Minam Lodge - rustic paradise in a wilderness setting
Bulldozers, pavement rollers roaring and banging. Above Cove, Moss Springs campground on a recent morning was not the place for a wilderness experience.
After spending the night at Moss Springs in a tent, Janie Tippett and I started on foot down the trail to Minam Lodge. Lodge manager Shelley Steen would be out with horses to pick up some other guests and give us a ride in so I carried a fanny pack with camera, sunscreen, water and snacks and left my backpack in the back of my Subaru where she could find it. I planned to give her the car key when we met her on the trail.
Quickly, as we hiked, the noise of construction was replaced by the peaceful absence of sound. The trail is very steep on the first part of the 8-mile trail to Minam Lodge and Red's Horse Ranch.
Soon the rushing of water brought us to the Little Minam River. We were enfolded by the mossy, old-growth forest that features in the easy, middle part of this journey. Although it was a hot day, we scarcely noticed, traveling next to that melodious water in the shade.
Clear creeks crossed the trail often, offering a cold drink. Along the river, grouse occasionally startled us, and once, cracking twigs spoke of a heavy body's retreat. We saw no other human. The dusty trail told stories of constant traffic in deer, elk, birds and squirrels.
But where was Shelley? An hour on the trail and I began to imagine a future without clean socks, a jacket, the mystery I was reading.
The trail crosses the Little Minam River, staying fairly level until, at the end, it climbs and then plunges down to the elevation of Enterprise, the whole route boasting a gain and loss of 2,500 feet. As the trail ends, the valley opens to grassy meadows with the Minam River on the far side and the privately owned holdings of Red's Horse Ranch on the right, and the Minam Lodge on the left, both with their own landing strip.
After seven hours on the trail, my arthritic knee was complaining as we finally hobbled up to the lodge. Winding our way through a herd of friendly, mooching horses, we were met by Shelley. It seemed the other guests were not coming for another two days and Shelley had been unable to leave the lodge, as her help had gone to town. Sunk in comfortable chairs on the deck, Janie and I did a high five, exhausted but triumphant. Eight miles, seven hours.
Shelley asked, would I like lemonade and chocolate cake? Oh, yes.
After refreshments Janie and I sat in the river, slowing processes of inflammation and washing my one sweaty set of clothing at the same time. The weather was perfect, the water pure and soothing, and somebody else was cooking dinner.
A shower and a lie down in our cabin revived us further before one of Shelley's buffet dinners that feature appetizers and selections like Chicken Cordon Bleu and individual peach cobblers.
Night came. Shelley loaned me a sweatshirt, and she had books to read. Janie shared her deodorant and hairbrush. But nobody had an extra toothbrush.
Together, Shelley Steen and her husband, Shawn, run Steen's Wilderness Adventures, an operation that finds Shelley at this time of year running the Minam Lodge while their two boys start school in Joseph, and Shawn leads Snake River and Imnaha hunting expeditions. The fires of the summer, Shelley says, "Went around our country. We were so lucky, and there should be a lot of elk.''
The number of guests at the lodge varies from the occasional total vacancy to the 100 for dinner Shelley served last summer when a group of 20 horse people was joined by an airplane club headed for Idaho and rerouted to avoid fires. While Janie and I visited, there was a constant flow of airplanes in and out: Shawn with new supplies (no toothbrush) and various hungry people for breakfast or dinner. One day, horse campers stopped in, needing help to replenish supplies after a bear raided their camp for sweets.
As we ate lunch on the deck the second day, Janie and I compared notes on Shelley's white mule Queball, who sometimes appeared in one pasture and sometimes in another. Later, as Janie sat writing on the deck in her journal, she watched Queball lift himself from a standing position next to the fence, straight up and over. "He has no trouble with that,'' Shelley says. "I don't know how I'm going to keep him in at home.''
Janie and I did hike to Red's, where Janie has fond memories of cooking for elk camps years ago, but we found we mostly wanted to sit around enjoying the silence and eating a lot of Shelley's cooking.
On the second morning Shelley took us out on horseback, a trip that offered a different view of the trail, in half the time. A few clouds had passed over, but we were relieved to have had no serious weather. My raincoat was in my car, of course.
Back at the campground and reunited with my pack, I brushed my teeth before we headed for the hamburger joint in Cove, and then back to Wallowa County. But on the road down from Moss Springs we were held up by a collision between a packer and a water truck headed up to the construction site. We felt lucky, having just missed hitting that truck ourselves.
What a surprise to see, on the front page the next day, the terrible fire that started after we left. Moss Springs trailhead was shut down.
So we were lucky twice. And the next time, you can be sure I'll take my toothbrush.