Remnants of trees once bursting with life line Oregon Highway 138 — more affectionately known as “The Highway of Waterfalls.” The tree’s carcasses may provide a less disrupted view of the roaring tides found in the Umpqua River rushing between them, but the abundance of deadened trees stripped clean of their natural beauty draws the eye even more.
This graveyard, spanning roughly 131,542 acres, is the result of the massive Archie Creek Fire that tore through the Umpqua National Forest in September 2020. 109 homes became dust alongside the trees, and the initial cleanup lasted months.
Construction still continues, but the spirit to reform from the ashes is strong in this forest.
And now, roughly six months later, the Umpqua National Forest has finally regained some of its footing.
The Steamboat Inn and the Archie Creek Fire
In the middle of it all, caught between the flames but not destroyed by them, sits The Steamboat Inn. As the fire ripped through the forest, it cut off their water supply. Then it backed up their plumbing. Then it ultimately forced a five-month closure in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
“It’s been a long five months,” says Melinda Woodward, who owns the inn with her husband, Travis. They took over ownership in 2017, completely renovated it, and turned it into what it is today: A haven in the woods.
Fortunately, those long months have come to an end at last as The Steamboat Inn — itself something of a landmark along the 138 — has officially reopened its doors.
Staying at The Steamboat Inn
It’s impossible to miss The Steamboat Inn, which visibly sits on a river bend about an hour east of Roseburg.
Upon arrival, I pulled off into the parking lot sitting right in front of the restaurant. I entered the foyer to check in and had a look around the gift shop. A small chuckle rumbled out as I looked at all the Sasquatch-themed memorabilia; a legend in the Pacific Northwest more than possibly anywhere else in the world.
I have yet to see a sighting, myself.
After checking in, I grabbed the key and headed to my cabin for the evening.
As someone who grew up in Yosemite, I’m more than at home in this type of woodsy, rustic setting. The fireplace, for me, was the cherry on the cake. During winter months growing up, I used to wrap up next to the fireplace and read while it snowed outside. Nowadays, I read next to a fireplace — lit or not — at any given opportunity.
A Touch of Fisherman Throughout
One thing immediately noticeable in the room — and the gift shop — was how much The Steamboat Inn caters to the fisherman of the world. Considering the history of the Umpqua River, it comes as no shock to keep the spirit of the fisherman alive.
Back in the late 1800s, fisherman used the Umpqua River for its abundant source material, and gold miners waded through the banks to increase their riches. Various visitors throughout the years came on rumors of certain fish, and anyone who came to the area justifiably fell in love.
During the 1930s, after a man named Clarence Gordon homespun a little inn and restaurant, “The Fisherman’s Dinner” gained popularity and started attracting more than just fisherman. The dining table and chairs used were crafted from large sugar pine logs, and are still in use today.
As the area increased in popularity, it also increased in seeing some famous faces. One, Jack Hemingway, son of Ernest, wrote about the North Umpqua for various national magazines and discussed abuse on spawning streams.
While not necessarily “famous,” a young lawyer out of Salem, Oregon, named Dan Callaghan — who fished with Hemingway throughout his life — brought his new wife to the Steamboat Inn and began a long relationship with the inn, staying in the same room I did: Cabin #1.
The Steamboat Inn has certainly come a long way since its days of “The Fisherman’s Dinner.” What started as a camp near the river turned into a restaurant to cater to the hungry fisherman, then ultimately turned into the hideaway it’s become today, with cabins, suites, cottages, and even three-bedroom houses.
The Present-Day “Fisherman’s Dinner” at The Steamboat Inn
While I’m not all the way sure how the menu has changed over the years — it does change seasonally and based on supply, after all, since everything is local — I certainly have no complaints about anything from my night out at the restaurant.
I started out my meal with the Seasonal Farmer’s Market Salad, comprised of spinach, celery root, the freshest freaking apples slices I’ve ever had, bacon crumbles, and walnuts, with a healthy proportion of a very sweet and tangy apple fennel vinaigrette that I could probably just drink straight out of the bottle.
I followed that up with a glass of the house red (and house as in the Steamboat Inn brand) and the Spring Pea Risotto. Every bite came complete with roasted parsnips, sugar snap peas, shaved parmesan, and crispy shallots. I’ll tell you one thing: None of it survived, and I was more than satisfied by the end.
That didn’t stop me from finishing up with a slice of the strawberry-rhubarb pie, though. My sweet tooth almost convinced me to buy the entire thing after just one slice. I can still taste it on the back corners of my tongue. Okay, fine, I might have to make a special trip out here one day just for that.
Perfect Sleep, Perfect Breakfast, Perfect Sendoff
Whether induced by a food coma or lulled away by the soft rush of the river outside, I fell asleep within minutes once I lay my head down for the night. No tossing, no turning, no fuss; just bliss.
The next morning I grabbed my final opportunity to read next to the river (and then the fireplace, because the morning was cold), then headed off to breakfast.
While I opted to eat outside for dinner, I enjoyed the restaurant itself for breakfast the next morning. Here is where the legendary sugar pine table sits, right in the middle of the main room. It sits amongst the gift shop and various pieces of art hanging along the restaurant walls.
I enjoyed a healthy omelet, where I added the sausage and vegetables, and opted for potatoes and fruit.
Seriously: The fruit is so fresh, so crisp, and so tasty, I’d be surprised if it were more than mere hours old by the time it hits the table.
This was another meal that didn’t last very long, and anyone out for day trips in the Umpqua Forest would be remiss to pass up an opportunity to at least have a meal here, if not stay for the night.
There’s something to be said for energy, of which the Steamboat has plenty. While I was not the only person there, I pictured the upcoming days where every seat will be full, every night will be booked out, and every memory will stick around forever, because a stay here is one you’ll never forget.
The visit is capped by the fact that, no matter how you get here, you’ll see at least some waterfalls. I personally only made it to two due to snow impacting the others I’d planned on the route I took. That being said, the scenic byway is still more than worth seeing just by itself.
Disconnecting From Society, Reconnecting With Nature
In the end, I felt perfectly content in my riverside cabin. Excuse me, but a porch with chairs for me to sit amongst the trees, read, and listen to the river?
Um, yes please.
It also felt nice to put my cell phone down for a bit (apart from the pictures, of course.) With no television, no cell service, and limited WiFi, this turned out to be the best spot for a nice read, and an ideal place to completely block the outside world.
No books? No problem. Outside of the restaurant, there’s a library for you to peruse. Books and board games aplenty await you to take back to your room and read or play. If you’re there on a colder month, you may prefer the fireplace over the porch; I enjoyed both.
The library also has another feature not commonly seen amongst libraries: A bar.
As of now, COVID has restricted the seating and the bar and the general idea of “hanging out” in here. However, again, there’s also something to be said of energy in a room. The energy in the North Umpqua is vibrant and electric; one look around this room, and it isn’t the least bit difficult to imagine the seats filled with laughing guests, the bartender in their flow, the readers perhaps with their noses in the books there, or the gamers taking up a table to turn any board game into a drinking one.
And I cannot wait until this little inn off the side of the road returns to those days. It is a phoenix ready to rise from the ashes, the same as the forest it sits in. The summer months are coming. Vaccinations are more readily available. While still being able to take COVID seriously, it’s only a matter of time before this little hideaway returns to its former glory.