Our NW Tour ~ Summer ’22 ~ Part I

Harvest Host #1: Portteus Winery

With considerable excitement, we set off on our long-awaited summer road trip to visit the Hosters in Yaak, Montana. It seems every journey passes through Bend, OR, and this trip was no exception. Alicia arranged her schedule so we had a couple wonderful days with her and Leo, saw her new house, and got caught up on her upcoming trip to New York. What set this road trip apart were the five different Harvest Host wineries/farms that offered us a free overnight on their properties.

Dutifully following our phone’s GPS, we maneuvered through thousands of grape vines to finally arrive at Porttius Winery, in Zillah, WA. Zillah is one of 4 sub-AVA’s (American Vermiculture Area) of the Yakima Valley, most of which are right across the Oregon border in SE Washington. Zillah is between Walla Walla, Benton City (on the south) and Yakima to the north. There are others we plan to visit later on our journey, and each is characterized by a special varietal. Usually based on the soil. Great stuff, dirt.

The Porttius owner’s son waved us down and showed us where to park our trailer. From there, it was into the air-conditioned tasting room and sampling as many of their 20 or so varietals/blends we wanted. We enjoyed the wines  as well as the ‘tender who proudly wore the colors of the Seattle Mariners who’d won 14 games in-a-row. About the same time another couple showed up in a Class C motorhome. They were from Pittsburgh and Sooney introduced them to Alicia’s song, “Redemption,”  inspired by the tragic shooting in the synagog that occurred several years ago. We bought a couple bottles of wine and enjoyed our stay on their expansive property. Being beastly hot, the folks from PA ran their generator at all hours. We found that opening our trailer’s windows provided us plenty of fresh air in addition to lovely views of the vineyards that completely surrounding us. Fortunately, generators were never an issue in our future visits at Harvest Hosts.

Harvest Host camping is completely new to us, and works very efficiently. There’s an annual $85 fee that essentially pays for the infrastructure and online reservations. Guests are permitted to book in advance and there’s no charge for an overnight stay on the property of the host. The idea is to get RV’ers to lay over one night and, while there, purchase some products offered by the hosts: wine, food items, etc. It’s a win-win and, in my opinion, a step above alternative RV booking systems.

One alternative, called Hipcamp, doesn’t have an annual fee and visitors simply park on hosts’ properties and pay whatever fee is listed on the website. We are familiar with one particular Hipcamp site in Patagonia, AZ. A friendly couple maintains the attractive place and there were 4 sites with power on their cozy property. Searching for similar places in Washington was far from cozy. Most were disperse camping on random neighborhood lawns for $40/night. Stay as long as you like. We opted for wineries and specialty farms and enjoyed the fact that they’re generally located in remote locations. Quiet and beautiful. There have been exceptions, but all have been fun.

With our destination NE Washington, and preparing for the final push to Yaak, Montana, we overnighted at another Harvest Host site, the Fruitland Valley Vineyard & Winery in Fruitland, WA. Our campsite was a freshly-mowed field adjacent to the lovely winery/restaurant located a short distance north of Fort Spokane. There was a vintage car rally when we arrived, and some truly beautiful restorations were parked willy-nilly, their hoods open so their shiny engines could be appreciated. Of particular interest to me was was a black & white ’56 Ford Victoria coupe, a clone of my first car (although mine was baby blue & white). As it was Friday night, there were locals joining in the festivities. One group of 3 couples were dressed to the nines, the women in flared skirts, stylish high heels, and an abundance of displayed cleavage and bright red lips. After settling into a table, the 3 ladies made their way to the Ford and posed for pictures. The owner took it one step farther, and took them off for a fun ride. Their male companions, meanwhile, appeared content drinking wine in their printed teeshirts. One added a sparkly bow-tie that perhaps displayed his level of dress-up comfort. As the evening drew down, there was a burst of excitement as a few of the drivers competed in a spontaneous drag race out front, the trace of burning rubber memorializing the event on the highway.

We set off for the Yaak the following day. Our route took us through Bonner’s Ferry, ID, where we topped off our tank (and emptied another). After fueling up, the Conoco attendant did a quick search on his phone and gave us directions to the county fairgrounds where we dumped, cleaned up, and made a mental note for our return trip.

This was the first visit to Jon and Karen in nearly 4 years. Our previous visit was with sister Carol who we scooped up in Spokane and that was our intent this time as well. Sadly, she was exposed to the plague a couple days before departure and forced to cancel. We therefore chose to bypass Spokane and approach Bonner’s Ferry from farther north through Fort Spokane. Good call because Fruitland Winery and Restaurant was a delightful Host.

Addie on guard.

Much of the drive was familiar; it’s always nice to see Yaak Falls and the ubiquitous tourists gathering at such a lovely stretch of water. Having it right on the Yaak Hwy. allows everyone to be a travel photographer. This time we pressed on and arrived in the afternoon to a rambunctious greeting by Addie, their dog, and a fresh hatch of mosquitos. The former is a Healer breed, and is very protective of their house. Anybody who even hints of approaching it is met by snarls. Addie is not a petting dog; the isolation of the pandemic prevented her from learning socializing skills, so we gave her space. We always knew where each other was. The mosquitos were a constant annoyance and seemed to relish the carbon dioxide we exhaled inside our trailer. We arrived at this conclusion by the considerable number of buzzy buggers on our screen door at dawn. Jon and Addie would visit each morning and, wielding his battery-charged zapper, would kill dozens of mosquitos.

