RALPH BARTHOLDT: Night falls on Boggan’s Oasis

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Ralph Bartholdt

People all over know more about Boggan’s Oasis than I do.

I was there a couple of times, mostly to admire the Grand Ronde River and the steep canyons that bloomed in spring, but remained mostly bone brown in other seasons.

I did not venture to wet a line upstream of Boggan’s near Troy, Ore., where a friend stayed one season to fish steelhead without me, and I didn’t venture downstream where the Shumaker Road sputters to a conclusion with a canyon wall sporting a few sprits of greenery in arid rifts above the river.

For a lot of people who traveled Highway 129 between Enterprise, Ore., and Asotin, Wash., a few hours south of Coeur d’Alene, without the accoutrements of a fishing life, Boggan’s was a mix of hostelry, nostalgia and good eats.

For others, it was a place to glean fishing advice, tips, a handful of plugs, flies and some spare line or leader while chasing steelhead that flushed into the river after spending a year or two in the Pacific Ocean.

Although Boggan’s burned to the ground earlier this month, its small rental cabins remain a haven for overnighters, or adventurers who linger longer.

Before it disappeared in a puff of late-night smoke, the decor in Boggan’s cafe recalled the 1970s, and its heaping servings, shakes, pie and ice cream were served deliciously often by the owners Bill and Farrel Vail.

The Vails are in their 80s and when Boggan’s, the business they ran for more than 30 years, burned to the ground Nov. 19 as they watched a Gonzaga basketball game on the TV in their nearby home, they told reporters they probably wouldn’t rebuild.

The cabins are still available to rent, and the RV spaces remain, but a lot of what Boggan’s was for its many visitors, has been relegated to memory.

The place was named for its founder, who in the 1940s built at the only highway crossing of the Grand Ronde River in a steep canyon where sea-run rainbows moved.

Travelers heading between Lewiston and La Grande or Pendleton, Ore., have two steep and winding grades to traverse, but knowing Boggan’s was at the bottom of both turned the trip’s quiet misery to one of buoyant anticipation.

What’s left since the fire is deformed metal, a caved-in roof and gutted windows like eye sockets on a spent salmon, but the memories will stick around long after the smoky smell is washed away.

Northwest Sportsman Magazine editor Andy Walgamott spent a couple weeks one spring 20 years ago using Boggan’s as a steelheader’s base camp.

“I remember back in ’99, after the day’s steelheading was done, eating dinner there and tracking the Zags as they made their first deep run in the Final Four,” Walgamott wrote on his magazine’s Facebook page. “I remember the kindness and wonderful meals served up by the owners.”

A lot of people stopped by the ruins this month to bid adieu to one of their favorite wayside haunts.

Max Wilson told a Lewiston Tribune reporter he ate burgers at Boggan’s as a boy in the 1940s and ’50s, and built the cabinets and the ice cream counter for the restaurant decades later.

Cindi Hill of LaGrande told the newspaper, “This is everybody’s stop that comes and goes. A lot of people are gonna miss this place.”

In a quickly changing world of tretrabites and Pixelbooks, autonomous cars, face detection devices and 360-degree selfies, knowing Boggan’s existed at all — at the bottom of a notorious canyon road near the best steelheading in a small, mostly silent part of the world — was a kind of mental oasis.

It soothed the mind to know it was there, and that not much there had changed.

It still soothes the mind to know it was there. So, that hasn’t changed.

Except Boggan’s is gone.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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