- Associated Press - Friday, July 9, 2010

EAGLE CAP WILDERNESS, Ore. (AP) — The picturesque, mountain-rimmed Minam River Lodge in this sprawling federal wilderness is a place to get unplugged. It takes an 8 1/2-mile hike or horseback ride to get here and — best of all — cell phones don’t work.

“That’s why we come,” said Jerry Atchley, 51, of Lebanon, who’s had vacations ruined by cell calls, usually from relatives. “When we find a place we can go to get away from the mainstream, we do it.”

The problem for Atchley and other outdoors lovers who enjoy coming here is that the 60-year-old guest ranch is going to the highest bidder at a silent auction Aug. 18. The Minam River Lodge could disappear as a backcountry retreat.

“This is the last operating wilderness lodge in eastern Oregon,” said John Rosenthal, president of Realty Marketing Northwest of Portland, which is handling the auction. Among the possibilities for its future, he said: a conservation property or private retreat.

Its sale could delete yet another in the diminishing number of “off-the-grid” places in Oregon where people can forget their smart phones and cars.

Surrounded by the 560-square-mile Eagle Cap Wilderness, the lodge has a 2,400-foot sod airstrip, main lodge with dormitory, five cabins, horse barn, corrals, and miniature sawmill on 127 acres. It can accommodate 35 guests.

The late George Peekema of Vancouver, longtime owner of the Minam River Lodge, had a “For Sale” sign on the place for years with a $4.6 million asking price. After his Oct. 1 death at age 81, his heirs cut the price by more than half and scheduled the auction.

The lodge is just a half mile from the former Red’s Horse Ranch, the once-popular destination for Hollywood actors and other luminaries that’s been out of service since 1994, when the federal government bought it and hasn’t figured out what to do with it.

Business has been good for the Minam Lodge in spite of the sluggish economy, said Shawn Steen, who manages the outpost with his wife, Shelly.

The couple host up to 150 paying guests a year, charging $135 to $300 per night for adults including meals. Children get a 30 percent discount. One guest last year was veteran film star Kim Novak.

They operate it from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and Shawn Steen flies in supplies in a 235-horsepower Maule airplane. Then they guide and outfit hunters in Hells Canyon of the Snake River until mid-November.

Other similar remote redoubts in Oregon also benefit from people’s need to escape, said Michelle Godfrey, spokeswoman for Travel Oregon, an arm of the Oregon Tourism Commission.

“People are overwhelmed by technology,” Godfrey said. “They want to get their kids away from video games. They want to get unplugged for awhile and back to a natural setting.”

You need a jetboat, horse or sturdy hiking boots, for example, to get to Paradise Lodge, Marial Lodge, Black Bar Lodge, Half Moon Lodge and Clay Hill Lodge, all on the Rogue River in southern Oregon.

Outfitter Brad Niva of Merlin said his business is up 10 percent this year atop a 15 percent increase in 2009. He escorts about 800 people per year on one-to-four-day treks from lodge to lodge along the Rogue. The recession has helped him, he said, because some clients opted for trips on the Rogue instead of more expensive family trips to Europe.

“I think that is a forecast trend for this season and into next year,” Godfrey said. She also detects a pent-up demand for vacations by people who put off summer holidays last year, fearing layoffs and a worsening of the economy.

“We do hold our vacations sacred in America,” she said.

That’s a sentiment the Steens hope to preserve at the Minam Lodge.

“We just don’t know what our fate is going to be now,” Shawn Steen said.

They have a lease agreement for the rest of this year and the 2011 season, and hope the new owner will allow it to remain under lease as a wilderness lodge, he said.

“I think anybody who would have enough money to buy this place would want somebody here taking care of it,” he said.


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