Along The Oregon Trail
Hells Canyon of the Snake River offers you thrills, chills and maybe a spill along Oregon’s most challenging whitewater river. But rugged and remote adventure is but one entree from a remarkable menu of Eastern Oregon adventures.
But upriver from Hells Canyon at Farewell Bend State Park (at Brownlee Reservoir) you’ll enjoy an oasis of green – where acres of spreading locust trees provide cool shady relief from the summer sun.
Joe Kenick, Oregon State Park Manager, said that the historic site earned its name from the earliest pioneers who passed through the area on their westward treks:
“This is where they had to say ‘farewell’ to the Snake River and move up toward the northwest and Baker Valley. You must remember that walking down Hells Canyon was not an option, so this place stood out and was a draw because it’s the only green around.”
The Farewell Bend State Park Campground offers plenty of elbow room across its 74 lakeshore acres with more than 120 sites for tents or trailers. There are also two rental cabins that offer all of the comforts of home, so it’s a good place to spend some time, cast a fishing line and enjoy a break.
“An archeologist once told me,” added Kenick, “that a good place to camp is a good place to camp whether it’s 150 years ago or today. That’s why this was a gathering spot on the Oregon Trail.”
Less than an hour away - near Baker City – the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is a fine gathering site for your family. The site provides you with a perspective and context to better understand the region’s early days.
The OTIC opened in 1993 and shows - through tours and exhibits – how the westward migration that began in the 1840’s changed Oregon forever.
“We tend to think about coming across the Oregon Trail as this great big adventure – hurrah, let’s go!” said Jeremy Martin, BLM Park Ranger. “But the fact is there was a sense of desperation that moved most people west. People who came this way in the 1840’s and 50’s needed a better life!”
Outside the OTIC you can explore replicas of covered wagons that give you a feel for the pioneering experience, but Martin is quick to point out that you won’t need to travel far to see the real thing. That’s because the actual trail – deep wagon ruts and all – is adjacent to the OTIC.
“It’s important to remember that there wasn’t just one trail,” noted Martin with a chuckle. “There were many Oregon Trails and the reason for many trails is because no one liked eating dust for long. So, often-times the wagons would spread out across the valley floor. We are a place that holds on to Oregon history and we tell the story of the largest non-forced human migration in human history. “
In nearby Baker City – just four miles away – make time to visit the grandest site of all – In fact, the Geiser Grand Hotel is in the center of what was once called the “Queen City” of Oregon’s gold country. There’s no finer place to rest your head!
“Baker City is the next historic chapter that followed the Oregon Trail,” said Barbara Sidway, the owner and General Manager of the Geiser Grand Hotel. “The trail blew through this area and brought hundreds of thousands of pioneers into the Willamette Valley, but settlement in this area didn’t really happen until later – after gold was discovered.”
The Geiser Grand Hotel offers a certain elegance that may spoil you with fine crystal chandeliers, rich mahogany millwork and a spectacular stained glass atrium that collectively - take the breath away.
Thirty guest rooms invite you to linger longer, “We are big on comfort here,” said Sidway. “The scale of everything, including decorations and furnishings - you won’t see anything petite here.”
It is also comfort and elegance that traveled a long road to recovery. You see, the Geiser Grand Hotel’s story began in 1889 during the rough and tumble days of Oregon’s gold rush.
Albert Geiser made a “statement” when he built his namesake hotel that said Eastern Oregon could rival any of the big city offerings that travelers might encounter between Seattle and San Francisco.
The hotel thrived for nearly half a century before the gold played out and harder times arrived. In fact, the hotel was boarded up and abandoned when Barbara Sidway and her husband arrived in the early 1990’s.
They found a tremendous mess with damage throughout a building that didn’t have a roof: “Oh, it was horrible,” said Sidway. “Pigeons flying in and out of the open roof and the walls were so wet you could grab the plaster and feel the water.”
But Sidway also saw something remarkable in the building’s details and it’s bones: the promise for a new life!
“There was so much of the original millwork still intact and it was done with a lot of care and money and artisanship – it was all just extraordinary,” said Sidway.
So, an 8-million dollar restoration followed and the investment in the hotel and in Baker City’s future was completed when the hotel reopened in 1998.
Denny Grosse, the official tour guide at the Geiser Grand Hotel, (she is also Barbara Sidway’s mother) has a passion for history and noted that, “the hotel offers elegance – which is what Albert Geiser originally wanted to bring to town more than 120 years ago. This was elegance in the wilderness.”
