Shaffer Grounded by Roots in Twisp
Across the street from the Branding Iron Saloon, sitting right between the Glover Street Market and Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, a weathered log bench provides a perfect picture of the peaceful pace that draws folks to the outpost of Twisp.
Michael “Bird” Shaffer arrives with just a few swigs of coffee left in his Mason jar and excuses himself to duck into the market for a moment to say hi since, ya know, he’s in town.
“Everyone is scattered across the valley,” Bird said. “So the market is kinda like our meeting place where we can catch up.”
Summer is Bird’s time to chill at home. He spends a lot of winters chasing snow, from Stevens Pass when he’s in Washington to Chamonix when he heads to France. His love of skiing — specifically speed riding — serendipitously landed him segments in the two latest Warren Miller films.
When the time comes to head to Bird’s cabin, the drive slowly leaves behind town and its rows of houses, snaking along the Twisp River for a bit before heading into a valley on Poorman Creek Road.
Bird’s parents came out here from Southern California in the 1970s to start a Christian commune, where a young Bird forged deep connections to this place.
“I have a Native American friend who says it takes five generations to really get connected to a place,” Bird said.
“It’s crazy how connected I am after just two generations.”
Defending His Land
Bird’s cabin view stretches for miles, across the rolling hills of early fall golden grasses, up into the layered ridges that form the eastern edge of Washington’s Cascade Range. There, a single plume of smoke rises on the breeze in the distance, the early October remains of the summer’s Crescent Mountain Fire.
Bird explains that he spent weeks out in ridges and valleys battling the wildfire this summer, anxious and nervous as it threatened to make its way into Twisp. Fortunately, it never reached town.
“So that fire was just on the other side of that ridge, just a few ridges away,” Bird said as he stood on his porch pointing to the landscape. “It started up in the wilderness, but came burning down this way. There was no way to get out in front of it. The terrain is too steep.”
Bird spent a month with water hoses stretched across his lot, hoping he wouldn’t have to face a final battle to save his cabin.
“It was crazy intense for weeks,” Bird said. “Buttermilk Creek goes up to that same area (where the smoke still rises), it goes behind these mountains and they made a line and burned it off, and it just worked out.
“Then it went all the way around the mountains and started getting pushed by the Northwest winds down into Libby Creek, which would have brought it back down into the Methow Valley again. But it stopped right there from weather and a little bit of rain. Nature working with us.”
That’s Bird’s nature: to work with nature.
Pretty much everything about Bird shrieks that he’s of a different feather.
He picked up the nickname Bird just to stand out but his love of flying was born from tales of his fighter pilot father Terry.
While many head South for winter, this Bird hunkers down in the north. For snow.
And like all birds with an instinctive sense that pulls them home, Bird always returns to the Methow Valley where he spends summers fighting wildfires, riding his mountain bike and dreaming of snow adventures.
We grind our mountain bikes out of the valley to the top of a ridge with a 360-degree view that overlooks Poorman Creek as well as Twisp, along with the smoke of the fire in the foothills.
Seemingly everywhere we pause, Bird takes time to survey the terrain and explain that when winter comes and the Methow Valley gets blanketed with snow, how he would ski a hill and take flight.
Yes, take flight.
When winter rolls in, Bird focuses on his specialty: Speed riding, sometimes called speed flying.
It’s a combination of skiing and paragliding that fulfills Bird’s desire to stretch his wings and no longer be earthbound.
“Skiing is a lot like flying,” Bird said. “But when you put the wings on and take off … Ka-kow!”
Bird honed his skill spending winters in the French Alps at Chamonix. That’s where Warren Miller director Chris Patterson got wind about Bird soaring around the backcountry and cast Bird in last year’s Warren Miller film, Line of Descent.
“He found me on the top of the Aiguille du Midi at 3,800 meters (12,400 feet),” Bird said. “And he pulled me when he had a chance to pick a wild card for Line of Descent.”
Bird returns in this year’s film Face of Winter on behalf of sponsor Black Crow skis.
“I think it turned out great,” Bird said of this year’s film that debuted in Portland, Oregon on Oct. 12 and continues throughout the Northwest in November. “They did an excellent job of mixing in some clips I gave them with what we filmed.”
Bird made appearances at the debut and the first couple of shows in Oregon. He will be at showings in Bellingham’s Mount Baker Theatre Nov. 10 and Seattle’s McCaw Hall Nov. 16 and 17.
Skiing in France, making a few appearances and earning a spot in the epic Warren Miller films was nothing more than a dream while growing up.
Like most kids in the Methow Valley, Bird started skiing on local hills around his home and took the first step up at Loup Loup Ski Bowl near Twisp.
“Every weekend we’d go up there and the parking lot was just filled with school buses,” Bird said. “Almost every school for miles around would pack the kids in and take them up to Loup Loup.”
Bird said the equipment available wasn’t always cutting edge, but it didn’t matter. Kids hit the hills with whatever they could find. They would hit the slopes, and they would dream.
“Since I was a little kid, I think Warren had the biggest influence on our small town of skiers,” he wrote on the Warren Miller website. “That he could travel around and make a life out of skiing, sharing and inspiring people.
This set an imprint in my brain to do the same and here I am fortunate to be doing a little inspiring myself.”
One Bird, flying around the globe in search of adventure, yet always returning home.
John Rezell, Editor.