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New Travel Program Offers Visitors the Chance to Give Back

By Matt Wastradowski

Andrea Bloch fell in love with the McKenzie River corridor on her first visit to the region in 2019. Her friends had booked a few campsites in the area for a larger group trip, and she and her husband tacked on a couple extra days for something a bit more relaxing.

Over the course of that trip, Bloch hiked to Tamolitch Falls (also known as Blue Pool) on the McKenzie River, visited the appropriately named Clear Lake, gazed upon the thundering Sahalie and Koosah Falls, and spent time at Terwilliger (Cougar) Hot Springs. Along the way, Bloch found herself falling in love with the McKenzie River corridor and its many natural charms. "I love water-I'm pretty drawn to any kind of water situation-and the water could not have been more gorgeous out there," she recalls. 

The trip was top of mind for Bloch, a school counselor and public educator with Portland Public Schools, when she saw a local television news story about an innovative program designed to help communities impacted by the devastating wildfires that ripped through the McKenzie River corridor in 2020-all while offering visitors the chance to give back, help with recovery efforts, and learn more about the community.

"It was in an area that I loved, and it pulled on the heart strings in terms of bringing attention and love to an area ravaged by wildfires," Bloch says. "I want these areas to be preserved for years and years to come, so I need to be part of the solution, not the problem."

Boat ramp on the McKenzie River

Program Showcases McKenzie River, Offers Chance to Get Involved

The program in question was the product of a partnership between Global Family Travels (a travel company that helps families connect with local cultures and experiences), First Nature Tours (which offers custom trips to destinations around the world), Cascade Volunteers (a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, stewardship, and education in the Willamette National Forest), and the Willamette Valley Visitors Association (the official destination marketing organization for the Willamette Valley).

Specifically, the program offered weekend-long adventures throughout the spring and summer, inviting visitors to spend a few nights at a local lodge, participate in stewardship programs, and engage in some of the outdoor recreation for which the McKenzie River corridor is so well-known-including hiking, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting.

The program is part of a larger effort, spearheaded by the Willamette Valley Visitors Association (WVVA) and industry partners, to connect visitors with local communities and offer new experiences they might not have otherwise had. "It's a win-win," says Dawnielle Tehama, Executive Director for WVVA. "Travelers get to know our communities in new and innovative ways, and they're doing great work that will help those destinations thrive for years to come-while extending the power of travel more deeply into their own lives."

Bloch signed up for a weekend outing in May, which included two nights at Horse Creek Lodge, near the confluence of Horse Creek and the McKenzie River, as well as all meals (which included two dinners at the McKenzie General Store and Obsidian Grill), and outdoor recreation led by local outfitters.

Clear Lake, along the McKenzie River corridor

Trail Work at Heart of Cleanup and Recovery Efforts

Bloch's group spent their Saturday clearing debris from the hiking and mountain biking trail around Clear Lake, so named for its distinctive teal hue and remarkable clarity. That meant digging out roots and removing rocks that hikers could trip over, lopping branches that could hinder the trail, removing invasive plants, and more.

The next day, the group did the same work on the loop trail that showcases views of Sahalie and Koosah Falls while following the McKenzie River through a dense forest. Both days, a team leader from the Willamette National Forest pointed out the effects of overuse (such as areas where hikers had gone off-trail and trampled vegetation), explained the importance of keeping trails clear, and talked about how the group's work would make the trails more fun and accessible for hikers and mountain bikers going forward.

"I want these areas to be preserved for years and years to come, so I need to be part of the solution, not the problem."

Andrea Bloch

For her part, Bloch loved the chance to get her hands dirty and help out. "That was probably my favorite part," she says. "The hard work was inescapable--you have to carry the tools, you're going to sweat, you have to wear your safety goggles--but I really appreciated the concept of, 'We want to keep this as pristine and as preserved as possible, and you can be part of that solution with just a little bit of hard work.'"

Koosah Falls from along the McKenzie River Trail / Photo by Andrea Bloch

Outdoor Recreation, Group Time Adds to Immersive Experience

In between that trail work, the group found time to ride mountain bikes on a portion of the McKenzie River Trail-known for its tight turns, epic views, and thick, forested setting-and go whitewater rafting on the McKenzie River, known for its churning rapids and approachability to novices and thrill-seekers alike.

When her group wasn't working in the field or exploring the McKenzie River corridor, they spent much of their time hanging out around the campfire at Horse Creek Lodge-talking about their days outdoors, reminiscing on what brought them to the adventure, and even enjoying a singalong with the lodge's co-owners, Gary and Alyssa Brownlee. 

"When you have nights that you can't duplicate-like sitting around a campfire with quality people, good stories, great personalities, live music, and messy s'mores-those are the kind of nights you can't duplicate, because there's no way to repeat that kind of perfection. There was nothing that needed to be changed. You got to be there in the moment and say, 'Oh my God, what a night.' I loved it."

Naturally, Bloch wasn't ready to return home after wrapping up at Sahalie and Koosah Falls on Sunday afternoon. "Just like camp, there was definite sadness at the end, a little bit of longing-like, 'Oh, this has to come to an end?' I think that speaks to just how amazing the overall experience was" she says. "It's the way camp always feels when it ends, like, 'Oh, I guess I'm going to have to wait until next year to be back.'"

As of this writing, weekend adventures are still available for August and September 2021. As part of each outing, visitors can help with trail-building projects, experience outdoor opportunities (like hiking and mountain biking), and learn about wildfire recovery and prevention. Each package includes transportation between Portland or Eugene and the McKenzie River area; a professional naturalist guide; all meals and activities; and two nights at a local lodge. Click here to learn more about the program and to register for an upcoming adventure.

Your adventure begins with the official Willamette Valley Travel Guide. Request your complimentary printed guide or download a digital guide today.

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