Grande Times on the Ronde: Part 2



Rob-Lyon-100x100Another Northwest canyon, another trip, another tale. Rob Lyon continues his search for wildness, steelhead and adventure on the Grande Ronde River. Read Part 1 of his story here.


©Steve Thomsen


Morgan had chosen well. It was a fine location for a base camp and we hung on the flat for several days.

Of the many things that makes a river trip a success, a good camp is essential. These aren’t day trips with tunnel focus on sport, but rather extended living experiences out of which those activities organically emerge. Camp is not only where you park your boat, but the spot where you converge with your buddies, or with strangers that become buddies—a neutral site where inhibitions break down over time and essential personalities appear. Oftentimes, these are friends we haven’t seen for a while, and camp is where we catch up.

Camp is not only where you park your boat, but the spot where you converge with your buddies, or with strangers that become buddies—a neutral site where inhibitions break down over time and essential personalities appear.

It is also where we eat and sleep and nourish ourselves, and the longer we’re out, the more important that regeneration is. When I spent 102 days in the field some years back it was the sustaining effect of time in camp that renewed me spiritually and physically. In fact, I look back now and see the journey more as a series of memorable camp dots, connected by kayak, than the other way around. Home away from home is the operative concept for me, whatever small iconic bits and routines (a beer in the evening, coffee in the morning) that I can take along with me and become a kind of small shrine to a familiar comfort.

There was excellent fly water in the vicinity of this camp, and the area looked as if birds would be camped there with us. We caught trout, but nothing like the action upriver. No one touched a steelie, and the only game birds we flushed were a single small covey that Steve and Robyn kicked up on the ridgeline. The camp did have a mascot—a single, big ruffed grouse that played hide and seek with us for several days. Dawn saw it first and shouted out, “Quail!” I teased her mercilessly about that.

Our evening drill was leisurely. Those of us who were back in camp would snag a beer and toss discs at stuff around the flat: tents, trees and basalt monoliths, mostly—our on-the-fly/in-the-field version of disc golf. When it was too dark to see what we were doing we convened outside the wall tent around a bright ponderosa fire. Morgan worked his magic by lantern light and surprised us each night with a spread of hors d’oeuvres in the tent and a delicious meal.

©Steve Thomsen

I was curious about Morgan’s story, as I’m always curious about how people come to find themselves working the river. For Morgan, it seems a linear progression from civil to wild. Eschewing his family tradition of a law career in the East, he traveled west to Boulder and graduated from UC, then migrated to the river canyons of Idaho and the backcounty of the Pacific Northwest. When he finally joined up with Paul and Penny at Winding Waters River Expeditions, they had their bases covered from the great Idaho streams—the Salmon and Snake—to the Grande Ronde and the Wallowa. If I had to classify river rats by motivation, I’d say there were three types. Those who chose the gig for the adventure, those who are there for the culture, and those who are simply smitten by their workplace. For most, it’s a summer job for a season or two, but for a select few, it becomes a life-long profession. I had a strong sense that Morgan was of the later camp, first and foremost, but that he was also imbued with a need to steward these wild places in a professional manner. It was good to have him on board.

Around the fire, Hal  leaned into his extraordinary stories, telling us about a charging bull moose he shot, which led to Gregg swimming into the middle of a lake in winter in Newfoundland to retrieve it (so outré in fact, it made the Field & Stream Close Calls page). At one point, he flopped onto this back beside the fire doing vigorous sit-ups and other calisthenics, showing us how to stay in shape when we’re pushing 80. Robyn slipped back and forth between the fire and the open flat, shooting star-scapes and camp scenes. Dawn, fresh off a galley gig on a fishing boat in Alaska, pulled out her box of American Spirit and rolled up a ciggie. She loves chatting up anything from politics to . . . pretty much anything, and she laughs a lot. (It’s GREAT to have a woman along on these trips.) Joe was rolling up something as well, and I had along my favorite old church warden pipe and fired it up, content mostly to listen until I had to speak up in self-defense during Hal’s account of me racing naked through the streets of Crested Butte Colorado on New Year’s Day (maybe he was right, now that I think about it). And Steve was performing what seemed to be a pointless repair of his fly rod. I should have known better considering that the guy is an engineering prodigy. He broke out the two-part epoxy, cut thin strips off a ballpoint pen to splint the broken tip of his switch rod, and wrapped it with fly line backing. The action felt a titch wonky, but I had to admit it would work well enough until a new tip came down the pike.

