► Population: 1,101 • Location: 6.5 hours from Seattle
When the Nichols family moved from Georgia to a remote town in northeast Oregon, the crew of eight—Robert, Tia, and six kids—had to learn a few things. Like measuring snow in feet, not inches. How to make friends in a remote western town. Also, there’s a lot more to a mountain lake than what’s on the surface.
Just south of their new hometown of Joseph and ringed by sharp peaks of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa Lake bobs with fishing skiffs and party docks up top, but drops 300 feet down into remarkably clear glacial-fed water below. Robert saw a new calling and a family project: JO Paddle (jopaddle.com), a rental outfit where things are see-through.
The company rents glass-bottomed kayaks (actually made of transparent polymer) that reveal the lake bed below; even a stand-up paddleboard has a viewing window. By day the Nichols family dispenses these craft from the lakeshore, but by night they flip on floodlights in the base of each boat and lead nighttime tours. At first, the sight of lake bottom under your feet is disconcerting, like riding in a junker car so decrepit you can see the road through holes in the floor. But it soon becomes a mesmerizing loop of massive boulders and darting fish—rainbow trout and record-size Kokanee salmon.
The nigh untippable boats allow travel right into the chilly season—the Nicholses plan to continue their moonlight tours through the fall as the Wallowa Mountains get their first dustings of snow. Soft-spoken Robert grows animated describing a lake monster tour that covers centuries of legend about a strange underwater creature, its roots in local Native American lore. One Nez Perce tale laments the disappearance of a star-crossed couple from warring tribes, swallowed midlake—the Romeo and Juliet of northeast Oregon.
The town of Joseph was named for the most famous Nez Perce: given name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, but known to history as Chief Joseph. The town celebrates the leader, who fled from forced relocation before the U.S. government captured him in the 1870s; bronze sculptures of and memorials to Joseph stand across the lush valley he yearned for throughout the rest of his life.
The main street of Joseph bustles with classic small-town shops—a hardware store, a coffee shop, a yarn boutique. The brick Jennings Hotel (jenningshotel.com), funded via Kickstarter in 2015, added 12 rooms decorated in modern artwork and a sauna to the sleepy little town. A restaurant called the Gold Room, from a chef couple that met working at Portland’s celebrated Ava Gene’s, is scheduled to sling wood-fired pizzas and cocktails on the hotel’s first floor in the fall. The 100-seat eatery, with its communal table, pasta-making classes, and big-city pedigree, could bring Joseph to a whole new level, but then again the roots—and views—in this valley have always run deep.