Denny can tell you much about the hotel, its place in history and why the family thought it was all worth saving: “Because once it’s gone, history has disappeared – you can’t retrieve it if you tear it down.”
Barbara agreed and offered: “When you stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel you are really stepping back in time and connecting with what Eastern Oregon is about now. If you just show up we will get you pointed in the right direction for history and adventure.”
Rogue River Jet Boat Trip
If travel is a state of mind, Oregon sure makes you wonder how one region can offer so much wide-ranging recreation and scenery--and how you will ever be able in one lifetime to experience it all. Even for the seasoned traveler, an endless supply of secret places is available for exploring.
So, slow down and savor a once-in-a-lifetime experience this summer on a river steeped in legend, lore, and interesting characters and enjoy one of the most breathtaking boat rides into the Rogue River Wilderness.
The Rogue River is world famous and has attracted adventure seekers for decades, some as well known as the river itself, like Zane Grey, the western novelist who came to the canyon to write and even set one of his novels there.
Once a lifeline of sorts for folks who lived along the river, boats have been used for over than a century to deliver food, supplies, and news from the outside world into the rugged canyon.
Now, they’re lifelines of laughter and smiles that help folks reconnect with Oregon’s outdoors.
Speedy jet boats launch family excursions and recreation into a distant world away from the routines, noise, and general hubbub of city life.
Early morning – when the air is still and nature is waking up Oregon rivers like the Rogue are a marvel. As daylight grows, people come out to play at Jerry’s Rogue Jets and Rogue Mailboats along the Rogue River waterfront at Gold Beach.
Jet boat pilot, Jeff Laird, keeps the century-old tradition alive as he launches our tour at 8am sharp – it’s 104-mile round trip journey into the Rogue River Canyon – longest trip that’s offered.
The journey was outrageous fun as Laird deftly steered and throttled his 32-foot long specially designed jet boat, powered by three 450-horsepower engines.
We plowed through white-water cauldrons, splashed and swung right, then left, over skinny shallows to avoid bulging boulders, and rocketed across two-foot standing waves.
“Hang on, guys--should we go faster? Little bumpy here--whoo hoo!!!” Jeff shouted to us. Everyone onboard was wet and grinning with delight.
The jet boats can reach speeds of 60-mph – but we motored along at less than half that speed in half a foot of water – it was shin deep shallow and amazing.
Then he throttled back the powerful engines and we slowly cruised through the deep shadows of the Rogue’s calmer stretches.
Cliffs and canyons are the rule along the river’s course through the Oregon Coast Range, where eons of water and wind have eroded the exposed rock into smooth, unworldly sculptures.
Along shore, small waterfalls spout across rocky rims, slap a shelf here and there, and plummet into deep, swirling whirlpools.
Settlers arrived in the canyon of the Rogue River by the mid-nineteenth century, following the trails left by early trappers and miners.As I gazed up the steep forested walls, it was hard to imagine anyone scratching out a living in such remote terrain but as Laird said to me:
“Really, Grant, this part of Oregon is defined by its remoteness and rugged geography. It has never been an easy place to live--many have tried and failed--but there is something about this canyon that speaks to an individual’s soul and says, ‘Without trying, what’s the point of living?”
One of the pleasures of so much isolation is the abundant wildlife--a bald eagle may cruise by overhead; Canada geese may be seen shepherding their young from one shore to the other; an osprey might dive to catch its finny prey in the water. Even black bears are regularly seen strolling the shoreline.
It’s fitting that so many critters are more at home in the canyon than any of us ever will be. Laird told me that he had been leading the watery escape for Jerry’s Jet Boat Tours for nearly 25 years. He is a jet boat pilot with family roots that run as deep as the river canyon. You see, his uncle is Jerry Boice, one of the men who started jet boat touring nearly half a century ago.
“I get up every morning thinking ‘Golly sakes, I get to go drive tour boat for the day,’ Laird said with a chuckle. “This 104 miler is the best trip for the rapids, the thrills and the splish splash.”
It is an awesome collection of wilderness: From forest hilltops that touch the sky to remote, to steep canyon walls that touch the hard charging whitewater rapids – easy to see why Jeff laird comes to work each day.
