“We saw a bear in the orchard, helping himself to lunch,” the young woman said as she strode into the clearing where we sat on a log finishing our own lunch. An hour earlier she and her companion had set off from Stehekin Landing on rented mountain bikes a few moments ahead of us. We established a more sedate pace, stopping for lunch at Rainbow Falls before reaching historic Buckner Orchard.
Two-mile-wide, 55-mile-long Lake Chelan wriggles like a giant snake into the heart of central Washington’s Cascade Mountains and the North Cascades National Park. As might be expected, the nation’s third deepest lake — at 1,486 feet — is the area’s biggest draw, but we discovered many other reasons to roam Chelan County’s nearly 3,000 square miles on the eastern slope of the Cascades. In addition to lakes and rivers for boating, fishing and rafting, and mountains and valleys laced with miles of hiking, cycling and riding trails, we found acres of orchards, a few vineyards, a budding agri-tourism industry and charming towns.
The small resort community of Chelan, at the fjord-like lake’s southern end, proved a convenient base of operation. In addition to the grassy, city-owned Lakeshore RV Park (where we camped) and its pleasant waterfront trail and park, the town offers a range of visitor services, a passenger ferry terminal and a marina. A couple of state parks, a golf course, orchards and a few wineries cluster nearby.
We arrived in Stehekin, inaccessible by road, aboard the ferry Lady Express, having prearranged with the ferry’s operators for bikes and a brown bag lunch. Other options include a narrated bus tour. On our day trip, we cycled through Stehekin Valley, within the North Cascades National Park, and discovered reminders of the area’s pioneer history and a still-evident pioneering spirit.
After passing the renowned Stehekin Pastry Company (we succumbed to chocolate-chip-cookie fever on our return) we pedaled by the new (1988) log school and, shortly after, arrived at the old school house. Dating from 1921, the old “one-room-school” actually has two-rooms of log construction and is now a small museum. As we entered, it seemed as though the children had just run out for recess and would return any moment. A dozen desks sat in neat rows; students’ projects lined the walls. Just beyond the school, a gravel turn-off beckoned us to Rainbow Falls.
Fifty miles south of Chelan adjacent to its museum in Cashmere, the Chelan County Historical Society has assembled a score of historic buildings called Pioneer Village, mostly log cabins relocated from within a 10-mile radius. Marcia Green, proprietor of Apple Country Tours, showed us through the village recounting the history of several buildings and using the opportunity to educate us on the origins of agricultural Chelan County. It’s about apples and the pioneers who planted orchards, built irrigation systems, and opened eastern markets.
More recently, agri-tourism ventures began enticing visitors and locals. Several pick-your-own orchards; fresh cider houses; large roadside markets selling everything from fresh and dried fruit to nuts, to fresh seasonal vegetables, to honey and wine, to the ubiquitous espresso drinks; and, of course, winery tasting rooms, vied for our time and money. Marcia offers several tours of the area including orchards, packing houses and wineries.
She took us on a Wenatchee Valley tour as the pear harvest was in full swing. Picking crews swarmed over the orchards with tall, three-legged ladders, dumping Anjou pears into large bins to be picked up by specially-designed trucks and hauled to the packing shed. As we picked our sweet, juicy apples to stock our RV pantry, Dennis Nicholson rode up on his Massey Ferguson to the roadside fruit stand, where he and his wife Nancy sell their fresh certified organic fruit and other local products.
The Liberty Orchards factory in Cashmere issued us samples plus paper hats to wear as we toured where the unique fruit confections, Aplets and Cotlets have been made since 1920 based upon a traditional Armenian recipe. The business is now run by the third generation of the same family.
Wenatchee’s 28,000 people form the commercial and cultural hub of the region, located at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers. In 2003, Wenatchee was awarded the Great American Main Street Award (by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Main Street Center) for its historic preservation and main street revitalization. Wenatchee’s Art on the Avenues program adorns downtown with a score of outdoor sculptures by acclaimed artists, while on Thursday evenings a farmers market enlivens the scene.
