“We had dreamt about our wedding day and the days leading up to the big event, but the reality we actually lived was far more valuable and memorable,” says Vanessa Skillern Papé, 27, who married Dean Papé, 29, in Sun Valley last Labor Day weekend.
That typically hot, touristy and much-anticipated weekend with the Wagon Days celebration at its core some might recall was cancelled due to Mother Nature. It was a simple lightning strike that launched the lengthy, smoky, daunting and dangerous Castle Rock Fire in the hills above Ketchum.
Months before, the couple from Eugene, Oregon—who met as kids growing up, became friends and forever linked soon after Dean got down on one knee at the Seattle Ridge Lodge during an annual family Christmas in Sun Valley, and proposed to Vanessa with her grandmother’s ring—had decided on the date and place and elaborate plans were in place.
In addition to Vanessa’s family holiday trips to their second home here, the couple had spent several seasons working and playing here. They knew the area well and when he feigned the ski boot difficulty that led them to the break where the proposal was made, there was no doubt they would marry here.
Like many young women, Vanessa had dreamt of a larger-than-life fairytale wedding. They anticipated at least 300 of the invited 400 guests, most of whom would be coming from out of town. They were to marry at the magical site of the Witmer residence, north of town.
“Anyone who has visited the Witmer residence knows what an amazing piece of property it is—along the river, with a pond, beautifully maintained lawns, a house, guest house, yurt, teepee—the amenities are endless and breathtaking even in the dead of winter when we first toured it,” she says.
Vanessa had found her dream gown, a Monique Lhuillier two-piece lace and silk dress. Dean had a custom suit made for the special day. The bridesmaid’s dresses, by designer Jenny Yoo, were in rich brown dupioni silks and had been hand tailored for each of the girls. The groomsmen had black suits rented from the Sheepskin Coat Factory and Vanessa had found brown ties to match the bridesmaid’s dresses at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco. The flower girl’s dress had been custom designed and made from a fabric handpicked by the mother-of-the-bride.
“We had planned to not only have a flower girl and ring bearer (our niece and nephew) but also have a troupe of angels (9 children dressed in white to ring bells before Vanessa walked down the aisle with her father),” Vanessa recalls.
Music had been selected—a string quartet and trumpet player from Boise were scheduled to play for the ceremony. The Design Band was coming from Lake Oswego, Oregon, to play for the reception. Kurt McAuley (the florist and owner of Botanica) had ordered hundreds of white roses, casablanca lilies and white hydrangeas, for the ceremony and reception. Taylor Sturges (the on-the-ground event planner) had assisted with linen selection, décor ideas and layout.
A week before the wedding, Dean, owner of deChase Development, and Vanessa, interestingly, an event planner herself, headed over to Sun Valley to orchestrate the final details.
As owner of Cocoa Belle Events, Vanessa had a handle on preparing for all eventualities, but even the most astute planner couldn’t have foreseen the adjustments that would have to be made upon seeing the reality of the fire.
“Our reality was a far cry from our original vision. As soon as we arrived and saw the smoke, the destruction and the fear in people’s eyes, our worries increased,” she says. “We can’t begin to describe the confusion, the back and forth conversations, the site visits and the endless discussions about what the fire might do next. Once we thought we had a great game plan, the wind would shift and our great game plan became the latest evacuated area of the Valley,” Vanessa says. “The week leading up to our wedding was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of our lives.”
Still, even with a plan A through D, Vanessa had no idea what the actual day would be until it happened. Suddenly, their suffering seemed selfish and the couple’s plans began to take a direction that was less about themselves and more about everyone else.
Should they cancel all together? >>>
“We finally decided the risk of bringing that many guests into the Valley was way too high,” she says, admitting she and Dean shed a few tears along the way.
They held impromptu planning sessions with all involved that included evacuees, vendors, family and friends, all looking for ways to scale back the celebration.
Vanessa’s parents graciously paid security deposits and tried to minimize the trickle-down disappointment in canceled contracts. But there were some things that couldn’t be undone like Botanica’s flowers and the catering that was already underway by Judith McQueen. Those were handled artfully as well.
They sallied forth with their bridesmaids’ lunch hosted by family friend and evacuee, Louise Mennella, at Cristina’s Restaurant and Bakery. A rehearsal dinner followed that evening at Riccabona’s. And the wedding itself still occurred at the bride’s parent’s home in the Valley with 35 family members and friends, including Vanessa’s 100-year-old great aunt, Elena Sharp.
The food that McQueen had planned for hundreds dressed in their finest for a wedding, was enjoyed by all, but there of course was a lot left over. McQueen proposed, and the couple and Vanessa’s parents, Dana and Paul Skillern, excitedly concurred that the food should be donated to the firefighters battling the Castle Rock blaze.
As the weary men and women made their way off the hill that day, they walked in to an elaborate picnic of Florentine rib eye steak, caramelized onion mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and roasted sherried tomato.
“What an amazing thing to see—those firefighters, coming off the line . . . covered in soot. We got very emotional that day. It finally hit us . . . in the wake of so much sadness, we were able to put smiles on other people’s faces. What a gift to be able to give. We’ll never forget it.”
Vanessa and Dean have no regrets.
“We saw a town literally come together just to make our wedding day special. That is why our families have always loved the Sun Valley/Ketchum area. The area is elegant without feeling stuffy. It is steeped in culture, history and tradition, and the people are so warm and welcoming,” the couple agrees. “Our wedding may not have been what we envisioned, but at the end of the day, Dean and I remembered why we chose this place to solidify our marriage. The ideals of the people in this community are what we want to base our marriage on—commitment, love, support, trust and understanding.”