We had some fine sipping whiskies along, of course, and those made the rounds. Gregg abstains from alcohol and caffeine, but had a fine, southern sardonic wit that kept us in stitches. The retired Marine Colonel was also an ex Golden Gloves champ, and he looked as if he could step right back into that ring. He was telling us one night how dead lifts were key to core strength.

“Dead lifts will revolutionize your life, Uncle Bob!” he told me. I could imagine him regaling the troops. I was biting, knowing I could use some more tone in the legs. Three months later, after taking his advice and giving dead lifts a go, I can see that he was right.

It was our first night in the new camp, and I thought I might check out where Morgan had stashed the portable toilet.

“Hey Morgan,” I said, “Where’d you put the groover?”

It was always a bit of a mystery finding the thing in each new camp. Morgan would secrete it well away from the kitchen and double mark it, like a treasure hunt. Meaning that first you’d find the ammo can with the relevant accoutrement, then nearby—somewhere—you’d find the unit itself (or not, and have to go get someone to show you, which could be problematic).

“Down the trail along the bank,” he told me. “Take the left fork and you’ll find the can. Then swing around through the path in the trees there and you’ll see it.”

There were scattered wishes of good luck voiced at this. I turned night into day with my new Petzl Vario headlamp and started off. I was in luck this time and found it straight away.

©Steve Thomsen

Every article like this has the obligatory cooking hyperbole. Cliché as hell and I hesitate to go there, but I must. The cook scene Morgan put down was inspired. One meal in particular comes to mind, a kind of chili verde con carné with a corn bread topping. It turned out like a golden volcano, a spicy soufflé-like unit that filled the Dutch oven. Morgan spooned it steaming into our bowls. Man, that was some serious comfort food. I could have face planted into it if it wasn’t so hot. Of course, as a journalist I never know how candidly an outfitter is repping his operation when we work together, but for what it’s worth, it felt authentic with these guys.

Breakfasts were done Santa-like, and a bountiful spread was laid out long before my eyes allowed the light of day. By contrast, when we’re responsible for our food on a trip like this, every one brings their own breakfast and lunch. We also try and shop in the canyon for protein entrees. Other than the practical upside of traveling lighter, it somehow knits together the experience for us, providing that good old chop wood/carry water kind of causal context to the experience. But Morgan’s Moveable Feast was much enjoyed, and I know we all appreciated the fact that Paul and Morgan intentionally source food locally as much as possible.

©Robyn Minkler

I don’t often break down tackle decisions in detail, but I was fishing a sweet new rod this trip, and it was so me to the teeth that it had me ranting about the upside of fishing a short, light steelhead rod. Perhaps the pinnacle of a kinesthetic style of fly fishing, wading steadily downriver and waving a wand through the air like a white-bearded river wizard. I stay on the move when I fish like, this, and the momentum creates a dynamic that is truly like a dance. The practical result provides a continuum of connection with currents and the river bottom that increases balance and quickens my awareness of being in the water (and after nearly drowning wading a year ago, increased awareness is a good thing to have).

But everyone fishes two-handed rods these days. 80% of fly fishermen on the Deschutes fish a spey. Efficiency, and elegance of casting mechanics aside, it looks more like dancing with a thick legged farm girl, to me, than a slip of a sylph.

The irony of this new rod that got me talking trash, though,is the huge nine foot tube it travels in! Strapped to the side of the cargo rack, the single-piece 8.5-foot Echo Prime, designed by Tim Rajeff, looks like a jousting lance on its way to a Society of Creative Anachronism convention. With ferrule technology being what is today you don’t see many one-piece rods, and when people see this tube they’re thinking I’m packing an 18’ spey—and that I must be in serious need of compensation.

©Robyn Minkler

The day before we packed up to float to the takeout, I spotted Gregg finishing up lunch and invited him to come hunting with me. We grabbed a pair of radios and hiked off across the flat and up onto the canyon slopes, looking to chase up a bird or two, but came back with zip.

There are chukar in residence in the canyon; Steve did flush the one covey, and I suspect there are greater numbers lower down the canyon, where there are less trees and more typical open, rocky chukar habitat. But it is still inexplicable to me that I saw and heard nothing by way of chukar or quail in nearly a week of river travel. We did see a fair amount of bear scat in the canyon, and I suppose bears and chukar would be odd bedfellows in terms of shared habitat. I was left feeling a little flat as a result of a completely blank bird slate. It does not take much to satisfy me, really, I enjoy experience in the round, as a rule, but I guess I got a little ahead of myself here.

