The small cabin, a single loft room in the woods near Hood Canal, ran on minimal electricity and had no running water, but it represented something bigger: Jenny and Jerry Drake's vision for the future of their family.
It was just a tiny cabin, a single loft room in the woods with minimal electricity and no running water, but it represented Jenny and Jerry Drake’s values — how their family lived and the people they wanted to be.
Jerry found the forested patch of land on Craigslist. He and Jenny loved the idea that the entire family could gather at once. They convinced Jenny’s family to purchase the retreat, a rustic collection of small cabins that would come to be known as “The Property.”
It was the place their boys, Braeden, 11, Zachary, 8, and Dylan, 2, could roam as freely as their mother had during childhood summers in Alaska. They could gather with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents for campfires, outdoor movies and water fights. The Drakes planned to pass it to their children.
Until the fire.
● ● ●
As a child, Jenny had spent summers in Excursion Inlet, a tiny fishing village in Alaska, where her parents worked seasonally. Her father eventually rose to become the cannery’s foreman.
It was a life accessed only by plane or boat. Squirrels raced around their attic. Bears wandered nearby. In the early days, using the restroom required a walk down the street.
To Jenny and her three siblings, it was paradise.
They roamed the village, swam in the inlet’s frigid waters, sunbathed on their cabin’s roof and played volleyball into the night. Villagers would gather on Wednesday nights to munch on popcorn and watch movies projected onto a sheet.
The northern lights sometimes danced on the horizon. Next to a babbling creek in one part of the forest, sunlight caught floating pollen so magically, the area was known as fairyland.
“It felt mystical,” said Amy Stobie, a longtime friend, who met Jenny while working in the village when both were teenagers.
● ● ●
For the Drakes, The Property in Brinnon near Hood Canal held a similar enchantment.
Jenny’s family had gathered each June beginning in 2003 to camp at Deception Pass. They’d sing songs around the campfire together — until the park ranger would shush them quiet at 10 p.m.
When Jerry discovered The Property in 2016, he envisioned it as an upgrade.
“Jerry was the catalyst,” said Emily S. Dabney, Jenny’s sister. “He pitched it to our family as the new Deception Pass, but instead of going once a year, we could go whenever.”
Bud and Linda Schmitz, Jenny’s parents, purchased the patch of land in 2017, listing their four children’s families on the real estate documents, so everyone could have an equal share. Each family had a small structure or a camper of their own to stay in and be together.
Visits felt more like a camping trip than a lodge stay, but to Jenny’s family, it recaptured some of Alaska’s allure. “We were recreating a little slice of our childhood,” Dabney said.
Best of all, they could sing to their heart’s content.
● ● ●
The Drakes delighted in holidays, celebrated their children’s birthdays with themed parties and elaborate cakes baked by Jenny, and took frequent road trips, often inviting relatives along.
“His family bouncing in the door was just energy,” said Jerry’s sister, Debbie Drake, of their visits. “They came in loud.”
At Dabney’s annual Halloween party, the Drakes never failed to arrive in elaborate, often coordinated costumes. In 2015, Jerry donned a batsuit and Jenny wore a Catwoman costume. Baby Dylan served as sidekick Robin.
Some trips were planned. Sometimes, they picked up on a whim.
“School was kind of optional on Fridays for them,” said Carin Murata, Jenny’s youngest sister. ”If there was an adventure to be had, they went.”
The family frequented the Wild Waves water theme park, the beach at Seaside, Ore., and Disneyland (with or without the children). They captured Pokemon together in local parks, rode ATVs, watched monster truck rallies and went on fishing trips with the boys’ uncle, Karl Schmitz.
For Zachary’s birthday in May, Jerry acquired massive cardboard box forts on Craigslist. He stationed them in a nearby park, and then set a pack of kids — and adults — loose with foam-firing Nerf guns.
When the Drakes looked for a new home in Monroe earlier this year, they sought enough space to host relatives from both sides of the family who are spread out in Seattle’s northern suburbs.
● ● ●
Rain or shine, the Drakes spent two or three weekends a month at their cabin. The boys became quick friends with the neighbor kids, Presley, 8, and Sawyer, 4.
“They would gather boards and poles and a wagon. They would load up and they would hike off onto the trail” and into the woods, said Angela Kreutzer, the children’s mother. “They would build whatever they were going to build, or hide in whatever bushy spot they wanted to hide in, and create whatever world they wanted to create.”
Braeden, the Drake’s eldest, was a bookworm with a reserved, thoughtful manner, Kreutzer said.
“My daughter was really drawn towards Braeden,” she said. “They would just talk about books in the cabin or plans they would create in the woods. They were the quiet, discussing kids.”
Zachary had a wild streak. He barreled down hills on his bike, crashing into at least one tree, Dabney said. Earlier this summer, he took a claw hammer to a can of spray paint because he wanted to know why it rattled. It exploded, turning his skin the color of Kermit the Frog’s.
“Zach and my son would be screaming and riding bikes and destroying things and making mayhem,” Kreutzer said.
The families grew close. They painted rocks, created hideouts and gathered buckets of swampy muck for purposes only children could imagine.
The kids were free to explore. The parents worried only about silence. “We’re talking three full days a week, where it’s just full of kid-world joy,” Kreutzer said of cabin summers.
● ● ●
Soon after its purchase, Jerry and Jenny began to shape The Property into their vision.
