A man who dreamed of giving new life to an isolated little whistle stop in Wallowa County died recently, but not before his contribution to Northeast Oregon tourism was recognized.
award winner: Chuck Fleser, pictured here with his long-time friend and companion Dawn Smith, received the Gene Leo Memorial Award at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism held in Portland in April. Fleser, who was recognized for his work organizing fishing excursions on the Wallowa River, died May 22 of cancer. - Submitted photo
Chuck Fleser, a Wallowa County native whose family ties to Minam at the confluence of the Minam and Wallowa Rivers stretch back to the early 1900s, died of cancer May 22. He was 56.
But in April, before a crowd of 500 people at the Governors Conference on Tourism in Portland, Fleser received the Gene Leo Memorial Award for his work in furthering tourism.
The Oregon Tourism Commission selected Fleser for the honor because the fish excursions he organized in partnership with the Wallowa-Union Railroad drew hundreds of visitors to the Wallowa and Minam River scenic waterways.
“This award is a great honor in the tourism industry. Mr. Fleser is very well thought of amongst his peers,” said Linda Carlson of the Tourism Commission, which is also known also known as Travel Oregon.
Fleser was born in Wallowa County but raised in Medford. He graduated from Medford High School in 1970.
Always a lover of the outdoors, Fleser kept and cultivated his ties to Wallowa County, especially Minam. He returned there often to enjoy hunting and fishing.
In 2004, following a 20-year stint as a construction supply salesman in Medford, he took a seasonal job as a ranger aide with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, working as a caretaker at Minam State Park. He took up full-time residence in Minam, moving into a house he had bought from an aunt in the 1970s.
He and Gary Gettleman of Santa Monica, Calif., purchased the Minam Motel, which sits beside the Wallowa River near Oregon Highway 82. The motel had not seen much activity in recent years.
In hopes of improving area commercial activity, Fleser set about improving the property. He also teamed with the railroad to create an opportunity for anglers to ride the excursion train to prime fishing holes along the Wallowa.
In a February 2005 interview with The Observer, Fleser expressed high hopes for the project.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for day use of the wild and scenic corridor,” he said “It’s there for anybody, young or old, male or female, even handicapped people. It’s an opportunity to fish with elbow room, and see a place that’s really beautiful.”
The first of the “fish trains” organized by Fleser rolled down the river in early 2005. The trips became regular features of the local steelhead seasons.
Janet Dodson, executive director of Union County Tourism, said Fleser deserves credit for calling attention to the Wallowa-Union Railroad, the publically-owned line that runs regular excursions through the Grande Ronde River canyon.
“The fish train has brought a lot of additional attention to the railroad,” Dodson said. “It’s a unique fishing opportunity, and the story has been picked up by newspapers and magazines. It’s helped create interest in the excursions.”
The Gene Leo Memorial Award was established in 1994 to honor the late Gene Leo, known for his tourism contributions as director of the Oregon Zoo, Portland Rose Festival and the Portland Oregon Visitors Association (now Travel Portland).
Leo was an enthusiastic man who revered Oregon’s natural beauty, loved her people and enjoyed the outdoors with gusto.
The award recognizes an outstanding contribution for a tourism-related activity or attraction focused on Oregon’s natural beauty or outdoor recreation.