©Robyn Minkler

As we approached the final camp our last night in the canyon I was rowing Steve’s new NRS cat, pushing us forward through some froggy bits of water. My radio came to life, Hal asking me if it was turkey season.


“Too bad, we’ve got some right here.”

“You and Gregg, you mean?”

He laughed. “No, another bunch, look like Merriam’s, on the right bank.”

Hal was a certified turkey calling champ back in New Hampshire and would have loved nothing better than to get after Big Bird. Not today.

Joining us in camp our last night was Paul and some of his crew, there to help break down and trailer up the equipment. Along with them was Jeff Yanke, Wallowa District Biologist. A great surprise and a bit like Spike Lee walking on stage to answer questions after a preview screening. We sat around the fire yakking well into the night, picking Jeff’s brain and sipping that whiskey.

Hal was especially interested in the plentiful mitigation funds that F&W had available to them from dam restoration projects. Politically active on his small island in Lake Winnipasaukee in New England, they have fishery needs that Hal could see being addressed in similar fashion. What I wanted to know more about was the trout we got into upstream.

“Those fish are residualized steelhead,” Jeff explained, and proceeded to tell us about the hatchery steelhead released near the Cottonwood Creek facility.

“Most of them follow their biogenetic programing and return to sea, while a less ambitious subset hang around in the river.”

A wild fishery it was not, but an exciting one nevertheless. They may be hatchery slackers, but they had some impressive genetic bona fides.

I asked Paul about the scope of their guiding ops. They were licensed guides on the Hells Canyon stretch of the Snake and did frequent trips there each season. Further south, and higher in the Grande Ronde watershed, were stretches of wilderness river canyon that Paul was excited about, suggesting we float it next time. It’s probably no accident that Morgan and Paul and his family live in Joseph, Oregon—stunningly situated at the foot of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and a stone’s throw from the Snake, Wallowa, Minam and Grande Ronde rivers. Perhaps one day we’d make that trip through the wilderness section that Paul and Morgan liked so much. In the meantime, Robyn had agreed to take Paul up on an offer to come along and photograph a Hells Canyon float.

I found my toothbrush and headed down to the river. I splashed the cool water of the Grande Ronde on my face, having drunk one too many whiskies. The wind was down and the moon just up over the canyon rim, reflecting off the water. I could hear a faint gurgle as the river bent around a big rock just out from the bank, and the occasional laughter from camp. That somehow summed it up—the ongoing ambiance of the river experience.

We woke early the next morning to pack up and head off to our various destinations and real-world destinies. Hal and Gregg would drive back to Seattle with Robyn to catch their flights back east. Dawn was headed to northern California for some botanical contract work, and Joe  was on his way to Texas, via Montana, to build a billionaire’s log house. Steve and I had decided to ease our transition from the river life to life-as-usual with a visit to a winery on Lake Chelan.

©Robyn Minkler

Late the next night, Steve and I were well into our cups. We’d spent the evening at the tasting bar at the Tsillan Winery, deep in conversation with Bob Jenkleson, the proprietor. Bob built the winery in replication of an authentic Tuscan Winery replete with Tuscan stone columns, a slate terrazo and a 35’ bell tower, and it’s a stunner. Moreover, Bob is a pioneer of upland hunting in the northwest. And chukar was his focus. Bob knew the Ronde like the back of his hand. He showed us pictures from a scrapbook and regaled us with stories of chukar hunting that had our jaws hanging on our chest.

When we got hungry, Bob led us outdoors through a fountained courtyard into the back door of Sorrentos Restaurant. Having tasted most of the signature varieties by that point in the evening, we set about sampling our favorites in greater depth over grilled steaks.

It was a fine night and somehow right in step with our week on the river: good food, good friends, elegant surroundings, and the morning would nicely attend to the only thing missing—birds. We drove a short distance down the lake to our digs in a log cabin on the flank of Chelan Canyon, at Kelly’s Resort, and slept like the dead.

We hooked up with Bob for brunch at the winery by nine, then he turned us loose on the myriad quail that pack the draws and sagebrush slopes above the vineyards. We had a redemptive afternoon of hunting, overlooking the deep blue water of Lake Chelan. When the clock in the bell tower rang twice ,we headed back to the rig, field dressed our birds and put them on ice in the cooler. We thanked Bob roundly and started back over the North Cascades for home.

©Steve Thomsen