Ellis Fink left his family, friends and the Methow Valley Horsemen with indelible memories
By Don Nelson
Ellis Fink spent much of life on horseback, and was known to take extraordinary care of his stock. His sterling reputation as a trail crew leader, backcountry packer and recreation facilities manager was built on nearly 40 years of experience in the Methow Valley’s most rugged reaches.
His contributions to the twice-annual Methow Valley Rodeo are less well-known. Fink worked behind the scenes and with machinery, not horses. But his efforts made a significant and enduring impact.
The Methow Valley Horsemen (MVH), who stage the rodeo, will honor Ellis Fink at this weekend’s Memorial Day Rodeo. Fink died on Dec. 30, 2015, at the age of 57.
There will be a special ceremony at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday (May 29) at the rodeo arena.
“When a member passes, you want to celebrate them,” said MVH president Dennis Gardner. “Ellis was a good volunteer. If you called him, he was there. He will be sorely missed.”
Back in the 1980s, Fink helped build the terraced seating at the rodeo grounds. It took a fair amount of work given the terrain. “We picked a lot of rocks,” Gardner recalled.
Most recently, Fink helped install new electrical wiring at the rodeo arena, just off of Twin Lakes Road between Winthrop and Twisp. “He [Fink] dug the ditch and I put the pipe in the ground,” Gardner said. Local contractors Rick Northcott, Gardner’s brother-in-law, and Pat Norwell also contributed time and expertise for the electrical system upgrade, Gardner said.
Fink had recently returned to membership in the MVH after a hiatus to spend more time with his family: wife Callie and sons Riley, Emmett and Meritt.
Gardner said he knew Ellis Fink and his brother Deed Fink since the Fink boys were toddlers. “They grew up nearby,” said Gardner, who was several years older than the Fink brothers.
Ellis Fink was a lifelong Methow Valley resident. He went to work for the U.S. Forest Service immediately after graduating from Liberty Bell High School in 1976, as part of the trail crew that spent long stretches in the wilderness areas around the valley.
His affinity for animals developed early on — he bought his first team of draft horses when he was 16, which he used to skid logs for Tom Graves, one of the MVH founders.
On backwoods trips it was always understood that Ellis would take of the horses and mules before he saw to human needs.
Deed Fink said that he and his older brother had been dealing with horses since they were youngsters and were experienced backcountry riders by the time they were in their teens. Much of their time on those trips was spent with Forest Service packer Jim Abel, who would become Ellis Fink’s boss and mentor. Those early trips sparked Ellis’ interest in his eventual career, Deed said.
After a few years on the job, Ellis became the trail crew foreman and lead packer. Later he became the head of Developed Recreation and Facilities for the Forest Service.
In Ellis’ first years on the job, Forest Service work was seasonal. In the winter, Deed said, Ellis would turn to logging. “He kept working,” Deed said. The Forest Service job became full-time in the early 1980s, Deed said.
That was also about the time Ellis started working with Duffy Dufresne, who would become his best friend. “They were two peas in a pod,” Deed said.
“They worked real hard and played real hard,” Callie Fink recalled. “They decided that one day they could run the outfit.”
Dufresne worked with Ellis until 1991, when the Forest Service transferred him to the Columbia River Gorge. The two kept in regular touch over the years, and when Dufresne returned to the valley in 2012, the friendship was more solid than ever.
“I was closer to him than anyone else,” Dufresne said. “He was an outstanding person. He would do anything for you.”
Dufresne said that Ellis “touched a lot of lives” — which was demonstrated when more than 600 people packed the Winthrop Barn for his memorial service.
Fink and Callie Marchbank met at the Pasayten Airport — basically a clearing in the wilderness — in June 1989. She had just graduated from high school and was working on a trail crew. They were married in 1990.
“I sort of knew who he was, although I had never met him before,” Callie said. “The thing that struck me was how funny he was. He had a great sense of humor and was very entertaining.”
“People from all walks of life liked him,” Callie added. “He was interested in everybody.”
Ellis liked almost everyone he met, Callie said, but if he didn’t particularly care for you, you’d probably never know it.
“He always had a good story,” Gardner said. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Nothing about Ellis’ outgoing personality — he was also known as a man who spoke his mind when he thought it was appropriate — was artificial. “He was definitely face value,” Deed said.
Dedication to family
Ellis’ work with the Methow Valley Horsemen was about making a contribution without fanfare. “He was more interested in working behind the scenes,” Deed. “He didn’t have to be out front.”
Leaving the trail packing job for the recreation and facilities job with the Forest Service allowed Ellis to spend more time with his family. As they three boys grew up, the family spent a lot of time in the woods together. “The best part of his life was raising his boys,” Callie said.
Callie said that her husband’s legacy is the love for his family and friends, his dedication to strong work ethics, and his commitment to follow-through and attention to detail. “Whatever he did, he was exacting,” Callie said.
Ellis had planned to retire after the Finks’ youngest son, Meritt, graduated from Liberty Bell this year, and had some ideas about what he’d like to do next. None of them involved slowing down a whole lot. Deed said his brother’s passing made him realize that “if there are things you are going to do, do them.”
Callie and Deed both said that Ellis’ death made one of his favorite sayings ring even more true: “Every day is a good day.”
This summer, Deed, Callie, the three Fink boys, Dufresne and a few other friends will make a trip into the Pasayten to honor Ellis one more time in the backcountry he loved so much.