Recently, we brought you a story from L.J. Sullivan, an employee and resident of Umpqua’s Last Resort located in the community of Dry Creek, in the Oregon Cascade Mountains. The campground, residents, employees, and guests witnessed last year’s horrible fires almost engulf--not only their homes--but their very lives. It was their most successful year, and the late August fires coincided with a CampOUT! weekend for gay campers.
This time we spoke with Dustin Ashliegh, CEO of Umpqua’s Last Resort and Mountain Guide. Ashleigh works in the Portland metro region during the work week, and returns home each weekend to be at his beoved camp. We also spoke with Jesse Gooden, Assistant Manager of the resport, who also lives and works at the site. He is partnered with L.J. Sullivan, who first brought us to the story.
Proud Queer: How long have you been running Umpqua’s Last resort?
Dustin Ashleigh: We opened in 2006 and it’s been about 12 years. We went through some times. Being a gay couple trying to open a resort in a sea of red. Or, we like to say, a blue mountain in a red sea. Well, after 12 years we started with a strip-logged piece of property. So we spent several years just grinding stumps out of the site. After all the trials, finally we’re having that season, that 10 year mark, turn around time for a small business.
PQ: How was the reaction among the community, among the locals who may be more conservative?
DA: It’s amazing how the community came together to see how they saved our homes & our businesses. It was not the comm that it is today. Whereas before we were "the gay guys" and now we’re the “sweet guys down the road.” The whole thing is kind of moving. Thinking back on the emotions involved.
PQ: What was your reaction? Being out there in the wilderness and seeing the approaching inferno?
DA: Fire was so close and so big. It was incredible. As it came up and over the mountain I was thinking, “It’s all over. It’s all gone.” The fire came up to the very first building right up to the corner post of the deck. The firefighters, and my brother who volunteered to stay behind, would not leave. So I took all the family and the pets--paintings, keepsakes, etc.--and we evacuated. For the first three days I was trying to come back. I ran against, through, the blockades until the sheriff told me I couldn’t do this anymore. So, we watched the fire in the forest, up on the mountain, across the river.
Then we watched it jumped the river. It literally burned around the community until it came back and crossed the river. I am not religious but I like to think the finger of God came down and said, “Don’t burn this campground.” Everything around us burned. All through it, the dedicated firefighters would not give up. My brother spent two weeks taking naps then going back out and getting the ground wet to stop the flames. It was amazing to see the community and how it came together with food, water, took care of each other, and even shared pet food and other supplies. There were caravans of people who came up during the evacuation. We still showed guests that despite the calamity we were still going to take care of our guests. All of them rebooked for the August CampOut and it's already booked to capacity. And, mostly by people who were evacuated last year.
PQ: I know you said many of the evacuated campers planned to come back. How was the Memorial Day and Pride Event you recently hosted?
DA: It was pre-booked to capacity. It was amazing, because we had a lot of return guests but about a third were new. Many came because they heard about the fire and were glad to know we were still here. The younger gay guys in the area don’t have many outlets other than a now-closed gay bar called the Wayward Lamb. Our place is family friendly. So we try to establish a more moderate, temperate, environment. You have -- more and more -- gay places for and families. They want safe spaces to take their families, and children too. Although ther is a “rowdy camp” which is more after hours, more of a nightclub atmosphere, in a circus tent sort of pavillion.
We next spoke with Jesse Gooden.
ProudQueer: Please, give me a paragraph on your experiences last year during the fire?
Jesse Gooden: This fire really put into perspective how fragile our environment is. Living in the forest, I always knew this was a possibility. To see the flames rushing down the hill towards my home, that was something I could never prepare for. Being evacuated was extremely surreal for me. To sit and wonder if we had a home to go back to was horrendous. The silver lining to this situation was the amazing group that came for the August event. They stayed with us through the first week at Toketee Campground. The California group took care of us and kept us in good spirits the entire time they were there. Once they left, reality set back in. Then two days later, the campground where we were evacuated, and it went to Level One evacuation. At times it really felt like the fire was trying to run us out of our home. We made the choice to stay together as a community, and I am extremely grateful we did. We were there to support each other and keep each other in good spirits, despite the fact that the smoke was so thick you couldn't see the top of the trees.
PQ: What are you most looking forward to in 2018 now that you have had almost a year to recover from the fire?
JG: Well, 2018 started with us hitting the ground running. Almost losing everything really sparked a fire inside to not let this bring us down. We have been improving the park all spring. From building rock walls and ponds, to planting new trees and flowers. Umpqua's Last Resort has always been a place of happiness and tranquility, and I think we are have a renewed appreciation for how lucky we are to call the community of Dry Creek our home. We received a lot of love and support during the fire from our customers and the CampOUT! Group. The thing I am looking forward to most this year is the chance to show them how much that ment to our community.
PQ: Is there anything you are most grateful for, in the aftermath?
JG: In the aftermath of such an event, it can do two things. It will either bring your community closer, or it will drive people away. The Community of Dry Creek became closer and stronger. When we all finally reunited, it was emotional. We laughed, we cried, and we became better. Looking back in hindsight, without Chris Smith braving the dangers to keep the Dry Creek Store open for the fire fighters and John H. Staying at Umpqua's Last Resort to show the firefighter how to traverse the terrain around the park and keep the park operating for them, things could have turned out a lot different. We came out of this stronger than ever. Personally I have a new outlook on life, with a greater appreciation for the delicate balance between man and nature.
These guys really lived to tell a tale. Their stories and acceptance of what nature can do exudes the ruggedness we associate with people who crossed the Oregon Trail in the 19th C. PQ is thankful to know them, and to know their resort is not only safe but flourishing. Enjoy some pics from early on in 2018 and their Memorial Day Pride Weekend.
Visit Umpqua's Last Resort to learn about this summer’s events, accomodations, availability, and what’s to do in the Oregon Cascade Mountain region!