Happy Trails To Me

First let me say… Hula Betty’s idea of roughing it is a room at the Four Seasons. Her idea of a hike to the top, is riding the escalator at Nordstrom and a cook out involves a waiter and sommelier. But sometimes it’s good to be treated like a king.

Evidently, I recently hit a birthday milestone. For this momentous event Hula Betty pulled out all the stops. No she didn’t have a dirt road named after me… better. No she didn’t have congress declare it a national holiday… better. It didn’t involve a tattoo shop or the words “long travel suspension”. Hula Betty took me on a road trip down memory lane and beyond.

Growing up in Portland, I would grab my tent, sleeping bag, fly rod, a sack of beef jerky and point my Baja Bug toward central Oregon. You can see I have a long history of packing up and taking off for parts unknown in search of adventure. Hula Betty took this theme and spiced it up a bit with her own style…

The sun was shining in a bright blue sky when we left Portland. Instead of the rugged Blue Bunny we’re cruising down I5 in Hula Betty’s rig, Toyota’s much more luxurious big brother. It’s the middle of the week and rush hour traffic is now pulling into their parking spots leaving four lanes of I5 commuter free. Music up load and the sunroof open we’re sailing (we’ll leave it at sailing so as not to incriminate ourselves here) down through Salem before turning east toward the Cascades of central Oregon.

Cruising alongside the Santiam river, Hula Betty endures my recital of each memory that is triggered by a bend in the river, a tree filled with fishing hooks or my favorite rest stop… Ok she liked the rest stop story since we were a couple of Starbucks into the morning by now. Passing Gates, Detroit, and Lost Lake we climb toward the mountain pass. Cresting the pass, dense Cedar and Douglas Firs give way to Ponderosa Pine forests that provide peekaboo views of jagged peaks and blue sky. The charred remains from the B&B forest fire a decade earlier still litter the mountain sides. The burn scars remind me how fragile the area is. But Mother Nature is resilient and beneath charred matchsticks is a new carpet of green with young saplings reaching up to the sun that now reaches down to them through the once dense canopy.

Just past the burn, after pulling off highway 20, we slow down to a crawl as we wind our way down to Suttle Lake. I’d seen the lake from the highway and driven by hundreds of times but never before stopped. As a youth, my budget could squeeze out enough for gas, camp site fees and a few flies with nothing left for luxuries like a cabin or even a hot meal. Back then Suttle Lake and its resort were beyond my reach.

Hula Betty had made all the arrangements and she spared no expense for me (or at least she said it was for me). A deluxe suite at the with it’s own fireplace, big feather bed requiring a step stool to climb up into, plush terrycloth robes hanging in the closet, complementary happy hour on the deck overlooking the lake and a sunset painted orange and pink with wide brush strokes… this is luxury I can get behind. The lodge will be base camp for the next few days while we relax and explore the area.

Sisters, OR. is a small artist community nestled between Suttle Lake and Bend, OR. When I say small community… traffic that was zooming down the highway is forced through this speed bump of a town creating a parade of campers, trailers and car-top-carries down main street that grinds to a halt every time some old cowboy decides to cross the street. I’m pretty sure kids cross back and forth just to see how far they can back up traffic… anything to keep the kids off drugs. As you would expert from an artsy commune, Sisters is filled with shops, peddling everything from artisan quilts to country antiques and of course the obligatory, newly expanded two location (across the street so they can watch traffic stop) log furniture store.

We wander the streets, explore the shops, stop traffic a time or two and pass the day chatting with shop owners and other visitors who apparently don’t have real jobs either or they are not willing to let their jobs get in the way of exploring the road less traveled. And in this little alpine ashram is Jen’s Garden. Jen’s Garden is a five course, culinary adventure that takes us from appraisers, fish and meat course to salad followed by a decadent dessert choice. The meal is designed so that you can eat through it and still come out the other side without loosing conscious. To help take the sting out of selecting the right bottle of wine to match this culinary diversity Jen’s Garden offers a five glass pairing of different wines selected to complement each of their courses.

I love dinners that last for hours… you get to focus on the person across the table and have a conversation that is more than a couple of grunts in between mouthfuls. We eat our way through the courses laughing and talking about the past, present and future before finally making the 20 minute drive back to the lodge, counting a dozen or so deer we catch staring into our headlights.

Fly fishing is a passion I’ve flamed since before I could drive. On our Arctic adventure I managed to cast a line to chrome bright salmon as well as arctic char. Look in the back of my rig and you will usually find a small duffle bag of fishing gear and a fly rod. The Metolius River with it’s skittish Rainbows, Dolly Vardens and crystal water has long been my spring creek of choice and remains a favorite destination.

Only 15 minutes past Suttle Lake, Camp Sherman, which sits at the head waters of the Metolius remains frozen in time with few exceptions. The only store here sits just past a few vacation cabins and marks the start of several state run camp grounds that dot the next several miles of river front. The antique gas pumps outside no longer deliver fuel but this little general store is still part grocery market, part post office and message board and part fly shop. Although these days the store’s wine selection is starting to bleed into the back where they keep the hand tied green drakes and #2 grizzly hackles, stepping inside, always transports me to the fabled shores of Lake Woebegone.

