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Getting away from it all in Oregon wilds

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. (Or fly yourself in if you have a license and similarly small plane; Minam’s is not a commercial-grade runway.) 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 running through the wilderness are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, including 39 of the Minam River’s 51 miles.

Rather 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 entree. (It was served atop gnocchi.) 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.

Ninety-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 eight-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.

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.

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 on 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.

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