Strolling along Wenatchee Avenue storefronts with their restored turn-of-the-20th century facades, we turned on Orondo Street and entered McGlinn’s Public House in the 1922 Garland Building. We devoured a couple of innovative salads selected from the eclectic menu along with a local brew. Photos and memorabilia of Wenatchee’s former minor league professional baseball team, the Chiefs, once-resident in the building, adorn the space. A slightly less respectable former role as bordello is not featured.
Ohme Gardens, an alpine retreat of evergreens, ferns, flowers, rocks and water, perches on a hilltop a little north of downtown. Lovingly created as a private retreat by Herman and Ruth Ohme in the 1930s, it’s now a public park and a startlingly lush retreat in an arid landscape.
Nestled in the Cascades about 20 miles west of Wenatchee, Leavenworth evidences a different pioneering endeavor. The former down-at-heels logging town reinvented itself in the 1960s and ’70s as a “Bavarian Village” by adding false fronts, gable roofs, painted and half-timbered facades, and balconies. The now thriving community throngs with visitors browsing its unique collection of shops, art galleries and restaurants.
Retired educator Warren Moyles, owner/winemaker at La Toscana Winery between Cashmere and Leavenworth, says, “school’s still out” on the long-term success of the recently established Columbia-Cascade wine region. We think Warren may mean “the jury’s still out.” In his tiny, decade-old vineyard, Warren has been experimenting with irrigation, cultivation, and pruning techniques to help his vines thrive in the sometimes unforgiving climate.
Because of his willingness to share what he has learned, Warren is considered not just a pioneer but also a mentor to others venturing into wine making and grape growing in the area. We found Warren a convivial host and thought his Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends in “the Italian style” provided convincing evidence that the winery, and perhaps the entire region, have a promising future. La Toscana produces a mere 300 cases a year and is open by appointment only.
Thirty-year apple grower Steve Kludt, Lake Chelan Winery’s owner/winemaker, also ventured down a new path when, as he told us, he “pulled up some apple trees and began planting grapes five years ago because we weren’t making any money on apples.” We liked a Cabernet Franc and a Pinot Gris we tasted at the winery’s tasting room well enough to buy a couple of bottles. Located near the shore of its namesake lake, the tasting room is open daily.
On our Stehekin Valley cycling tour, our arrival at the pioneer Buckner apple orchard was delayed by the sight of Rainbow Falls’ 312-foot frothy ribbon of falling water that so mesmerized us we decided to pause there to eat our brown bag lunches. After finishing lunch, we proceeded to the Buckner Orchard. On the National Register of Historic Places, the orchard is one of the oldest and largest Delicious Apple orchards in the country. The Buckner family began planting trees in 1911 when they bought 147 acres from homesteader William Buzzard for $5,000. Harry Buckner moved to the ranch upon graduating from high school in 1915 and farmed it until selling the ranch to the National Park Service in 1970. Now part of the National Park, it’s maintained as an historic orchard.
Pedaling from Rainbow Falls, we approached the orchard noisily and weren’t the least bit disappointed to find the bear had gone. Whether he had left earlier of his own accord or we spooked him off we couldn’t say, but the orchard was all ours for the exploring. We walked along the rows of trees and peered in the window of homesteader Bill Buzzard’s log cabin. Grass grew through the floorboards of a rusting 1920’s Ford truck, seemingly parked where it was left after last hauling boxes of apples from the orchard.
The Park Service restored the hand-dug irrigation ditches and is replacing trees as they die with the same variety grafted on the original root stock, thus assuring that this historic place continues into the future as a symbol of the determination, innovation, hard work and sense of community embodied in the pioneering spirit. That this spirit is still found throughout the area, amidst great scenic beauty and abundant recreation, enriches the rewards that Chelan County provides those who come exploring.