Meet Residents Duane and Clara Nelson

A shared love of mountains becomes a shared love for each other.

By Pat King, Wesley Des Moines resident

It was May 1959 when Clara’s love of mountains brought her from Colorado to Longmire in the southwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park. She was hired as a secretary for the park. That summer a young man, Duane Nelson, signed on as a Park Ranger Naturalist.

Duane was sent to Paradise on the other side of the mountain for his summer work, so it was two years before Duane and Clara actually dated.

“Our dates were hikes,” Clara said. The two were married in 1962. A few years later, they climbed Mt. Adams together. Clara also climbed Mt. Rainier with a friend. Eventually, she and Duane climbed Mt. Kosciusko in Australia.

Although they lived in the Highline area where Duane taught in the elementary schools, they both trekked back to Mt. Rainier to work each summer. Clara also worked in the 1990s at the SeaTac International Airport visitor information desk. Known to Mt. Rainier visitors and staff employees as “Mrs. Sunrise,” Clara received a tribute in 1996 for her 25 years as a park employee and volunteer. When their oldest son, Kyle, was six years old, he told a visitor that he lived in Seattle, but his real home was Mt. Rainier. Today, he is a full time law enforcement officer there.

In 1999, Clara participated in the 100th anniversary of Mt. Rainier becoming a National Park. Dressed in a costume appropriate for 1899, Clara played the part of Fay Fuller, the first woman to climb to the summit in 1890.

Attending the ceremony was a woman who hadn’t done the math. Looking at Clara, she said, “My, she holds her age well.” An elderly man shook her hand and said, “Miss Fuller, I’ve always wanted to meet you.”

In 1992, Duane engineered a surprise 60th birthday party for Clara. Even though the party was a huge surprise, the greatest amazement to Clara was the 100 people who drove all the way to the mountain to say, “Happy Birthday. I will always remember you.” Even the staff and park rangers stopped by to join the celebration.

Clara and Duane were chosen unanimously by the association of Visitor Information Centers of Washington to receive the 2005 Anna Silik Visitor of the Year award for the State of Washington.

Two years ago, Duane put on a performance for the Wesley Des Moines Wednesday Night Terrace Program of a campfire park naturalist at Mt. Rainier. His enthusiasm had the whole auditorium singing “A Bear in Tennis Shoes” and “This Land is Your Land.”

Duane and Clara have two sons, Kyle, the law enforcement ranger at Mt. Rainier, and Kim, who owns a construction company in Bothell.