Bronze Cowboys, Chocolate, And Wolves: Oregon's Little Switzerland

Oct 31, 2013

The air smells of pine and cold when I finally arrive in Joseph, a small town in the northeast corner of Oregon, at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in late spring. The peaks of the mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness west of downtown shine with snow even though it’s warm enough in the valley that I don’t need a jacket. I do a happy dance after I park at the motel. It’s taken me two airplane rides (via Washington and Idaho), one car rental, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive south from the airport in Lewiston, Idaho to get here from the western part of the state.

Joseph’s wide main street is lined with shops that I’m eager to explore and I notice there are larger-than-life sculptures on almost every block. But the real reason I’m so pump-your-fist-in-the-air happy is that I’ve been meaning to visit Eastern Oregon for almost a decade, ever since we moved to southern Oregon. Nature photographer Sean Bagshaw, who is based in Ashland, told me years ago he goes to Eastern Oregon as often as possible because the wildlife and nature photography is among the best in the world. In 2009 when I interviewed Washington-based Squire Broel, an artist whose sculptures were on display at the Foundry Winery’s tasting room in Walla Walla, he told me Joseph and Enterprise had among the best bronze foundries in the world.

Eastern Oregon is not an officially recognized geographic designation, which means I spend way too much time talking to way too many people trying to get a handle on how much of the state’s land is in Eastern Oregon (A half? Two thirds? No one really agrees) and how many people live out here (about 100,000 out of a total of some four million Oregonians, depending how you tally it and the towns you include). East of Bend, the remaining 60 percent of the state has no town over 16,000 people. The backbone of this area’s economy has historically been logging and agriculture, along with mining. But as the timber and other industries have steadily declined, the region has seen many of its more lucrative businesses go under. Some forward thinking city officials, private investors, and enterprising locals have worked to reinvent Joseph as an art mecca, putting money into the town’s infrastructure, including revitalizing Main Street, to attract tourism. Many residents and business owners have embraced these changes, eager to show off the region’s natural beauty, and brag about the outdoor recreation opportunities and abundant wildlife in order to attract more visitors and more tourism dollars. Others, especially those who have ties to Eastern Oregon that go back several generations, feel wary of the influx of new blood, new ideas, and new enterprises.

No matter where you start, Eastern Oregon is farther than you expect, one reason this area of the state has stayed so much more sparsely populated than other regions that boast stunning scenery and lots of outdoor recreation. While small cities like Klamath Falls and Bend have turned themselves into weekend tourist destinations for the Teva-wearing kayak-loving set, Eastern Oregon remains relatively unknown. One of the reasons it has taken me so long to come out this way is because it is so far (nearly eleven hours not including stops). Hoping to go last summer I enlisted the help of a friend who needed to clock training hours to upgrade his pilot’s license; but when we realized he would have to put in over 16 hours of flying to drop me off and pick me up (and pay by the hour to rent the plane), we abandoned that scheme. I decided to take a commercial airline—Alaska. I am on a shoestring budget doing on-the-ground reporting for a business magazine and I am pleased to find that the airplane tickets from Medford are under $300, and the rental car less than forty bucks a day.

The ostensible reason I am in Eastern Oregon is to learn about wolf habitat and shadow some environmentalists from Oregon Wild, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Portland, who have hit upon the innovative idea to encourage wolf tourism to help grow the eastern region’s economy. There are fewer than fifty confirmed wolves in the entire state of Oregon and their recovery has sparked both enterprising tourist ventures and the accompanying and inevitable controversy that erupts when top-of-the-food-chain predators roam in areas where some people make their living off ranching.

I am eager to see as much as I can. The wolves will be first thing on the morning’s agenda. Right now I have to eat. I stash my stuff at the Indian Lodge Motel, which has functional rooms and views of the Wallowa Mountains, and walk down Main Street. It’s like being in the Pearl District in Portland. One boutique, Beecrowbee, sells high-end soaps and perfumes, another boasts hand-made chocolates. Each is cuter than the next and there are sovme half a dozen eateries to choose from. It is only when I see a red pick up with rifles arrayed on the rack and a bumper sticker with an X through a picture of a snarling wolf exhorting me to SMOKE A PACK A DAY that I’m reminded that I’m not in western Oregon.

I meet the Oregon Wild folks at Mutiny Brewing Company, which serves a locally raised grass-finished beef blue cheese and avocado burger, as well as vegetarian and vegan rice bowls, gigantic Caesar salads, and locally brewed beers. I’m on a white wine kick lately but I’m told one of their best brews is The Sweet, a light beer flavored with coriander, chamomile, and lemon peel, one of many inventions of owner and head brewer Kari Gjerdingen. Originally from Bloomington, Indiana, Gjerdingen moved to the area to work for Terminal Gravity, a brewery in Enterprise. Once she realized that there was no brew pub in Joseph she decided to start her own. She’d like to have more tourists think of Joseph as a destination. “I’d like to see Eastern Oregon become more well-known,” she says. “When people think of Oregon they think of the West side. It’s beautiful here too. We have trees and mountains like they do but we have sunshine! It’s sunny today. It’s forecasted to be sunny all week.”

