Charles Gulling

Central Oregon's Metolius River offers easy summer days, mellow nights -- and a lot of trout

Bonnie Henderson,  – September 16, 2008

When the warmth of July starts to ramp up toward the oven of August, our thoughts turn to the town of Camp Sherman, where the eastern slope of the Cascades tumbles down to central Oregon ― the piney edge of the high desert.

Not that it’s any cooler here than anywhere else; it’s hotter than a lot of places in the Northwest. But Camp Sherman has shade, and it has the Metolius River, and on some summer days, the Metolius is as good as it gets.

Forty-eight degrees, give or take, year-round: That’s the temperature of this clear, swift, free-flowing river when it bubbles out of the base of Black Butte 2 miles from Camp Sherman. In the 7 to 8 miles of accessible river stretching north from Camp Sherman, it doesn’t have much of a chance to warm up, notwithstanding input from side creeks and springs.

It’s this pure, cold water that has made the Metolius a magnet to fly-fishermen who catch and release year-round.

In summer they can be lined up almost elbow-to-elbow here, casting golden stone flies and grasshoppers onto the riffled water, teasing brown trout and redband rainbows onto their barbless hooks.

It’s this same cold, clear river that draws us non-anglers in summer to walk among the pines and incense cedars and Douglas firs lining the banks, to sit on the porch at an old-fashioned riverfront resort cabin with a cool drink and a good book, and, at night, to listen to the music of the river through open windows as we drift off.

Basic, but just right

And there’s the charm of Camp Sherman itself ― a post office plus a deli, grocery store, gift store, hardware store, and comprehensive fly-fishing shop, all rolled into one business that is the hub of activity in what can only loosely be described as a town. It’s more like one long, wooden, pine-shaded building maybe 20 paces from the river, with minivans and SUVs coming and going all day long. Need a hose clamp, a mantle for your camping lantern, a brown caddis fly, or a souvenir T-shirt? Maybe some oyster sauce or balsamic vinegar, a great bottle of wine, or an iced cappuccino? It’s all here. So is a pay phone, handy when we found ― with a mix of horror and relief ― that our cell phone had no service.

Camp Sherman also hosts a collection of resorts clustered near or right on the river. By resort, I mean in the old sense of the word: a simple, rustic place to kick back and relax. You won’t find spas or swimming pools or organized activities at any of them. Just cabins ― some pretty high-end, some bare bones ― and a porch or a deck, probably under a clump of tall pines, with a view of the river. You might find a Scrabble game or a deck of cards, but just to be sure, bring your own.

Most cabins here come equipped with a kitchen, which is a good thing. While the Kokanee Café, Camp Sherman’s only restaurant, serves dinners you’d be pleased to find in the city (let alone in an isolated mountain-resort community), and Camp Sherman Store offers homemade burgers and sandwiches, a couple of bags of groceries and a full kitchen will help keep you out of the car. And that’s part of the charm of a long weekend or a week at a Metolius resort. (Should you yearn to dine out every night, it’s less than 15 minutes to restaurants in Sisters and Black Butte Ranch.) 

Campgrounds and trailheads

Not much farther from town are nine primitive Forest Service campgrounds scattered along the Metolius from Camp Sherman to Jefferson Creek. Even at the height of the summer season, we’ve always been able to score a campsite, though we’ve sometimes been beaten to our favorite site ― a quiet spot set off from the other campers, on a slight rise, where the river bends and drops to a low rumble and splash, a spot the particulars of which will not be disclosed here in any further detail.

Usually campgrounds put you closer to trailheads for hiking or biking than do resorts, but that’s not the case here. From cabin or tent, a network of trails and roads ― paved and unpaved ― starts right outside the door or the tent flap. The options for mountain bikers are broad, from gentle to gonzo. Ditto for hikers, who can climb Black Butte Trail, launch a foray into the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, or stroll for miles along one or both sides of the river.

The river trail is where we usually end up, and we start those walks at Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery, about 5 miles north of Camp Sherman. We thought a trip to the hatchery would make a nice edutainment experience for the kids; these days, though, it’s we adults who beg to linger a few minutes more. Drop a quarter in the fish-food dispenser and scatter your fistful of brown pellets all at once to start a feeding frenzy, or ― our preferred approach ― dole them out one at a time to watch the bigger brook and rainbow trout along with the kokanee and Atlantic salmon lunge and strike, flashing silver and scarlet bellies. Pretty simple pleasures ― which, at the end of the day, is the point of a trip to the Metolius.

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