Jenny chose an aqua and beige ocean theme for their cabin — decorating with glass floats, a sea-foam green wreath and tiny seashells for cabinet drawer pulls.
Jerry, an electrician so skilled he once diagnosed his sister’s broken washing machine by ear, built a deck on their cabin, expanded the porch, added insulation and laid gravel for the driveway. He had begun to build a pavilion so they could hold campfire gatherings with the extended family no matter the weather.
“He was truly powering through and getting so much done out there,” Kreutzer said. “He was just happy to be doing it.”
Among Jerry’s top projects: recruiting his sisters’ families to the Brinnon area.
“He would send me listings,” said sister Debbie Drake. “He wanted everyone in on his fun antics.”
The sound of dry wood “crackling,” Kreutzer fears, will be with her forever.
● ● ●
Kreutzer woke up to a car horn braying somewhere in the darkness just after midnight June 10.
She looked out the window. At first, she thought her campfire had rekindled, but then realized the horn was a warning from a neighbor. Fire raged at the cabin across the street.
Kreutzer threw on her shoes and dashed outside.
“I was running up and calling 911,” she said, as flames reached taller than the towering trees. “I was really confused. I was looking for Jerry and Jenny and the boys. I just expected them to be standing at the end of the driveway.”
It was all so sudden.
“Five people — that you were going to see the very next morning. You said goodnight, and the only thing they did was go to bed. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that,” Kreutzer said. “They aren’t coming back. That actually happened. The cabin is actually gone.”
● ● ●
The grim knocks of police officers and chaplains at their doors came late Sunday evening.
“One man introduced himself as clergy, and I said, ‘That’s not good,’” recalled Kim Bourassa, Jerry’s oldest sister. “They said there was a fire and nobody survived.”
Her teenage son came down the stairs that night to comfort her as she began to sob.
The Schmitz family, who had just finished their weekly potluck family dinner, could not believe — or accept — that the Drakes were gone.
Dabney, Jenny’s sister, called the Jefferson County sheriff and the Brinnon fire department Sunday evening, searching for details. She cried on the phone at 4 a.m. Monday with Kreutzer.
“Nobody slept. We were all zombies. Totally numb,” Murata said. “We all wanted to see it.”
By early afternoon on Monday, the family gathered past the police tape now encasing their vacation retreat, trying to avoid reporters and photojournalists’ lenses.
Where the Drake cabin once stood, all they found was twisted metal roofing, singed couch springs and a pile of ash, still smoking.
“It was like the house was a rocket ship that shot into the sky,” Murata said.
Initial news coverage infuriated them. At least one television station misidentified the owners of the property where the cabin burned and incorrectly indicated no one was supposed to have been staying there.
Facebook chatter added further insult.
“Social media goes off on this — squatters and drugs,” Dabney said. “Everyone was so wrong and they’ve slandered our family. What was a weekend getaway becomes judgments and guesses.”
People assumed their family’s haven in the woods was something sinister.
Investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are still working to determine the fire’s cause and will complete a report later this year. Local officials do not suspect foul play. The five family members died together of smoke inhalation, said Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Haas, who serves as the county coroner.
“They went in their sleep.”
● ● ●
For Debbie Drake, it’s Jerry’s boots — her kid brother’s — tossed off onto the porch, alive and present, waiting for his feet to return.
For Gail Montgomery, Jerry’s mother, Wednesdays are particularly hard. The boys were supposed to spend summer days at her house. Dylan, who would be 3 now, was thrilled on trash collection day.
“He would run and trip and fall and say, ‘I’m OK, grandma,’ and then run to the window,” she said. “Little Dylan, he would say, ‘Bye, bye, garbageman’ ” as the truck departed.
When Kreutzer hears a campfire ignite, it “makes my body shake” and then tense up, she said.
These are the images, the memories, the sounds that trigger grief or anxiety — reminders of a harsh transition to life without the Drakes.
Kreutzer’s children often talk of Braeden and Zachary. They know their friends are gone, but still discuss fun they could have together.
“They talk in present tense, and I’m OK with that, because they do understand. I don’t think there’s any rush to let go of them,” Kreutzer said.
Relatives from both sides of the family meet regularly now. They’re preparing to sell the Monroe house the Drakes purchased just months before the fire. It can be a difficult place to be.
Piles of stuffed animals sit on Dylan’s bed, with themed sheets from Disney’s movie “Cars.” A stuffed, life-size Big Bird sits next to a textbook in Zachary’s room. Braeden’s shelves are covered with Lego creations — mostly spacecraft from Star Wars. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” sits on his desk.
“That’s the last book he was reading,” Dabney said.
The boys’ beds remain slightly disheveled, Bourassa said. She can see their imprints on the pillows. “The thought of dismantling that is very difficult,” she said.
But the family has decided to keep The Property in Brinnon. For all the pain it can evoke — that spot, the patch of blackened earth where the cabin once stood — it’s still tied to the Drakes and their dreams.
“That little cabin in the woods where we can go fishing and crabbing and cook oysters and have the kids run free,” Dabney said. “That’s what we have that’s left of them.”
In Brinnon, relatives raised a cross where the Drake family cabin once stood. They intend to plant a garden and place granite stones to remember the family who brought them all there in the first place.
“This place we can keep,” Dabney said. “That dream we can keep.”