“How many guys get to do this? Look at the people out here – they’re smiling and having fun – and a lot of people cannot say when they go to work – they give people a smile – and that means something to me. It’s really why I like my job so much and hope to keep at it for another 25 years.”
As springtime moves into high gear, the best low tides of the season bring a bounty of seafood close at hand. Local resident, Steve Fick, likes to say, “When the tide goes out, my dinner table is set --- with razor clams.”
Fick grew up in Astoria and he really digs this recreation:“Oh, Grant, there are clams galore this season – one of the best, most plentiful clam “sets” in recent history. The biologists say the harvest could exceed one million clams. Wow, huh?”
That much is certain, but if you’ve never dug this sport – how do you get started?
Fick handed me a “clam gun.” – it’s the tool of choice for beginners learning the ropes of clam digging.
It’s a hard plastic tube, with a covered top that has handle built into it, plus there is a small hole on the top so that the tube acts like a siphon.
You press the tube or “gun” down into the soft sand up to three feet deep, and then place your thumb over the hole, lift and pull the tube full of sand – and hopefully, the razor clam – back up to the surface.
“Try that clam hole right there, Grant,” noted Fick. He pointed to a small, quarter-sized dimple in the sandy surface. “The clam’s neck is just under that dimple. It’s a giveaway sign that there’s a clam down there. Go for it!”
And so I did – the tube easily slid down its length, I covered the hole and lifted the tube full of sand that held a dandy four-inch long razor clam. It was slick and it was easy! So easy that anyone can do it!
In fact, it’s hard to call the activity “work” because the clams are so plentiful this spring. Flick added that over a million clams might be harvested this year from the 18 miles of Catsup County beaches between Seaside and the Columbia River.
“That’s where 95 percent of all the clams in Oregon are dug – the beaches right here,” added Flick.
Fick is an old hand at the clam game – he can even spot the critters in the surf: “Well, sometimes when they’re feeding, they stick their neck up and out right in the shallow surf line – it makes a little v and we call those ‘knickers.’ Once you get the knack for spotting them, it’s easy.”
Flick relies on a short-handled shovel with a long steel blade – a clam shovel that’s specially designed to quickly dig deep enough to get hands on the speedy razor clam.
Speed is critical because the razor clam moves through soft sand like a hot knife through soft butter.
“You go about two inches to the side of the dimple and then you pull the shovel toward the hole,“ explained Steve. “You pull the sand up and reach your hand in underneath. Feel for the neck and pull the clam up – but not too hard or you pull the neck off.”
It’s a technique that takes practice, so first-timers usually stick to the clam gun technique for a successful clam digging adventure.
But be cautious – Fick noted that the clam gun technique has drawbacks, as there’s greater potential to break the clam shell with the gun rather than shovel.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the clam resource and there are important rules and regulations to note: A state shellfish license is required for clam diggers fourteen and older.
Each clam digger must dig their own limit of 15 razor clams and you cannot put any back. Remember: even if you break a shell or dig a small clam, the first 15 that you dig you must keep.
It wasn’t long before each of us had dug our limits when Steve smiled and said, “I never met a clam I didn’t like --- to eat. Let’s go!” With that, we were off to his kitchen for a quick lesson on how to prepare our clams.
“First, I like to rinse them off – get as much sand off the clams as possible.” Fick is as skilled in the kitchen as he is on the beach and makes quick work of our 30 clams.
He offered a tip – he gives the clams a quick dousing of hot water – enough to open the clams but not cook the clams and he quickly followed the hot water with a cold-water shower. The icy-cold water stopped any cooking of the clam.
A few quick flicks of his small sharp knife and he cleaned each clam of its stomach contents. Then he doused each in an egg bath; that was followed coating each side of the clam in soda cracker meal. The combination provided a nice coating to both sides of the clam.
The preheated (medium high) frying pan contains a generous amount of vegetable oil. Flick cooked the clams less than two minutes a side (golden brown on each side) and he cautiously advised that overcooked clams taste “like rubber and are too chewy.”
The meal of cooked clams provided a satisfying reward; the sort of activity that builds strong memories of the Oregon outdoors: “It’s the whole process – to me, said Flick. “It’s a lot of enjoyment to come down here to the beach early in the morning, dig clams, walk around – take the whole family down. “You feel like you’ve really accomplished something at the end of the day…I enjoy that.”
Oregon’s Secret Garden
The beauty of an Oregon spring is the chance to strike out on new adventures where the scenery is never twice the same. So it is this week as Grant shows off two striking sites for the price of one stop.
