White Salmon Weekend In Washington

Hood River is a place you might have heard of if you’ve traveled in Oregon. It’s famous for windsurfing, kiteboarding, and the concerts at the Gorge Amphitheater. It’s about half way between Washington’s Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. But “The Forgotten Mountain” – Mount Adams – is just to the north of the river. The area between the Columbia River and the mountain is a recreation lover’s paradise. There’s white water rafting, camping, fishing, mountain biking and, of course, snowshoeing.

My base camp for the weekend is Carol and Jerry Stockwell’s Bed and Breakfast. Called Husum Highlands, this three story home sits above the little crossroads town of Husum. The house offers spectacular views of Mount Hood, home made waffles, and an opinion or two about local land use. Full up, their place holds 11 overnight guests, though they squeeze in a lot more people for the day when they’re hosting a wedding. The Stockwells take advantage of the big outdoors that surrounds them – they’re enjoy cross country skiing – so they’ll be able to give you great advice about where to get out on the snow in their neighborhood.

I arrive too late day to run the White Salmon River, but Mark Zoller, the owner of Zoller’s Outdoor Adventures has plenty of time to tell me what I’ve missed. As his guides stow the gear, Mark shows me pictures of happy rafters bathed in spray, paddles in the air, faces lit up with excitement. “Look at what you’ve missed!” he says, and I’m kicking myself for not making it out of Seattle just half an hour earlier. Zoller’s takes all age groups rafting – for the day or for longer trips – and they take care of everything – food, gear, camp showers, everything. From his shop at BZ Corner, it’s a two or three hour trip depending on how the water runs. And Zoller’s runs year round, meaning you can raft one day and snowshoe the next. Not to worry, they’ve got the gear to keep you warm, though no one promises you’ll stay dry. Psyched to come back for whitewater, I head up the B&B to watch the sunset change the light on Mount Hood.

The town of Trout Like is about half an hour from Husum Highlands. It’s a classic back country town with a general store, a diner, a tiny post office. Since August, 2006, Trout Lake has also been home to Bill Smith’s Cascade Mountain Ropes. Bill runs high ropes courses, guides mountaineering expeditions, works with another local guy to offer dog sledding, participates in mountain rescue, rents and sells gear… When I arrive at his store, Bill is tying a tarp down over a couple of snowmobiles. We need the snowmobile to get to Goose Lake, six miles away from where the plow stops and the National Forest’s network of trails begins. In the summer, the roads are open, hikers and campers use them for access to the forest, but once the snows come, the area turns to winter use.

I have opinions about snowmobiles and wilderness that I’m forced to rethink almost immediately. First of all, though it’s loud and smelly, the snowmobile is really fun. And then there’s Bill’s philosophy about the machines. “They provide access. It’s all about appropriate use. We need them for backcountry rescue – they really shorten the amount of time it takes us to return lost hikers home. But also, they provide access to people who wouldn’t otherwise get to some of these places. We can bring people up on Mount Adams for the day and shorten the approach to a lot of beautiful places out here.”

At our destination, the machine silenced, I find it hard to argue with Bill’s logic. It’s six miles from where we’ve parked the car. Goose Lake is frozen and it’s that perfect glacier blue. Bleached tree snags punch through the surface of the ice. It’s breathtaking. We’re the only ones out there save a bald eagle who’s riding a current over the trees.

We shuffle our way around the perimeter of the lake. A bald eagle rides a current above the treetops. The Bill Smith experience kicks in. Bill’s a storyteller and dozens of people live underneath his Gore-Tex and wool and polypropylene. You might get to hear about how his grandfather came to the US on the back of a giant catfish. You might get to hear about the Bedouin of the Sinai who Bill met while serving there in the US military. You might hear about homesteading in Alaska or the public school kids Bill worked with last week. If you’re lucky, you might get to hear Bill play the banjo and sing.

All this entertainment in no way compromises the critical issues of safety and good outdoorsmanship. Bill’s deep experience in the outdoors travels with you every step of the way and you are absolutely confident that you are in good hands. Coupled with his commitment to safety is an equally strong commitment to making sure his guests have a good time. A successful day in the outdoors isn’t about the summit, it’s not about endurance or competition. This isn’t to say he avoids a challenge, after all, this is a guy who’s summitted McKinley. But either he’s a hugely convincing actor or his enthusiasm for the Alpine is just as great on a short stroll around a frozen lake. “It’s not the summit, it’s the climb,” he says, “and who’s to say that 10 thousand feet of elevation isn’t just as good as 14?”

Over Jerry’s signature French toast the next morning I chat with the Stockwell’s about winter sports in the area. There’s a Nordic ski club that comes up out of Portland and some snowmobilers that come in to run around in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but mostly, it’s quiet – everyone is down around Mount Hood. Along this stretch of the White Salmon, north from Hood River to the edge of the forest, there are miles of beautiful trails, cute places to stay, good food… it’s a great destination year round for independent outdoors travelers, but in the winter, it’s a gem.

Heading to the White Salmon area? Here are some useful links:

Husum Highlands: http://www.husumhighlands.com/

Zoller’s Outdoor Odyssyes: http://zooraft.com/

Cascade and Mountain Ropes: http://www.cascademountainropes.com/

Gifford Pinchot National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/

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Pam Mandel

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