Breakfast with the Bison

Sure enough, the sun is brilliant the next morning when I breakfast with Rob Klavins, an affable environmentalist who works for Oregon Wild and is the founder of the Wolf Rendez Vous trip they offer every year to their members. We eat at chez Diana Hunter, co-owner of Barking Mad Farms, a bed and breakfast outside of Enterprise. She serves us asparagus omelets, fruit salad, and homemade raspberry muffins, as a herd of bison graze nearby.

“Look around,” Hunter says in a crisp English accent, sweeping one arm at the view. “It’s Africa’s Serengeti out here.” It’s the first time I’ve heard this and it isn’t until after I’ve been in Eastern Oregon for a few days that I realize it is something of a cliché out here. Hunter is the first of many to compare the breathtaking vistas, diversity of fauna, and unspoiled landscape of Eastern Oregon to the wild plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya.

A nurse from Seattle, Sharon Burke, helps herself to more fruit. Burke is here at a nature photography workshop. Her trip has been a success: she has seen and photographed two coyotes, a golden eagle, and at least twenty elk. She did not know they were out here until we started talking about it but, yes, Burke would love to see a wolf.

“Wolves bring us clients who want to go out and see wolves and be where they are,” Diana says, though she does not like to call it wolf tourism, because the concept is too controversial. Indeed, her business has come under fire from some vocal conservative local ranchers who were angry when Barking Mad Farms welcomed Wolf Rendez Vous visitors on their property. At one public forum a furious neighbor likened the Hunters’ desire to expand their B&B to accommodate more tourists to building a house of prostitution near an elementary school. Their request to expand was denied. But Hunter and her husband still believe that the more ecotourism that comes to Eastern Oregon, the better the economy.

“Tourism in general is a really important diversification of the economy,” agrees Sara Miller, Economic Development Specialist for the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District, who points to the reinvention of Joseph, Oregon as an art mecca with bronze statues lining the main street, cafés serving free-range chicken soup with rice, and handmade chocolates sold in locally made wooden boxes, as an example of a place that is successfully attracting visitors who spend their money locally. “Our tourism is natural-resource based. Whether it’s cultural tourism, ecotourism or agro-tourism, people are coming here because of the outdoor assets we have.”

Tracking Wolves

After breakfast Klavins, naturalist Walter Sykes who’s been a wildlife advocate and volunteer guide for decades, Sykes’ wolf-malamute hybrid, and I bump along in Sykes’s hatchback on a disused forest service road in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. We park in the middle of nowhere and begin trekking down the road. Not long after we’ve been walking Sykes shows me a paw print as big as a man’s fist. Made by a wolf! Rain from a few days back has made these prints especially easy to follow, so that’s what we do. Hours later we walk through an alpine meadow interspersed with stands of trees: lodge pole pine, Doug fir, tamarack, and pale aspen. These aspens, native to the ecosystem but threatened by wildlife, are enclosed in protective wire fences to prevent the cattle, elk, and deer that graze on this land from eating them to the ground. We scramble up a bluff where biscuit root, which has small yellow flowers, and purple camas are blooming. The smell of wild onion and garlic is in the air. We duck under a fallen pine, pass elk droppings and a messy pile of bear scat.

But it’s the wolf scat that interests us most. We come across a pile of scat on the disused road so fresh it has flies buzzing around it. Klavins takes a stick to poke it apart to show me how the clumped gray jumble is tapered at the ends and full of reddish elk hair and small bone fragments. I haven’t been this excited by excrement since we brought our first baby home from the hospital. I take a dozen photos.

Wolves used to range throughout North America. In the mid 18th century one explorer from Europe reported seeing “wolves without numbers,” as his party trudged west from the Hudson Bay. Daniel Boone described hearing the “howling wilderness,” a phrase you’ll also find in the Little House on the Prairie books. Wolves were such a problem in early America that government officials and local cattlemen would pay bounty hunters—or anyone else—to kill them. In the airport in Washington on the way back to southern Oregon I meet a 91-year-old land speculator, Grover Myers, who tells me he remembers that during the Great Depression you could get from $2 to $5 for killing a wolf. “A hamburger cost 10 cents and you were lucky to make $1 a day,” Myers recalls. “That was good money back then. They’d cut off the ears and some skin off the face and bring ‘em in,” he says, gesturing with his hand to show me how it was done.

