When Katelin Kennedy had her final wedding dress fitting in early August, she sheepishly revealed that hiking boots would complement her gown. Without skipping a beat, the seamstress quipped, “Oh, honey, you are not even the first bride today to tell me that.”
Such is a sign of the times — and the place — here in the Pacific Northwest. With COVID-19 derailing so many life events, meticulously planned weddings have fallen among the wreckage, too. Yet innovative, resilient couples have transitioned to safer alternatives, and with such a large outdoors community in the Greater Seattle area, it’s no surprise that many have found unexpected silver linings among the region’s peaks and pines.
Lindsey Ganahl, an Issaquah-based photographer who specializes in adventure elopements, saw inquiries surge by as much as 75% this summer.
“Couples booking elopements related to COVID fall into two categories,” Ganahl said. “One where eloping is a Plan B because their wedding got canceled and they still want to get married, and the other where the pandemic has catalyzed a shift in perspective. Some couples realized they didn’t want a big wedding after all and are choosing to elope because it feels more authentic to who they are.”
Local wedding planner and floral designer Kiara Hancock appreciates this shift to elopements and microweddings.
“Big celebrations are fun and totally have their place. But small celebrations tend to really pack a meaningful punch,” Hancock said, suggesting that couples maintain a few small details they had been really counting on.
Microweddings also present an opportunity to save money and invest in more intentional ways. Another perk? “You will have the chance to connect on a deeper level with your loved ones,” Hancock said.
Wedding photographers can be great resources in your search for a potential elopement spot, advised recently married Seattle physician Nandita Mani. Her photographer, Victoria Carlson, provided valuable insight on locations, and even info on “whether permits would be required and whether [spots] tend to be crowded or private.”
In addition, Ganahl suggests using online resources like the Washington Trails Association Hike Finder tool.
“Choose a location that will be meaningful to you,” Ganahl said, “But keep in mind what kind of experience you want to have getting there.”
Consider factors like distance and elevation you’re willing to travel, whether you’d prefer to hike in or drive up, and what elements you’d most appreciate as the backdrop — from alpine meadows to cascading falls.
“An adventure elopement should be about honoring nature and not exploiting it,” Ganahl said. “It is about getting married with meaning, not just epic photos in a breathtaking location.”
Also, whether you’re enjoying a mountaintop feast or a coastal bonfire, make the experience uniquely yours.
“Tap into the sensations of the moment and the emotions of the adventure experience,” Ganahl suggests. “It’s all about authenticity.” And, “Don’t be afraid of getting your dress dirty!”
“There’s not a single definition of an ideal wedding,” Kennedy said. “It’s OK to be disappointed that your original wedding couldn’t happen as planned — and also overjoyed that your alternative can be a perfect celebration as well.
Lastly, Mani offers this salient reminder: “Love is not canceled!”
Here’s how some Seattle-area couples switched gears to entirely rewrite their wedding plans in the last six months.
Katelin Kennedy and Ben Howell
This duo originally planned a September wedding in a rustic Skagit Valley barn, complete with dinner from a Whidbey Island caterer, local flowers and a DJ, in front of 125 guests from around Seattle and across the country.
The couple, both avid hikers and mountaineers, began planning after they got engaged last November along Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit. However, things shifted as the wedding date approached.
“When we realized flying wouldn’t be feasible for many of our family and friends, we decided that a mountaintop backpacking elopement would be our best Plan B,” Howell said.
Ultimately, the tranquil Aug. 20 event involved four close friends from Seattle, including their officiant. All six quarantined beforehand and agreed to maintain 6 feet of distance while hiking — and 3-to-5 feet during the meal.
For the ceremony, the couple chose a spot where they’ve backpacked together, on a high-alpine pass with stunning views over the North Cascades. Beforehand, their officiant friend met with both families via Zoom and wove their words and advice into a highly personalized ceremony, combined with the couple’s cowritten vows. They carried up vibrant flowers from a Pike Place Market vendor in their backpacks and worked with Art of the Table chef Dustin Ronspies to create a transportable three-course meal.
“One silver lining is that we were able to let our creativity run wild,” Kennedy said. “Thankfully, we have friends adventurous enough to help us pull off our most exciting ideas. Gourmet dinner, dessert and craft cocktails for six in the backcountry, why not?! … We managed to pull off a delicious candlelit dinner up on the mountain following the ceremony.”
Not having family and friends present was undoubtedly their biggest challenge.
“We struggled with the decision to postpone our larger celebration and have a small elopement ceremony instead,” Howell said. “Ultimately we feel like it was the best decision given the circumstances, but we still really missed having everyone together.”
These newlyweds’ words of wisdom: Be extra flexible, and have a backup plan (or two). On their wedding day, the forecast looked iffy. “We made a last-minute switch to a completely different area of the North Cascades,” Kennedy said. “Thankfully it ended up being perfect (and dry!).”
