The friendly pack of dogs gathered around the edge of Minam River Lodge’s pole barn has no idea what to make of square dancing, or of the 20 or so people doing it.
The dogs, pets of lodge staff and guests, stuck close to their humans until the do-si-doing commenced. Now, they watch bemusedly.
Soaking in the scene from a string hammock close enough to see sweat glistening on the temples of several dancers but far enough away to be safe from flying elbows, I do the same.
Minam River Lodge is a rare piece of private property within Oregon’s 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, which itself is located within the 2.3 million-acre Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
It was founded as a hunting camp in 1950, and even today, the only ways to get here are to hike, ride a horse or have local rancher Joe Spence fly you there in his three-seat Cessna 206. Once at the lodge, which is open from late May into October, there is no cellphone reception, internet or television; power in the cabins and main lodge comes from an array of solar panels near its organic greenhouse and pigpen.
Eagle Cap Wilderness has 535 miles of trails and 17 peaks taller than 9,000 feet. Much of the Wallowa Mountains, called “the Alps of Oregon” and pronounced WAH-lau-waa, are in the Eagle Cap. Four rivers that run through the wilderness are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, including 39 of the Minam River’s 51 miles.
Luxury surrounded by wildernessRather than heading directly to the barn after a family-style dinner with about 30 other lodge guests, my boyfriend, Derek, and I opted for a walk through some of the property’s 126 acres. We took a trail that starts near the firepit over which chef Carl Krause cooked the lamb that was part of the evening’s entrée. The path heads through Douglas and grand firs, ponderosa pines and Engelmann spruce, then passes glamping wall tents that have electricity as well as queen-size beds and down comforters inside, and a perfect-for-two, wood-heated hot tub before descending to grassy flats and the Minam River.
We crossed the flats, which include the 2,000-foot-long grass runway that private pilots use, and walk to the river, where a tepee and bench hide in trees along the banks. There was no one else around. We sat, enjoying the feeling of remoteness and talking about how nice it was that it comes with a cabin that has a rain shower, crisp linens on a soft bed, a wood-burning stove and a front porch with rocking chairs. Only when the mosquitoes came out did we leave the river and head to the barn.
We could hear the catchy old-timey tunes of visiting musicians Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms well before we got there.
Square dancing and musicians-in-residence, along with the organic garden and greenhouse, hot tub, sauna, log cabins named after local flora, massages, badminton net, morning yoga classes on the deck, microbrews on tap, gourmet meals, winemaker dinners and specialty cocktail weekends are new at Minam River Lodge. After a six-year rebuild, it reopened in May 2017.
Rustic hunting lodge transformedFrom its founding in 1950 until its sale in 2011, the lodge catered to hunters, who didn’t want or need amenities beyond a simple place to stay in this corner of the Wallowas, which is known for trophy-size elk and bighorn sheep. The hunting here was so good that hunters nicknamed the lodge “Mert’s Meat Locker,” after Mert Loree, who built and ran it with his wife, Erma.
Outside of hunting season, guests were often families looking for a rustic retreat. This is how current owner Barnes Ellis first came here – the Ellises had a family reunion at the lodge in the mid-1990s. Ellis’ second time here was after he bought it in 2011 at auction for $650,000. The weekend I’m at the lodge features another Ellis family reunion, this one celebrating the completion of the renovation.
One morning, over a breakfast of German pancakes topped with a berry reduction and the best bacon I’ve ever had – the kitchen’s range is from the original lodge, but part of the upgrade included building a smokehouse – Ellis told me: “I just remembered how special it was. I’m glad I didn’t come before the auction. I’m sure I would have talked myself out of it.”
Included in the renovation, which cost more than $3 million, was $15,000 to blast off the tops of several tall tamarack and fir trees that had grown so tall they were a hazard for pilots. But Ellis couldn’t take a chain saw to them; they were just outside the boundaries of his property and in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, where the use of mechanization is prohibited and which is managed so as to appear untouched by humans.
A local Forest Service supervisor eventually approved the use of explosives to mitigate the danger the trees posed to pilots landing and taking off. Placing the explosives at different levels in the offending trees, the idea was that the tops would be blasted off and also make their shortened appearance look like the result of a wind event rather than the work of people.
Logs felled on the property by traditional means – saws of various types – along with logs salvaged from the original lodge and cabins were used to build the new cabins. In our cabin, Morel, the log ceiling beams were scratched, scarred and loaded with patina. (They glow gold.)
Rest, recreation at the lodgeNinety-nine percent of guests hike in from the Moss Springs Trailhead, which, at 8½ miles away, is the closest trailhead. But Derek and I, along with our friends, Tara and Chase, started at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. This allowed us to see dozens of high alpine lakes and some of the range’s tallest peaks but was substantially longer in time and distance than the trek from Moss Springs. Including an 8-mile detour to Ice Lake and the 9,826-foot summit of the Matterhorn, the second tallest mountain in the Wallowas, our route to the lodge was 60 miles. We took five days to do it, carrying all of our supplies and camping along the way.
It is understandable then that our three days at the lodge were spent mostly relaxing. The four of us played horseshoes every night before dinner, and Derek and I played a couple of games of badminton. We went on mellow hikes and napped and read on the banks of the Minam River. When we got hot, we swam in the river, which is cold enough that the lodge uses it to keep its extra kegs of beer chilled, but not so cold that my lips ever turned blue. We rocked in the chairs on our cabin’s front porch and watched small planes come and go. (Flying in for breakfast seems to be a thing.) And we drank and ate.
We couldn’t do the latter immediately upon arrival – the kitchen is closed between lunch and dinner – but we could do the former. Derek, Chase and Tara got beer; I ordered a whiskey cocktail. Three of the beers on tap come from Terminal Gravity Brewery in Enterprise, Oregon, the town closest to the trailhead where we started our hike. There is an afternoon snack available, ponderosa sugar cookies, which chef Krause, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, makes with extract from ponderosa bark that he harvests on the property.
When it was time to eat a real meal, it’s served family style. Over one dinner – rib eye, grilled squash on a bed of ricotta, green beans from the lodge’s garden and a salad topped with edible flowers, housemade butter and loaves of sourdough bread made from the lodge’s own starter – Derek and I sit next to a couple that lives in nearby La Grande, Oregon. As a kid, the husband stayed at Mert’s Meat Locker; the wife grew up riding horses on the trails around the lodge. They’re at the new Minam courtesy of their kids, who treated them to a long weekend here as a 25th wedding anniversary gift.
We also met a French expat couple who read about the lodge’s reopening in an upscale travel magazine and were intrigued by its isolation, a Google executive and a couple who divide their time between Portland and Joseph, Oregon, and have been following the lodge’s renovation with almost annual visits. (Between 2011 and 2017 cabins were available on a limited basis.)
When Derek and I got to the barn the night of the square dancing, the La Grande couple were already out there with Chase and Tara, much of the Ellis family and a couple of the lodge’s seven staff members.
Had the dancing been our first night at the lodge, I don’t think I could have done it. Both because we missed caller Ava Honey’s initial instructions and because my body was tired from five days of backpacking through a rugged mountain range. But after a couple of nights in a real bed, a massage, hearty food and lazy hours along the river, I was fully recovered.
Encouraged by the smiles of everyone’s faces and the simplicity of Honey’s instructions, Derek and I left the safety of the hammock and joined in at the start of the next song.