March 19, 2006 in Travel

Okanogan Valley offers nice distraction

Nancy Lemons The Spokesman-Review
 
Nancy Lemons photo

The red tower of the Okanogan Fire Hall Museum rises into the clear, blue Okanogan sky
(Full-size photo)

If you go

Omak and Okanogan, Wash.

•Directions: From Spokane, take U.S. 2 west to Wilbur, about 65 miles. Then take State Highway 174, driving 42 miles northwest until you meet Highway 17. Continue for about 23 miles to U.S. 97. Follow 97 north for 20 miles to reach Okanogan; Omak is about 4 miles farther north. Several alternate routes and scenic loop drives are available, but check with Washington State transportation for road and mountain pass conditions, at least until winter lets go.

•Okanogan Country Visitor Information: Call (888) 431-3080 or see www.okanoganvacation.com for a complete guide to activities and helpful links.

•Outdoor recreation: Okanogan National Forest, (509) 826-3275, www.fs.fed.us/r6/oka.

•Okanogan County Historical Museum: 1410 Second Ave. N., Okanogan, WA 98840, (509) 442-4272. Open Memorial Day through Sept., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

•The Breadline Cafe: 102 South Ash, Omak, WA 98841, (509) 826-5836, www.breadlinecafe.com. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Check the Web site for menus, live music performances and events.

•Things I wish I had on this trip: 1. More room in my stomach for an ice cream treat from the On the Avenue Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor on Okanogan’s main drag. 2. More time to explore both towns and less wind in which to do it.

Lettuce sprouts on our windowsill, lengthening toward the light. I’ve been watching for weeks and I’m itching to get my hands dirty in an attempt to grow our own vegetables this year.

Yet the ground doesn’t seem ready to accept our tender, young starts. So instead of sitting around daydreaming, flipping though seed catalogs, drawing and erasing garden plot sketches and arguing with my husband about when and what should be planted, we decided to take a road trip west over the snowy Cascade Range.

On the other side, among the wide open spaces of the Okanogan Valley, we came across twin towns offering fun and delicious places to stop for food while traveling through on a scenic drive or taking a break from hiking, biking or a day at the museum.

Tall trees held mounds of bright snow under clear skies on the drive over Sherman Pass this very early spring day. Our big, black dog Kah-less lounged in the snow beside Highway 20 for a moment, during a brief leg-stretching stop.

Following S.R. 20/U.S. 97 south, the terrain transitioned from thick, high mountain forests cut by cool icy streams to pastures and sagebrush spread across mainly treeless hills. We passed through a string of small towns that began as trading posts or mining camps.

At The Breadline Cafe in Omak, we ordered sandwiches named after some of those towns that dot this area. Husband John savored his “Curlew,” blackened chicken and provolone on focaccia. Curlew is also a tiny, unincorporated community near the U.S.-Canada border.

Everything tasted fresh on my “Oroville,” a croissant filled with tomato, cukes, avocado, Swiss and cream cheeses; it’s also a town that lies in a divide between the Cascades and the Okanogan Highlands.

Located at the foot of the Highlands, Omak is considered a sizable city among those along the Okanogan River, with a population of more than 4,700. In fact, it’s the largest in Okanogan County and a growing center of modern commerce with the presence of national chains and new development.

We finished up our late lunch by splitting a rich piece of tiramisu, one of owner Paula Chambers’ delectable, handcrafted desserts. I complimented her on the tiramisu, adding that John mentioned it was probably the best he’d ever had – and he’s had a lot.

He always defers to me when picking desserts. I’m kind of a finicky eater. (Blame my mom; the woman actually separated every speck of the “yucky” yolk from my fried egg whites.) And if tiramisu is on the menu, I usually go for that.

“It’s one of our special desserts. We don’t have it every time,” said Chambers, wiping her hands on her apron before ringing up my order.

Chambers and other bakers and cooks use locally produced flour and produce. They hand-cut greens daily, stir up fresh stock gravies and soups, and mix their own salad dressings, which you can buy in refrigerated jars. Other desserts and yummy baked things are available to buy and enjoy at home.

All around the restaurant, antique ice boxes and stoves abound. Old pots, dishes, books, photographs of old movie stars and numerous other curiosities are scattered up and down and all around the place. Musical instruments are strung above diners and the full bar.

Outside, I paused to snap a picture of a mural that pays homage the building’s former tenant – Omak Beverages, which bottled soda from the 1920s to the ‘50s.

From there, we proceeded on State Route 215 to Okanogan, the county seat. We stopped at the American Legion Park on the north end of town along the west side of the Okanogan River. Our dog Kah-less scaled down the steep bank to fetch sticks from the water.

John and I bundled up in coats and gloves against the sharp wind. Across the river, a boy, about 10 years old, mocked the weather in his shorts and T-shirt as he played in the sun. Beyond the river and the valley we could see veins of snow as they extended down low, rounded peaks at the edge of the Cascades.

Adjacent to the park, the red tower of the Okanogan Fire Hall Museum soared upward. In addition to the fire museum, the historic complex is home to the Okanogan County Historical Museum, Wilson Research Center and the Okanogan County Genealogical Society.

Among the research library’s collections are thousands of historical photos and hundreds of pioneer interviews, as well as other documents. The complex is due to open for the season Memorial Day weekend.

Two special photographic collections cared for by the society chronicle the early lives of people of the valley and the changes that came with construction projects, such as the Conconully Dam, and machines, like the automobile. Negatives taken by George B. Ladd, a homesteader and photographer from Detroit, span 1903 to 1946.

The photographic legacy of Japanese immigrant Frank S. Matsura is also important in preserving Okanogan County’s past. Matsura came to Seattle from Japan in the early 1900s. In 1903, he was working as a hotel dishwasher in Conconully. He moved to Okanogan four years later, operating a photographic studio there until he died in 1913. He was 39.

Several mural-sized copies of Matsura’s work are part of a self-guided walking tour in Okanogan. Plaques explain photographed subjects. Other markers located throughout the downtown provide background stories on historic buildings.

A bridge connects the downtown to an eastern strip of the city which lies within the Colville Indian Reservation. A sidewalk on the bridge allowed us to take in views up the river.

The late sun sat on the roof of an old flour mill located on the eastern river bank. The mill is now a restaurant: O’Carroll’s Irish Pub and Northwest Microbrews, 96 Pine Street, where a cool one would have been nice, if we were staying in town. Maybe next time, after a hike on one of the nearby forest trails.

We left Okanogan, taking U.S. 97 south toward Grand Coulee through desert landscape, eventually making a big loop back to our central Washington home.

The next morning, I noticed the soft, white petals of snowdrop flowers emerging from the moist soil in our yard. I wondered what the spring and summer flowers of Okanogan country look like.

Sounds like another road trip is in order.


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