An accomplished musician and budding environmental scientist, Bellingham’s Chandra Johnson has overcome tremendous adversity. Her unwavering drive, supportive friends and family, and persistently positive attitude have pulled her through one of the most difficult years of her young life.
Originally from Port Angeles, 25-year-old Johnson discovered Bellingham while a student at Western Washington University (WWU). She was led there by her mother, Nancy Bluestein-Johnson. A former fish biologist, Johnson’s mother currently serves as program manager for WWU’s Huxley College on the Peninsulas in Port Angeles.
“We grew up hiking, camping and backpacking with my parents all over the West,” Johnson says. That upbringing made WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment a natural choice for when selecting her college path. In pursuit of her Bachelor’s degree, Johnson completed an internship with the American Climber Science Program, a Colorado-based organization that facilitates conservation-focused research in remote and mountain environments around the world.
Johnson’s internship took her to the world’s highest tropical mountain range in Huascarán National Park, Peru, where she monitored glacial lakes. “I spent two-and-a-half months in the Peruvian Andes,” Johnson explains. “Traveling alone in a country where I didn’t really speak the language was a life-changing experience. We went up to almost 20,000 feet of elevation to collect water quality data and study glacial melt. I climbed five or six summits above 17,000 feet and had some 20-hour days,” she adds. “My strength was tested, and I learned so much.” For scale, Mt. Baker’s summit is just under 11,000 feet.
Amidst her mountain climbing science adventures, Johnson also studied and explored a second, equal passion: music. Johnson has loved and played violin and fiddle since fourth grade. “My dad listened to a lot of rock that included fiddle, so I always wanted to be in a rock band,” she says. “In college I learned to improvise and that led to more opportunities.”
Johnson’s passion eventually became a profession. She met Seattle-based singer-songwriter Mary Lambert through mutual producer and sound engineering friends in Sequim. “We were in similar music circles, which are small on the Olympic Peninsula,” Johnson explains.
Johnson went on to play fiddle with Lambert for about three years while attending WWU. Lambert is best known as a featured vocal artist on the Grammy-nominated Song of the Year and gay rights single, “Same Love,” recorded with hip-hop duo, Maklemore and Ryan Lewis. Lambert later developed content from “Same Love” to create her 2013 hit single, “She Keeps Me Warm.” While touring and promoting that work in early 2014, Lambert and Johnson appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “It was so exciting and glamorous to be a part of that, to play with my friends and my mentor, violinist Andrew Joslyn, on that stage,” Johnson notes.
After graduating from WWU with her Bachelor’s degree in 2014 — a double major in music and environmental science — Johnson faced a very difficult decision: Go on tour with Lambert or join her family on the trip of a lifetime traveling throughout Nepal.
Johnson chose family.
Johnson trekked across one of the most remote regions of Nepal for a month and then spent a couple of weeks in Katmandu. The trip proved to be both an incredible joy and challenge. “We had some scary moments with snow and ice,” she says. “We learned how to deal with different people and the unexpected. I came home much more confident.”
“My decision in favor of family made a lot of different impacts on my life,” explains Johnson.
The trip taught her the value of perseverance, but it also marked the beginning a medical battle with parasites.
Upon her return, Johnson planned to join Lambert on tour, but Lambert’s budget required a smaller band, and Johnson was among the first to be cut. “At that point I was scrambling to find a job, living with my parents in Port Angeles. That’s when I found Patagonia.”
Johnson scored a research assistant position funded through outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, working alongside retired engineer, Jim Waddell, and Idaho Rivers United in a controversial effort to remove four dams from the Lower Snake River in southeastern Washington.
The dams block the path of salmon and steelhead on their trek from the ocean to their spawning grounds in Idaho’s high mountain streams. “Growing up, I watched so much positive change come from the removal of dams from the Elwa River in Olympic National Park. That made me very excited to work on the Snake,” Johnson says.
But that work was interrupted abruptly one morning this past January.
“I’d had a doctor’s appointment for my parasites and then was headed to work. A woman who was driving very fast under the influence of drugs crossed over the median and hit me head on. She spun me around and drove up and over the top of my car. I was hit with the roof and in the chest with the engine block,” describes Johnson. “I was inches from death.”
Johnson’s injuries were extensive. She suffered multiple lacerations, traumatic brain injury, broken ribs, a punctured lung that collapsed, and a shattered radius, wrist and knee — to name only a few. The driver that caused the accident was charged with vehicular assault and driving on a suspended license without insurance. “I still struggle now almost a year later with migraines three to four times a day, a blind spot in my right eye, and I have round number seven of surgeries coming up,” Johnson laments.
As a fiddler, the damage to Johnson’s radius, wrist and finger carried extra significance. The pinky finger of her bow hand was partially severed and amputation was considered. It is now numb and frozen in a bent position due to scar tissue. “It has affected my playing a lot,” Johnson says. “I still do physical therapy about three times a week. It’s been a long journey.”
For about three months, Johnson only left the house for doctor’s appointments. She is most thankful to her parents and brother for their support in her lengthy recovery. “Particularly because of the mountaineering I’ve done, I have much greater pain thresholds and greater patience thresholds than I ever would have without them,” Johnson says of her recovery. “I also have to thank Michael Rivers who gave me free voice lessons to keep me from going crazy when I couldn’t play the fiddle.”
Despite her existing pain and limitations, Johnson continues to fight to regain what she’s lost. “I have to be on high alert so I don’t reinjure myself,” she says. “[Doctors] told me I would never run again, so I’m training for a marathon,” Johnson says, laughing. “I also guided a back packing trip this summer. One of the best parts about all of this has been that everything I do since the accident is a first all over again — a sense of victory.”
At present, Johnson plays and tours with three different music groups: “tipsy American gypsy blues” band, Hot Damn Scandal; bluegrass Celtic rock performers, The Clumsy Lovers; and the 50-plus piece Seattle Rock Orchestra. “I also have some freelance recording work planned between now and March,” Johnson says. She currently divides her time between Bellingham, Port Angeles and touring.
Johnson continues to be optimistic about the future. She plans to apply in the spring to WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment in pursuit of her Master’s Degree in environmental restoration. “I will go to grad school. Whether or not it happens this year depends on what happens next — with my music and the Graduate Record Exam (GRE),” Johnson says. “But whatever happens, it’s nice to have come out of all of this stronger on the other side.”