Be prepared for something special along Oregon State Highway 38 near Reedsport on Oregon’s southern coast: what appears to be dancing antlers across grassy fields at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area.
On some days, elk antlers are all you spy from the refuge viewpoint in the tall, wavy grass that obscures the large animals that lounge across the habitat at Dean Creek.
The site encompasses 1,040 acres and it is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It is managed for public viewing and education with information kiosks at the O.H. Hinsdale Interpretive Center.
The covered view site offers information about Oregon's elk and the environment of the Dean Creek area as well as spotting scopes to enhance viewing. There are also free brochures that tell you the story of the elk and the surrounding area.
BLM Manager, Bob Golden, said that it’s a reliable photo opportunity because the elk are so close at hand – often, the big animals (some elk tip the scales at 600 pounds) are but a few yards away so you’ll want to have your camera at your side.
“We offer visitors a great educational experience and you do get to see the wildlife up close. On any given day you can come out here and see the elk.”
The elk have lived on the Dean Creek Elk Refuge since the 1930’s when historic salt marshes were drained and fresh water was allowed to feed the site’s grasslands.
The herd of 120 Roosevelt elk roams freely on protected pastures, woodlands, and wetland areas, sharing their habitat with other wildlife including bald eagles, Canada geese, beaver, and black-tailed deer.
But Dean Creek’s elk herd is just the start of this wild adventure.
The real show-stopper is just up the road at Spruce Reach Island where you see thousands of rhododendrons and azaleas and camellias – over 300 different species. Stroll in and discover what some call, “Oregon’s Secret Garden!”
“It was a bit of a secret garden for decades,” said Bob McIntyre – member of the American Rhododendron Society and a Friend of the Hinsdale Garden.
“You see all of that and more here: white, cream, pink, reds, oranges, yellows and purples. There are rhodies of every imaginable color, size and texture.”
It’s a public place built by a private man!
Howard Hinsdale was a successful Oregon businessman who began transforming his 55-acre Spruce Reach Island right after World War II.
“It is unlike any garden you’ve ever visited,” noted Megan Harper – a BLM staff member. “Most people familiar with more manicured English garden styles, but you come here and it’s like a wild garden. Hinsdale spent a lot of time planning and putting this garden together in a very specific way.”
Hinsdale imported rare rhodies and giant spruce trees from as far away as England too. He barged them thru the Panama Canal and had them delivered them to his island.
Harper said that he even ‘strolled and shopped’ through many Portland area neighborhoods.
“If he found a rhodie that he loved, he’d knock and the door and start peeling off bills and say, ‘How much would it take to give me that plant?’ And then his crew would take shovels and dig it up right on the spot.”
Hinsdale created an oasis of calm on his island but it took 20 years of hard work to achieve.
“You must understand,” added McIntyre. “This was swamp land! He had to dredge the Umpqua River through this stretch and deposit the material – 28,000 cubic yards of silt – onto his island. Plus, the scores of old spruce trees that you see rising above it all - he bought them all and planted each one here.”
But when he was done, here was Hinsdale’s escape from the hectic hub-bub and stressful business life.
“Oh, he was a driven man to be sure,” said McIntyre. “Just imagine trying to do this work. He was probably driven in his business, but he could come here and leave all of that that way out there.”
Hinsdale’s secret garden lasted until 1994.
“And then the government bought it,” said Stephan Samuels, BLM Archeologist. “When we found out what we had, we went to work on it and began to open it up because that’s what Mr Hinsdale did.”
Samuels added that through the decades, Hinsdale had shared his garden with friends and family who loved the place in spring - that tradition continues today.
“It is here for people to enjoy,” added Harper. “You don’t honor the place by keeping it a secret or not letting people enjoy it!”
The BLM has recently teamed up with a local “Friends of Hinsdale Garden.”
They plan to open the place throughout the spring and summer so more visitors can see and appreciate one Oregonian’s vision for peace and solitude.
“We hope to open it from April-October,” added Samuels. “Even when it’s not blooming, people can come here, relax and have a nice lunch while they enjoy a beautiful spot on the Umpqua River.”
“It was a secret garden, but now it’s a spectacular place for anyone to enjoy, said McIntyre with a smile. You walk in here and oh-my-gosh, it’s awesome! That’s what Hinsdale was after and I think he achieved it.”