A weekend in the Okanogan Country, part 1

Countryside on the way to Conconully.
Countryside on the way to Conconully.

Back on the last weekend in September, when the weather was much warmer and sunnier, I took a trip back to the Okanogan, partly because I’m about to set another novel in that part of the world, and partly, well, mostly because it’s been a couple of years since my last visit, and I wanted to make one more weekend trip at the end of the season.

The trip over the mountains was beautiful. The trees were just starting to turn, and once I crossed over Blewett Pass and coasted down into the Wenatchee Valley the fruit stands were all overflowing (with fruit and with customers). The sky was clear and blue over there, too, unlike at home.

My first stop for this trip was at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, which is housed in the city’s original post office, fronted, unfortunately, by a flight of granite steps.

Steps at the the front of the Wenatchee Valley Museum.
Steps at the the front of the Wenatchee Valley Museum.

I say unfortunately, because somehow as I was getting out of my car, parked along the curb in front of the museum, I managed to trip, fall, and strike my kneecap painfully against the very edge of one of those granite steps. All I can say is wow, that hurt.

But the museum itself was great, once the throbbing in my knee subsided enough for me to enjoy it. A temporary exhibit on Indian basketry, a permanent exhibit on transportation which included an adorable coin-operated model train, and, most interesting of all to me, a large and well-designed exhibit on the history of how Washington became world-famous for its apples. Wenatchee is at the heart of apple-growing country.

After a stop at a drug store to pick up some painkiller for my knee, I crossed the Columbia River and headed north towards the Okanogan. The highway parallels the massive river as it curves north between dry brown cliffs, the space between river and cliff covered in orchards. It really doesn’t look like most non-Washingtonians’ idea of what Washington should look like, but actually far more of Washington looks like this than it does the heavily-wooded west side of the mountains.

Orchards along the Columbia River.
Orchards along the Columbia River.

An hour or so north of Wenatchee, the highway crosses back to the west side of the Columbia on a bridge dwarfed by the scenery. At the small town of Brewster, a large chunk of which burned last summer in the Carlton Complex fire (the largest wildfire in Washington’s history), the Columbia River turns east. This is also where the Okanogan River adds its flow to the Columbia, and where my highway turned north.

This is the beginning of the Okanogan Country, and the confluence of the two rivers is where, back in 1811, Fort Okanogan was established as a fur trading post. It used to be a state park, but the site is on the Colville Indian Reservation, which covers a big chunk of northeastern Washington, and it’s now run by the reservation authorities, with a terrific little museum telling of early white settlement from the Indians’ point of view. It just reopened this summer under its new ownership, so I was very pleased to stop and take a look. The view from the museum’s portico is gorgeous, too.

The view from the portico at the Fort Okanogan Museum.
The view from the portico at the Fort Okanogan Museum.
Hand-carved canoe in the Fort Okanogan Museum.
Hand-carved canoe in the Fort Okanogan Museum.

And so on up the Okanogan River to the twin towns of Okanogan and Omak, where I found myself a motel, then decided, since it wasn’t that late in the afternoon, to take the fourteen-mile side road to the town of Conconully. My novel Sojourn is set in a highly-fictionalized version of Conconully, mostly in the beginning because I just loved the name, and then because of some historical events that happened there.

Salmon Creek.  In 1894, this creek flooded and washed away almost the entire town of Conconully, killing 157 people.  Doesn't look like it could, does it?
Salmon Creek, as seen from the little bridge in Matsura Park. In 1894, this creek flooded and washed away almost the entire town of Conconully, killing 157 people. Doesn’t look like it could, does it?
Conconully's new town park, named after Frank Matsura, a Japanese photographer who became one of the town's most famous sons.
Conconully’s new town park, named after Frank Matsura, a Japanese photographer who became one of the town’s most famous sons.

And I was lucky enough, as I happened to drive by the Conconully Museum, which is only open by appointment (cell phone coverage in Conconully being practically non-existent because it is that far out in the boonies and down in a canyon to boot), to see someone coming out of it.

When I caught up with her, she invited me in, and so I got to learn more about the history of the real Conconully, learn about an outdoor quilt show they hold every summer, and pick up tidbits that will be fun to put in my next Tale of the Unearthly Northwest, called Reunion, which will be coming out next year!