout the region.
“I’m happy to be at the market, it’s something I look forward to all the time, but my heart is in Wrangell right now,” she said.
So, it seems, are the hearts of people she’s encountered during the market who’ve mentioned the landslide.
“Everybody has,” Schwartz-Yeager said. “Everybody’s just been so thoughtful, talking to us and asking if there’s things they can do to help.”
Across the aisle from her was a vendor from Haines, where a similar rain-triggered landslide in December of 2020 killed two people, “so there’s some fellow exhibitors here that understand very much how we feel,” Schwartz-Yeager said.
Another Wrangell resident, Bonnie Ritchie, is making her appearance as a vendor at the Juneau Public Market. Her family-run Richie’s Rocks sells Wrangell Garnets (“a semi-precious gemstone found along the Stikine River,” according to the company’s website) in jewelry and other forms, as well as natural healing and other products made from devil’s club.
“My kids are generation six in Wrangell,” Ritchie said. “So it’s a long tradition that the kids sell garnets to the tourists and stuff, and everybody wanted to know where they could get jewelry made from Wrangell Garnets and nobody did it, so I decided to start making some.”
Ritchie, like Schwartz-Yeager, lives in the center of Wrangell, while the landslide occurred about 11 miles out along the road that stretches south of town. But since the town has a population of about 2,000 they know plenty of people directly affected by the tragedy, as do many residents elsewhere in the region who are sharing their sympathies when they visit Richie’s table at the public market.
“We’ve had lots of comments, and lots of loving thoughts and wishes towards our community,” she said. “So that’s been really awesome to hear. Because we’re in such a small Southeast spot we all somehow are connected.”
A family of five, including three children, and their neighbor are among the dead or missing from Monday’s landslide that destroyed three homes. State transportation workers, along with officials from numerous other agencies, are currently focusing on helping people in the more than 50 homes cut off from town by removing debris from the road to town and providing other services, plus assessing the area for the risk of near- and long-term future landslides.
Schwartz-Yeager said it’s difficult to know what she will be able to do to help when she returns home, much as she wants to do whatever is possible.
“I’d like to try to find some ways to help and, now that I’m retired from the (fire) department, it might just be watching my son’s dog so he can do search and rescue work, or something like that,” she said. “Or making dinner for somebody, or something like that. And I’ve offered generators and equipment to folks. Maybe I can find some way to help, but I feel like that’s the most frustrating thing for many of us right now. We feel like we want to help — and we can in some small, tangible ways — but there’s nothing we can do to erase this incredible tragedy that happened and I think that’s the hardest part.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.