North Santiam~A Love Story

The North Santiam River was basically in my “backyard” growing up and while my family drove by it countless times on the way to Bend, I never knew it until 6 years ago. This post is a love story–love for a man, a sport and a cheeseburger.

Last weekend I paddled a now very familiar stretch of river, from Mill City to Mehama on the North Santiam. It was running at higher flows and greatly re-energized my appreciation of this particular stretch, that had become a little “sleepy” for me as I’ve improved my paddling skills. It wasn’t always that way. About 6 1/2 years ago I met a friend of (many) mutual friends who owned a shop along this river, to paddle something a little more challenging than what I’d done around central Oregon. Sam had previously instructed my ACA certification course and I reached out to him for beta on the NS because I knew I’d be traveling to Salem from Bend often (for family reasons) and wanted to make the most of it. He gave me insight, and offered to paddle with me. We began at Mehama bridge and paddled to a private take-out he had permission to use. We took our time, first getting ready to paddle, chatting and generally getting to know each other as we’d talked very little during his class. The chit chat continued as we paddled downriver and by the takeout I knew this guy was special. Within the week he visited Bend and invited me to the Ben Harper concert which sealed the deal. Ok, it continued the process, as our “courtship” was slow but exciting. In many ways it reminded me of a teen love–that which you experience when you’re 14 years old and haven’t been jaded by the ups and downs of adult relationships. I remember talking, and talking, and talking about everything from family to past relationships to local political rhetoric. And yeah, there was some romance too…

Our relationship evolved on the river. Because Sam has an outfitter/instructional business at the premiere location of the NS, and had a house (his mom’s, who lived on the east coast) midway down the upper stretch, we paddled multiple days a week. I would follow his lines and occasionally he’d give me instruction but mostly I was learning by watching and doing. I’d jump on trips or we’d paddle from the house to his shop, or in rare occasions paddle top to bottom for fun alone. I fell in love with him, and whitewater paddleboarding, congruently. To me, they’re synonymous and there’s no place I’d rather be than paddling a fun stretch of rapids with Sam.

Especially during the first two years, I have such happy memories of SUP’ing, getting changed into dry clothes and heading up to “Papa Al’s” where we’d ravage cheeseburgers and share fries, tots and/or onion rings. For those of you who know Mill City there are VERY few places to eat. I used to muse about my friends who would get dressed up for “date night”. Mmmmm, yeah. My dates consisted of board shorts, tank top and helmet hair. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Life happens though. The years that followed had challenges with both our fathers ill, and eventually passing away, within 4 months of each other. My mom, also ailing, needed a ton of support. And, the horrible tragedy of the Labor Day fires which burned Sam’s mom’s house where we spent most of our time together, plus his three rentals in the town of Gates, and ravaged the communities of Mill City, Gates and beyond. Houses, forests, businesses–it was mind-blowing and overwhelming.

During the weeks that followed the fire, the town rallied trying to support the locals who were displaced. It was amazing to see the love of fellow humans…people coming forward to help strangers who had no home to go. Food was essentially unavailable in the immediate area. Kevin, the owner of Papa Al’s who had served us burgers for years, set up a pop-up tent and grilled food all day long, for free, to anyone who needed it. We were recipients of that generous food one night for dinner, as Sam had been working all day on the now-burned lot. It was with great appreciation to Kevin and his staff who donated their time and resources, that we ate our burgers and chips, trying to wrap our heads around the devastation that had occurred in this community.

The beauty of life is that it’s forever moving forward and changing. Today, the Santiam Canyon has green understory and the river flows without log-jams. Rebuilding is seen everywhere and upgrades are happening to infrastructure. Newcomers to the area are making positive change–people who are youthful, inspired, and have great vision for what can happen in this little community. I take a lot of comfort in this. Paddling here I feel hope that all isn’t lost.

With that being said, there is a loss I recently learned of, that saddens me. Papa Al’s has finally closed its doors, unable to make a go of it since the fires. All the upgrades, all the various young workers Kevin employed, all the many cheeseburgers we ate….no longer. I want to give a big shout-out and thanks to Kevin and what he did for the community for many years. I wish him the very best in his future endeavors. Almost without question a new burger joint will eventually arrive in Mill City. I’m sure it will be great, but it won’t rival, to me, the cheeseburger that was Papa Al’s. I imagine I am not alone in this sentiment.

Mehama to Taloali….a scenic stretch

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