Civilized Fare on the Wild North Umpqua

By Gail Oberst/ Photos by Andrea Johnson

On a summer day, take a drive up the North Umpqua River, meandering up wild and scenic Highway 138, and you'll understand why salmon and steelhead thrash themselves to death to get to this place.

Its waters are stunningly clear-blue-green and icy cold, year-round. The river crashes through a gorge of granite and volcanic rock cooled just long enough to have grown the trees and lime-green moss that cling precariously to its cliffs. Like the wild fish, you may find yourself eagerly pushing upstream, drawn into the great tumble of snowmelt and springs that make up the waters of the North Umpqua.

And then, just when you imagine you've left civilization far behind, you'll come to where Steamboat Creek flows into this spectacular river, which, since the 1920s, has been the secret fishing getaway of the rich and famous. First at the former North Umpqua Lodge, and today at Steamboat Inn, anglers in this beautiful locale have flicked their flies and told their tales to the tune of river on rocks.

And now, you join them. Bliss.

Even before Steamboat Inn - located 38 miles east of Roseburg - was constructed by Frank Moore in 1957, good wine and fine food were part of the fishing experience in camps occupied by the likes of Zane Grey, Jack Hemingway, Major Lawrence Mott and others. Locals and sportsmen from around the world have recognized this river's uniqueness and made it their haven. Because fish thrive here, Steamboat has been the center of fish conservation efforts for decades, and its devotees (called "Steamboaters") are credited with pushing through Oregon's Forest Practices Act.

In 1975, when Moore sold Steamboat Inn to Jim and Sharon Van Loan, and road improvements made travel easier, fine dining, Steamboat-style, became a staple of travelers through this corridor.  Continuing Moore's traditions, which he in turn had garnered from the historic fishing camps, meals at the Van Loans' getaway were served promptly at 7 p.m. around a long wooden table with bench seats.

By 1978, Patricia Lee arrived to help, and eventually became the Van Loans' partner. Almost immediately, winemaker dinners became a springtime ritual at the Inn. Winemakers from all over Oregon vied to participate, bringing their crews and families to the river for work and play. Guest chefs soon followed, adding variety to Steamboat's cozy tables.

Children of winemakers have grown up on these banks, says Lee. She claimed that the famous match between Luisa Ponzi and Eric Hamacher was spawned at the Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference, another tradition that began long ago at Steamboat Inn.

Occasionally, there's live music or some other entertainment. "But dinner is the show," Lee said. "That's how it has always been."

Wide-eyed and somewhat naïve in 1977, I first attended a Steamboat Inn dinner with my friends, the Knudtsons, who lived about 20 miles downstream in Glide. Charmed at seeing my fellow anglers acting civilized, I've returned occasionally to this piece of paradise through the years - sometimes with girlfriends, sometimes with my husband. Each time I go, the experience is different. I've shared dinner with fly fishers full of swagger and excuses, recounting their successes and failures on the river. There have been hikers, skiers, rafters and campers from all over the world attracted to the river, its trails and adventures.

Recently, at a spring winemaker's dinner, I shared my table with the Van Loans and the evening's featured vintners - Deb and Bill Hatcher, Sam Tannahill and Cheryl Francis, and Michael Davies of A to Z Wineworks/Rex Hill - as well as their families, including Davies' wife, Anna Matzinger, who is the winemaker for Archery Summit. The guest chef, Vito DiLullo of Ciao Vito in Portland, created five delectable courses matched with my tablemates' wine.

From mozzarella with roasted beets and olive oil paired with the 2007 Rex Hill Chardonnay, to Piemontese braised beef, carrots and fennel bulb matched with two palate-pleasing Pinots: 2006 Rex Hill Reserve Pinot Noir and 2006 Francis Tannahill "The Hermit" Pinot Noir, the dinner was extraordinary and its location made it truly memorable.

As they have for nearly 20 years, Lee says, winemaker dinners at the Inn continue through the first two weeks of June; but for those who miss them, there are other opportunities. The winemaker series begins again next March, for example. And there is also no lack of good food at the Inn's daily breakfast, lunch and early dinners, available to summer travelers without reservation, and served in generous, fisherman-sized portions. The 7 p.m. "Fisherman Dinners" are available only to Inn guests, or by reservation.

Winemaker dinners feature gourmet chefs from all over the state, but the everyday fare at Steamboat Inn is so popular, the recipes are included in a beautiful set of cookbooks, "Thyme and The River," and "Thyme and The River Too," written by Sharon Van Loan and Patricia Lee. As expected from an inn long devoted to Oregon wineries, the cookbook also suggests which wines to pair with its recipes and menus.

Yes, the food is fabulous, and the guest book, impressive; but make no mistake about it: Steamboat Inn would be just another gourmet restaurant if it weren't perched above the rapids of the scenic North Umpqua River. Only 70 miles from Crater Lake (one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World) and within a few miles of hot springs, waterfalls, hiking trails, swimming and biking areas, and boating at Diamond and Lemolo lakes, Steamboat Inn is a magical place. While the angler of the family is busy chasing the elusive summer steelhead for which the river is world famous, those uninterested in fishing have plenty to do, even if "plenty" means a catnap on the rocks by the river.

The dinners are most enjoyable when you can fall into a nearby bed, and there are several options for overnight guests - from cozy streamside cabins for two, to luxurious river suites, hideaway cottages and three-bedroom houses. Prices from $175 to $300 per night are reduced during the off-season. Don't look for phones or televisions or even cell phone reception in these getaway cabins.

For complete information about lodging, check out the website at Guests can also call the lodge at 800-840-8825. 

Gail Oberst is a freelancer writer from Independence, Ore.


This recipe was originally developed to complement the Umpqua Valley's Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards Syrah. 

2              2-pound pork rib racks
3              tablespoons spice mixture (recipe follows)
2              tablespoons finely chopped chipotle in adobo
1              tablespoon ketchup

1. Combine the spice mixture, chipotle peppers and ketchup, mixing well. 2. Rub the rib rack generously with the spice/chipotle mixture.  Wrap securely in plastic wrap, then wrap completely in foil. 3. Refrigerate overnight. 4. Bake, as wrapped, 1¾ hours at 375°F. (Yes, keep the plastic wrap on; just make sure that it is well wrapped in the foil). 5. Unwrap carefully, as steam will escape the packet. Serve immediately or cool and refrigerate. Reheat in a 350°F oven 10 minutes or over a grill with a low flame. Yields 4 to 6 servings.


½             cup paprika
¼             cup ground cumin
¼             cup kosher salt
2              tablespoons black pepper
2              tablespoons garlic flakes
2              tablespoons dried thyme leaves (not powdered)
2              tablespoons dry mustard
1½          teaspoons cayenne pepper
1½          teaspoons white pepper

Combine, mixing well. Store in an airtight container 

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