Trapped, poisoned, and shot, the last wolf in Oregon was killed in 1947. By then these elusive carnivores were almost entirely extinct in North America. After years of lobbying, feasibility studies, and debate, wolves were finally reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in the mid 1990s as part of a nationwide campaign to return these predators to America’s ecosystem. But it wasn’t until just seven years ago, in 2006, that wolves began establishing themselves in Oregon, breaking off from packs in Idaho and traveling southwest.

In Yellowstone National Park wolves can be safely seen through spotting scopes from the comfort of a distant ridge, but in Eastern Oregon it is a bit trickier. The idea behind Oregon Wild’s Wolf Rendez Vous is not for Oregon wolves and Oregon humans to get too close to each other, but rather for anyone interested in wolves to spend a few days out in the wilderness to learn about their habitat, behavior, history, and conservation. Oregon wolves, though opportunistic hunters that will take down a calf when the opportunity arises, are actually pretty shy. So the chance of seeing a wolf in the wild in Oregon is small. Klavins and Sykes traipse through this wilderness all the time. In the hundreds of times they’ve been out tracking wolves together, they’ve only seen them once.

But when we stop at a clearing for a drink of water before heading back to the car a movement in the bushes to the left makes me turn my head. A grizzled black and gray wolf with surprisingly large ears and long thin legs is trotting towards us. Ears pricked forward, the wolf raises his head—an unmistakable look of surprise on his face. He stops short and stares at us for just an instant. Then he tucks his tail between his legs and slinks away. Back in the trees he starts yipping, barking, and howling—a racket of alarm. Klavins is so surprised that he fumbles his camera. I keep my presence of mind enough to bring my camera to my face without taking my eyes off the wolf. Click! I get a fuzzy photo of the juvenile wolf’s retreat, right before he disappears into a thick copse of trees.

Wallowa Lake, Arrowhead Chocolates, and More

After our wolf encounter we stop at Wallowa Lake to see the bald eagles that nest in a high birch near the water. Sykes can’t abide the kitsch: in the summer you can play mini golf on a tacky course, ride on paddleboats, or zone out at a videogame arcade. These noisy bright plastic attractions seem better suited to Seaside, Oregon than Eastern Oregon, but I can’t help thinking—though I won’t admit it to Sykes—that my kids would have a blast here.

The next morning I eat breakfast at the Red Horse Coffee Traders, a cozy, unpretentious coffee shop that serves everything from iced chai to free-range chicken soup. Sykes tells me later that the best breakfast in Eastern Oregon can be found at Red Rooster Café in Enterprise—he recommends the potato and egg scramble—but my pesto parmesan scone and perfect decaf latte, seem hard to beat.

Next stop: Arrowhead Chocolates. I can’t return home empty handed. Co-owner Erica Houck tells me she opened the shop with her father, the chocolatier, in 2010. She likes the slower pace of life in Joseph. The local community, she says, has been very supportive, so the business has managed to stay solvent in the winter when there are few tourists in town. The shop opens at 7:00 a.m. so farmers, ranchers, and workers can grab coffee on their way to work. As if on cue a rowdy group of local teens burst into the store. I choose single malt whisky, espresso, huckleberry, and hot chili truffles for my husband. Habanero-lime caramel with lime sea salt and alder-smoked caramel will be my traveling companions for the drive back to the airport in Lewiston.

There’s so much I haven’t done. The Wallowa Lake Tramway takes visitors up 3700 feet to the top of Mt. Howard ($28 for an all-day pass for adults) where there are hiking trails and a restaurant. I haven’t swum in Wallowa Lake, hiked the Eagle Cap Mountains, walked the trails in the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve (the biggest remaining short grass prairie in the United States with the largest concentration of raptors in Oregon), hiked into Hell’s Canyon, taken a boat trip down the Snake River, visited the gravesite of the elder Chief Joseph, or toured the bronze foundries or the four art galleries. Next time I hope to go on one of Winding Light Adventures wildlife viewing tours. For $200 a day, owner Joe Whittle takes nature lovers into the wilderness on a tailored adventure, mountaineering, tracking moose and wolves, or learning about outdoor photography (details at, under the tab “Guided Outdoor Adventures”).

I stop the car abruptly just outside of town. A straw-colored coyote is stalking prey in the grass prairie along the side of the road. A cow-calf pair watch impassively, chewing cud. But the lens on my camera’s not powerful enough to get a decent shot. Luckily the coyotes, moose, raptors, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, red fox, bobcats, bears, and wolves aren’t going anywhere. I’ll be back as soon as I can to wonder at more splendors of Wallowa.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D. is an Ashland-based writer and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her fifth book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line (Scribner 2013), is an investigation of how corporate greed and for-profit medicine harms new moms and their babies.