Nandita Mani and Ryan Adams
Last year, this pair traveled to India to choose their wedding clothes and spend time with Mani’s extended family. They dreamed of having a “big, colorful, Indian wedding in the high desert” on May 30 at Brasada Ranch in Bend, Oregon. On the official day, Adams was set to ride in on a horse, with about 175 guests parading around him. They would get married under a big, floral-decorated mandap (a covered structure with pillars).
Their actual wedding looked quite different — yet brought its own magic. A Sept. 3 elopement involved five guests. They kept the festivities in Bend to preserve some elements of their previously envisioned day, and the ceremony was held at Smith Rock State Park, where they like to go climbing. An alfresco dinner party, featuring the intended Indian dinner menu, followed at the original wedding venue.
Unsurprisingly, the couple struggled with all the uncertainty leading up to their wedding.
“Back in March, when we originally postponed to September, it seemed likely that things would be better by now — and in many other countries, they are,” Mani said “We had ideas and plans for smaller versions of our wedding, but ultimately decided on an elopement when cases were on the rise in July.”
As an infectious diseases physician at the University of Washington and the associate medical director for infection prevention and control at UW Medical Center, Mani has been working on contact-tracing efforts since the pandemic hit Seattle. She has closely followed local and national trends, while also treating COVID patients.
“Ultimately, it didn’t feel possible for us to safely and responsibly pull off the event in any way that resembled its original vision,” Mani said. “My risk tolerance is low, and I know that my job has in large part shaped that.”
Friends and family remained supportive and helped the couple celebrate from afar, they said. Florist Summer Robbins, photographer Carlson and the flexible Brasada Ranch team also helped them pull off their special day.
Amanda Sue Rowe and Alicia Marie Rowe
This couple met while teaching in China and moved to Seattle in 2018 “to live in an accepting and affirming community,” they said.
Because Alicia’s family reacted negatively to the news of their impending marriage, they had planned on a small July 23 wedding with close family members and friends at Skokomish Park at Lake Cushman on the Olympic Peninsula.
When the pandemic began, however, they cycled through several iterations of the plan; ultimately they uninvited all of their guests (a difficult decision) except for their officiant, Devin, Alicia’s best friend from college. Their photographers, Gabi and Brandon Fox of The Foxes Photography, helped choose an “incredible” Mount Townsend hike, and the couple rented a self-contained camper van for a COVID-safe honeymoon.
Based on the weather forecast and their photographers’ advice, the pair changed their wedding date to July 25. With their outfits and food tucked into their packs, they soaked in beautiful wildflowers and perfect weather while hiking up Mount Townsend with their pup Summit. At the top, they savored a sunset ceremony where visibility stretched across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, and Mount Rainier shimmered to the south.
They still felt the presence of guests, thanks to letters and songs submitted by loved ones, which became part of an eight-hour playlist. By the light of their headlamps, they enjoyed beverages and a charcuterie dinner. After hiking down to the trailhead parking lot, they danced under the stars to “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes.
In the end, the duo truly appreciated their unexpected day — sharing private moments and not worrying about whether their love made anyone present uncomfortable.
“We cannot recommend adventure elopements enough, especially for LGBTQ+ couples who have difficult relationships with family or friends,” Amanda said. “It definitely allowed us the freedom to be completely relaxed throughout our time and just enjoy being in love.”
(LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)
Michelle Clark and James Runyon
Clark and Runyon first met in high school in Eastern Washington, then reconnected decades later — they joke that they wouldn’t have been a good match in their earlier years. They’ve since learned to live by the motto “if it’s meant to come together, it will.” That’s also how they approached their adapted June wedding that evolved very rapidly from a small celebration in Kauai, Hawaii, to a local, forested, family affair at the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Trailhead.
They felt tied to the numbers of their chosen date — June 26, 6/26/20 — yet the idea of planning an entirely new wedding felt overwhelming. “We said, ‘Let’s just take the next step and see what happens,’” Runyon said.
As they chipped away at details, things started to align. They secured their favorite florist (Juniper Flowers), hired adventure elopement photographer Ganahl and, by serendipity, discovered an ideal Washington location.
The biggest gift, though, was having the ceremony conducted by Seattle-based kirtan mantra singing duo Rob and Melissa Lundsgaard (kirtan is part of bhakti yoga, or the devotional “arm” of yoga). During a beautiful water ceremony, Clark and Runyon placed flower offerings in the river to honor their ancestors and descendants.
In the end, all adaptations aside, “I really believe we didn’t give up anything,” Runyon said. “In fact, we gained. We were right where we were supposed to be.” Clark agreed: “It could not have been more personal, deep or meaningful.”
After the wooded celebration, the group headed to a taco truck in North Bend; that evening, the newlyweds took their kids (Amelia, 18, Liberty, 16, and Abigail, 13) out to a fancy dinner.
Their advice? Take it one step at a time, and when in doubt, simply do the next right thing.