The upper Metolius is barbless hook only fly fishing with a well managed, healthy population of wild fish including a run of Kokanee that make their way up from Lake Billy Chinook. The head waters of the Metolius gush out from a crack in the mountain with amazing consistency, creating one of Oregon’s premiere spring fed fisheries. Ten miles or so below the head waters, as the river picks up volume and speed is the Wizard Falls hatchery.

Like pickers to a yard sale, I am drawn to fish hatcheries. It dates back to the first one my dad took us to on some long forgotten road trip to the Sierras or was it upstate New York. I still grin when I see a nickle gumball machine filled with Purina fish pellets and watch the water erupt as you toss a handful to the frantic schools of fingerlings. Even Hula Betty is cracking a smile at my boyish enthusiasm, watching the brood stock sip at the surface as I drop one pellet at a time from the observation deck to the giants circling below. And while not as enthusiastic as me, Hula Betty is clearly struck by the beauty of Wizard Falls… even if the falls are more swirling shades of blue and white foam than actual falls.

Allingham bridge on the upper Metolius has always been one of my favorite fishing holes. Quiet during the week, on weekends this little bit of water is fished hard and the native rainbows that live here are well schooled in the ways of detecting the differences between artificial art and real life. The run below the bridge is cold (40.7 degrees to be exact), clear, calm and about four feet at its deepest. The surface of the run, while glass like, is covered with transitioning currents that go in several directions at once making a drag free drift all but impossible. A smarter man would surely pass this run by for easier pickings, except that with the rhythmic consistency of a waltz, fish are quietly sipping the surface exposing their nose and flashing white as their mouth opens to draw in a caddis fly riding on the surface tension.

Walking into the water with only a pair of hiking shorts, I am stopped dead in my tracks as every blood vessel below my knees constricts at once in a painful reaction to the icy water. Slapping my thigh a couple of times to encourage the blood to flow and mask the agony I am experiencing at the thought of going in further, I muster the courage to inch my way into the current until the water is lapping at my belt. The clear water gives me a magnified view of the blue color my toes are taking on as I stand there tying a number 18, deer hair caddis to the end of a 7x tippet. Scanning the current, I begin to zero in on the steady rise of a fish focused on the surface. Cast after cast I lay the artificial a foot or so ahead of the feeding query, only to have the current drag it away.

This game of cat and mouse (not sure if I’m the cat or the mouse) goes on for several hours. I move up stream a foot or two and then back down in an effort to find an angle at which I can float my line without causing the fly to wake across the surface like a jet ski. Inevitably I scare down the trout, only to see another take its place a yard or two away.

The fly landed softly and floated six inches before disappearing into the dimple left behind in the surface as a trout mistakes my presentation for the real thing. Lifting the rod high, I set the hook and realize I’ve lost all feeling below the waist as I try to maintain a vertical stance, while working the slack in order to get the fish on the reel. Every fly fisherman will tell you the sweetest sound in the world is the click of the drag as a fish pulls out line in an attempt to put distance between the two of you. Even a small fish on a light line can make a reel sing a cappella more sweetly than any church choir.

A chorus or two of the reel later I am gently removing the barbless hook from the corner jaw of a bright 12 inch native. Releasing him back into the water I watch him dart quickly to freedom in the current below. Two more times I play out this epic battle before heading back to the resort to put on dry cloths and meet up with my dinner date who by now is relaxing with a glass of wine on the lodge’s deck.

While Camp Sherman remains mostly unchanged from my youth, the rustic little Kokanee Cafe and its renowned chef are newish, the cafe has only been there 20 years and change comes slowly to my memory. Inspired by their selections and our culinary adventure the night before, we decide to chart our own course through their menu. Chatting with our server Bell, we explain that we will be ordering several different selections over the next few hours, sharing some and individually indulging in others. Bell seemed to light up at the idea, making it a point to compliment us on our “European style” of dining and then shares stories of her and her husband’s local dining adventures with us. Throughout our evening the tables around us fill, empty and fill again. One group of 70 something women, provide entertainment as we eavesdrop on their shouting (note to self, when I get old carry spare hearing aid batteries). They discuss their adventures in town, grandkids and the men in their lives.

Hula Betty and I continue to work our way across the pages of the menu as the candles burn down. We argue the merits of a mountain cabin verses a beach cottage trying to settle the age old debate between lake, river and beach front property. Our conversations continue and the wine flows until close to closing when we finally thank Bell for helping make this night special and come to grips with the cost of ordering this way. Half a bottle of wine in hand (and a couple of empties left behind) we return to base camp and a waiting fire.

After three nights of rustic luxury, the next morning we leave central Oregon behind with its lodge, plush bath robes, artist community, fine dinning, fly fishing and spectacular sunsets. Hula Betty has taken me on adventure that started down memory lane and then explored a whole new set of roads in central Oregon. If it is true that girlfriends try harder… Hula Betty definitely attained girlfriend status with this birthday surprise.

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