The Great Escapes: Cabin Fever

How Two Portlanders Heard the Call of the Cabin

A lake disappeared. Then one couple’s vacation home started to get interesting.

By Zach Dundas August 14, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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When the Condit Dam was demolished in 2011, National Geographic created a time-lapse video, still well worth watching. A warning klaxon precedes detonations at the base of the slate-gray dam wall, and then a menacing gray-black sludge—the White Salmon River, dammed up for 100 years—gushes forth like the manifestation of an angry god. Next, human-made Northwestern Lake drains away, ebbing from lake to mud morass, and, finally, back into a river.

The film does not extend to what happened next (or came before) for the small community that had evolved around Northwestern Lake in its century of existence. That’s a story of its own—one that, eventually, would include Stephanie Parrish.

Parrish and her husband are Portlanders, and like Cascadian urbanites since cities first sprouted here, they felt the call of escape. They started visiting the cluster of cabins around the now-former dam site after a friend bought one in 2010. The dam-removal debate was as mind-boggling as you might expect: environmentalists, utilities, residents, tribes, states, and counties. And some around the lake weren’t happy to see it vanish.

“So many people knew it as a lake, all their lives,” Parrish says. “It was heartbreaking for them.

For Parrish, transformation made the place all the more beguiling. “I was enchanted,” says the Portland Art Museum education specialist. “It’s not Black Butte. It’s funky—people, history, and landscape you literally wouldn’t find anywhere else.”

Yes, but for all its particularity, the place fits a broader regional tradition. Northwesterners have loved their mountain cabins and seaside shacks basically since the end of pioneer days. Gearhart developed as a rail-connected coastal Portland suburb from 1890; Camp Sherman, on Central Oregon’s Metolius River, reputedly owes its origins to early-1900s wheat farmers escaping the summer heat.

The Condit Dam’s 1913 completion, besides powering the timber mills of Camas 50 miles away, created a draw in Southwest Washington just as the region embraced recreation as concept. A 2017 survey of the location’s history—completed at the behest of PacifiCorp, the dam site and surrounding land’s corporate owner—notes that promotional material for the now-century-old Columbia River Highway touted Northwestern Lake. Cabins started dotting leased power company land on the lakeshore in the 1930s, if not before. “Ask the Yakima Tribe, and they’ll tell you people have been there for 13,000 years,” notes company spokesman Tom Gauntt.

For Parrish, when a cabin near her friend’s became available in 2015, a different klaxon sounded. “You can’t get a mortgage for a cabin on leased land, so we had to come up with the cash,” she says—about $75,000, plus the annual $5,000 lease. Her husband, Steve, took a sabbatical to fix the place up. They spend most weekends there now, and Airbnb the place a bit.

The Parrishes now have a front-row seat on the White Salmon’s rebirth. The enviro-organization Ecotrust and the Yakima Tribe are restoring a nearby meadow. Salmon runs seem to be thriving; kayaking definitely is. Meanwhile, owners of former lakefront cabins have had to contend with shifting earth and cracking walls and the new landscape settles.

“It was a lakebed, underwater for 100 years,” Parrish says. “Being part of the process, of watching nature come back, is pretty incredible.”

The blue-collar forest and factory jobs that once funded modest cabins on the region’s lakeshores have grown scarce; meanwhile, the options of destination and luxury level have proliferated. What has not changed is that buying into a Northwest getaway is not just the acquisition of a lifestyle amenity. It’s a move that brings you into the saga of a place you might not otherwise have known—and nests you in the bigger, broader story of our place.

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