One of Barnes Ellis's strongest childhood memories is of a family reunion deep in northeastern Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. The clan gathered at a one-time hunter's lodge accessed only by an 8.5-mile foot and horseback trail. Years later, Ellis—who went on to cover City Hall for the Oregonian and later helped launch Portland asset management firm Baker Ellis—discovered that the lodge he remembered had fallen into complete disrepair.
"I loved what it was: a place you could hike into, eat great food, stand on the banks of a Wild and Scenic river," says Ellis. "I wanted to revive it. A place like this—there aren't that many like it left in the world."
Six years ago, Ellis bought the 126-acre property with dreams of building a sweet life—and sustainable business—here in Oregon's "Alps." It wasn't easy. First, Ellis and his team needed to clear the neglected property of decades-long accumulation of junk—a haul-out that required pricey air transport. ("We were using helicopters like some people use Uber," he says.) There was an outhouse to dismantle, and then, the discovery that the lodge's old kitchen had for years channeled graywater to a nearby wetland. The state mandated ADA access, a kitchen hood, and a sprinkler system installation—the latter hard to do, Ellis says, when your water source is a gravity-fed wilderness spring.
Time passed and difficulties mounted. But so did the personal investment of Ellis's crew, which grew to include Portlanders like architects Ben Gates and Jeffrey Maas, alongside Wallowans like sixth-generation resident Kelsey Juve, whose father also handcrafted much of the lodge's ceramic plateware. (Juve's great-grandfather is the photographer behind many of the historic shots that grace the lodge.) The care taken during the lodge's lengthy renovation process shows in everything from its furniture, custom-made from wood milled on-site, to the lodge's hot water system, which is entirely heated by a central wood stove.
"Three of the people from the construction team fell in love with the place and wanted to stay," says Ellis. That team—which includes two full-time gardeners, a massage therapist, and chef Carl Krause (formerly of Portland restaurant Biwa)—is now ready to showcase its effort to the public. The Minam River Lodge reopened on May 27. Will it take a place alongside the West's great luxury wilderness lodges—Alaska's Ultima Thule, Colorado's Dunton Hot Springs? Ellis hopes so. At the very least, he's made good on a lifelong dream.
"It's a crazy thing to do," says Ellis. "But life is short. It's a labor of love."