Real News travels fast these days with the assistance of social media; smoke was probably still rising out of the debris of Boggan’s Oasis. The 80-year-old landmark, three miles north of the Northeastern Oregon border and next to one of the few bridges crossing the Grande Ronde River, it was completely destroyed by fire. So I shared this on my newsfeed and memories started flowing.
This is wild country isolated by some of the deepest river canyons in North America (Hells Canyon and vicinity). If you place your hand down on a table, spread your fingers out, and run a fingertip over your knuckles – mimicking mountains and valleys – the Oasis sits at the bottom between your middle finger and ring finger. Sitting along the south shore of the Grand Ronde River that drains much of Northeastern Oregon. This is Chef Joseph and the Nez Perce country.
Boggan’s Oasis was originally an old gas station, café, and roadhouse. It was a place for weary travelers to take a break and refuel their tanks and body’s. They haven’t sold gas for decades so if you need that you’re out of luck. Top off in Lewiston or Enterprise on the other side. To some the location is a destination or starting point. Destination for steelhead and salmon fishers in search of these elusive anadromous fish that migrate 500 miles from the pacific ocean to spawn. It is a starting point for whitewater boaters to put-in for a float down the lower 16 – 20 miles of the river where it conflutes with the Snake River, some 20 miles upstream from Lewiston, Idaho.
Almost everyone remembers their first trip down one of these canyon roads, they are steep, and treacherous; especially the road that drops into the Grand Ronde, Rattle Snake Grade. If driving from North to South, Rattle Snake is just before Boggan’s Oasis. The drop is nearly 2,500 ft. in 6 miles (as the crow flies). It is safer now; there are guardrails and turnouts, most of the way.
My first trip down the grade was horrifying. I was meeting a group of backcountry skiers in Joseph, Oregon to ski in the Wallowa Mountains, so it was winter. Leaving Moscow, Idaho after a workday, 90 road miles; an hour and a half – max. It was a dark, stormy, and moonless night. I was alone.
My aged Toyota pickup had a wiring problem, without warning the headlights would go out. The fix was to pull over (in a safe place) turn the engine off, wait, and look under the hood. About five minuets later start the engine and the lights were back on. Months would pass before it happened again and mechanics were mystified.
My headlights went out halfway down Rattle Snake Grade, giving me just enough time to realize the roller coaster ride descent I was on. No “safe turn-outs”, no shoulder, and very few guardrails. The guardrails that were there looked more like livestock fences. Fortunately only a few vehicles passed me coming up the grade that night. I would see their headlights weaving off the opposite canyon wall, get off to the right as far as I could and wave my headlamp out the window. Because of the non-stop winding road, blind corners, you can’t go fast. They all stopped and asked if I needed assistance. That’s just what they do on these roads.
Seeing lights glow down in the Canyon and thinking I could get assistance or at least calm my nerves. Also give my truck its required five-minuet rest, in a safe spot. I pulled into the dirt strip in front of the Boggan’s Oasis.
Walking through the door and surveying the collection of things in the room, and there were many. Several soda fountain style stools sat in front of a small counter and behind that sat one of those old three place milkshake blenders that looks like a “Kitchen-Aid” device with tall stainless steal mixing cups. Asking if they did chocolate malts, the women behind the counter almost seemed offended. Their specialty shakes were local huckleberry, raspberry, or blackberry.
It was past closing, but she said she could make one to go. I ordered a chocolate shake; she pored it into a tall paper cup and served it with the remains in the steal blender cup with a long spoon. They pasted my first shake test, I would return. It took me 4 hours to get to Joseph that night.
Due to my future employment I travelled past Boggan’s Oasis 100’s of times with many 100’s of people after that trip. As assistant director and then director of the University of Idaho’s Outdoor Program for 32 years, one of my favorite local mountain ranges are the Wallowas. Our program also put-in on the lower Grande Ronde several times a year. It was one of our beginning whitewater trips.
At some point, on the return trip before going up the grade, one of our trip participants was challenged to slurp down a full chocolate / peanut butter shake before reaching the top of the grade. This was not my doing, by the way, and really can’t recall the leadership inspiration behind this stunt or what provoked it. But it required a fast pullover so the looser of the challenge could relieve the pressure, so too speak. The “milkshake challenge” had begun.
If the milkshake challenge was never duplicated and remained only a story, it would survive. This remained a strong challenge for university freshman. Well, guess I tried it once, and not while leading a group. Failing, I stopped before having to find a safe place to pull over. Boggan’s Oasis will be missed, but the stories will be told for a long time.
On a side note: Using the fingers on the table analogy, travel over the ring finger and stop on your little finger, this puts you high in the Wallowas and Eagle Cap Wilderness. The Wallowas have peaks in the 9000 ft range, some over. If you travel from any of the locations North of Lewiston Idaho, you descend and ascend over 15,000 ft. If you do a weekend visit high into the Wallowas and return home you have done over 30,000 ft of ascension and dissention. This in itself can have an exhausting and wild physiological effect on your body, throw a milkshake into the mix and – shebang!
Addendum: Boggan’s Oasis 1974, proves they did at one time sell gas. Photo: From the Jim Rennie collection. Jim started the University Idaho Outdoor Program in 1973. Image Scan and Edited by: Douglas Rennie, Jim’s son. Thanks Doug.