It was the several that made it into our trailer that challenged us. How were they getting in? We tried taping the door in the event the ⅛” spacing was all they needed to sneak in and suck Nick’s blood while he slept. Next, we tried closing the vents to the air conditioner that we never use. Finally, we taped a cloth over the furnace opening. A future modification will be to attach some screening inside the furnace vent located on the outside of the trailer. There’s a good possibility that’s where where they snuck in.

Addie responds well to Jon and Karen’s commands. Soon, we were able to sit on the porch overlooking their beautiful pond to spot birds, turtles, and other critters through Karen’s powerful scope. A notable sighting was a Merlin working the pond. From its perch on a snag, it repeatedly swept down for a mouthful of damsel flies before returning to another perch to enjoy its meal.

The damsel flies, meanwhile, were laying eggs on the pond weed that was flowering on the surface of the water. The depth of the pond is about 8′ and the water felt great in the mid-day heat. We donned our PFDs to easily float as we pulled handfuls of the invasive plant and tossed our harvest onto an inflatable raft. The four of us did this on 3 successive days while the temps were in the 90’s and it was a win-win; rid the pond of excessive plants while keeping us refreshingly cool. The raft was then pulled on shore and the piles dumped where they would quickly dry and decompose.

On a couple days we ported our kayaks to a friend’s beach, dropped off a second car at the Tavern, and then floated several miles down the Yaak River. On both days there was a breeze blowing upstream that cooled us but barely affected our riding the current. The pace was perfect, and we found this an ideal place to have lengthy conversations as we listened and scanned the shrubs and skies for birds. Occasionally, we encountered others along the banks. On our second float, we pulled out the boats and had a meal at the remodeled Tavern. Formerly featuring log siding with dart boards and saloon paraphernalia adorning the walls, the new look was cleaner, whiter and considerably more noisy. Unfinished, it appeared to be more of a pay-as-you-go project. One notable change was the bar, a former hewn log that had an annoying sag toward the customer. More than one drink was spilled into the customer’s lap, so they replaced it with a poured concrete bar. While perhaps not as authentic, it won kudos from patrons for the 1-foot section along the edge that was heated with cables imbedded  into the concrete. Nice in those chilly Montana winters. The walls, losing their sound dampening wood siding, now amplify the arena rock blaring from their Pandora station. It took an effort to have a conversation. The ‘keeper was cool, however, and before serving our tasty pub grub he toned it all down for us. Oldsters always get the worm…until they don’t (I guess).

Another favorite tourist destination is the “Secret Falls” although they’re more appropriately renamed “Practically Inaccessible Falls” due to the snow-related debris blocking the trail. On several occasions, fearless leader Jon had us bushwhacking around some pretty sizable trees to access the falls— it’s really a beautiful spot and very photogenic. Secret? No, but well worth a visit every 4 years. Especially in late summer when the huckleberries ripen. We found some, but nothing like the bounty we gathered a week later in Washington.

A significant topic of conversation was about how little traveling Jon & Karen do. We (and several of their distant friends and extended family) tend to visit them more than they leave the Yaak. A lot of it boils down to the pandemic isolation and Addie’s lack of travel experience. Jon, meanwhile, keeps himself busy with his current business of making planter boxes. Using cast-off cedar from a mill in Libby, he has streamlined construction of his basic 2’x3′ stand-alone planter but also fills custom orders. Offering his creations on Etsy, the online marketplace for “handmade” objects, he’s filled orders from throughout the US and, due to their clever design using little hardware, Jon disassembles them, packs ’em up in corrugated, and UPS picks up the 30-40 lb. boxes right at his workshop behind the house. There’s another fellow who works for Jon and the two of them hang out nicely together. Karen, meanwhile, continues to manage her online investments and doesn’t mind having Jon busy.

Fortunately for us, neither of them were so locked into a work regimen where they couldn’t float, boat, hike, or swim whenever they want to. We speculated how many years we’ll be following our current lifestyles, and how much we enjoyed being together. These conversations are becoming more and more common among our friends, and it’s refreshing to share our thoughts with family. There was talk we may see the Hosters traveling south in the winter. After all, it’s hard to isolate the charm of sub-zero weather for weeks on end when it’s just the two of you. But then, there’s always Addie for entertainment.

Not unlike Ashland, summers in Montana are prone to wildfires. Last year a neighbor spotted a fire caused by a lightning strike less than a mile from the Hoster’s 20 acres. A crew was readied and by daylight they assembled on the road to begin the trek into the difficult terrain to combat the flames. A couple Huey helicopters made several futile attempts to fill their water tanks suspended at the end of cables. The Yaak River was too shallow. When they discovered the Hoster’s pond, they immediately began the first of over 250 dips that resulted in the fire being quickly extinguished. With all that water extracted, the pond level went down a mere 6″. What a wonderful bonus to have on your property; the Kingfishers, ducks and Merlins aren’t the only ones benefitting from it.

Our biggest disappointment was not having Carol with us. We hope the whole clan can gather at some point in the near future. Carol has joined us on several trips; an earlier trip to Montana, a Peace Corps reunion in New Hampshire and, most recently, she joined the Vianis & Ahmutys in Costa Rica. Not this trip, however. While not in person, we resumed our online bridge game one afternoon and we were grateful for the good Internet connection (there’s no cell service up there). Of course, good Internet means easy online shopping. There’s no shortage of UPS visits, that’s for sure.