Sol Mertz of Rose Creek Retreat continuously rehabilitates his property, hoping it can be an example to others as a new model of land restoration and conservation. Sol’s vision is for long term, stewardship-led land management that steadily improves the land, while sharing it with campers. Rose Creek Retreat’s location makes it one of the most captivating campsites in the Pacific Northwest. Perched above the Columbia River, campers are guaranteed to witness stunning sunrises, sunsets, and early morning mists. And if you’re lucky, you might even be able to see bald eagles, sea lions, or river otters at the beach across the road.
From glampsites to indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Sol Mertz is part of an emerging community of landowners and camp hosts who have generously opened their land to the next generation of campers. Dive in to learn more about Rose Creek Retreat, Sol’s restoration efforts, and a peek at his camp in our interview below.
Hipcamp: Why did you decide to allow campers to stay on your land?
Sol Mertz: To share it and bring people out here. We want campers to enjoy it and that helps keep it going. It's a different business model, rather than it being a government funded and operated park. People come and experience it, and by paying to camp they're helping to keep it here. All these roses, we've planted thousands of trees, all of that costs money and then you have to maintain it.
That's not necessarily what inspired me to make it, but as far as hosting campers it’s to share it with people. Coming from Portland, one thing that I like is that even if you're poor there's always a public rose garden where people can go. You can go up to the Gorge and it's free to walk the waterfalls. I've always been poor and I've gone to all those types of places. So having a place like this, I love it, and when there are no campers, we don't charge a day fee, and we share it with the community. When people come here they genuinely love it. I've had people in the Creekside Camp and they say, "This is paradise," in the summer when it's really warm and the suns trickling through just right. To know what this place looked like before when it was completely trashed, and then people coming to experience it restored, that's a good feeling because they love it. It's bringing life back to a place that's been abandoned and left to just rot.
Top photo by Sol Mertz
HC: You describe this area as a ghost town, how did you learn about this land?
SM: My boss bought the land. He was looking for a tractor online and down in the bottom of his browser he saw a picture for this land. He clicked on it and thought, “How is this not a park?” That was literally one of his first thoughts. He bought it and he was going to live out here but he had some health problems, and it's so remote he didn't feel like he could take care of himself the way he needed to. So I told him let's build it into this eco retreat and have people come out here and we'll just continuously restore it. We'll get agricultural products coming out of it, speciality products, and have visitors, that way we can keep it going, keep it preserved so that it just keeps improving. He started the company so that we could do that and we've been going ever since.
HC: What kind of activities can campers participate in at Rose Creek Retreat?
SM: A lot of it is just hanging out by the river here, enjoying the roses, and the scenery. It depends on what you're doing. In the Rose Gardens, it's mostly to be quiet and gather at the firepit, listen to the stream, watch the shorebirds and all the river life. Birding is going to be a big part of what we're anticipating happening. We have kayakers and a rafting company down the road. Astoria has all the restaurants, brew pubs, cannabis shops and art. Astoria has all the good food and if you're into good beer they've got a lot of breweries. Astoria is about 35–45 minutes from here. That's kind of the destination in part because it's close to Portland and people come from that way. There are some National Parks down there and you're pretty close to the ocean, too.
You can hang out by the rocks and watch the tide come in. I've seen river otters, herons, and sea lions. The sea lions come right up where the water is a little calmer off the channel and they'll fish around. It's pretty neat. People who are into photography come up and take pictures of eagles and trees. We also have biking, Pillar Rock Road is actually a designated bike route. It's such a cool road, during the summer it would be a great ride. You can go down to Grays Bay and walk out into the bay during low tide. If you want a sunset or birds, you have to camp at the Rose Garden. If you want to have a large group and be in the woods, you should take the Creekside Camp. If you want a private space, go up to the Orchid Gardens with the wickiup. Last year we had terrariums in there filled with orchids. It's totally over the top, that's why it’s boutique camping. It's not just, “Well, here's a slab and the metal hot dog grill.”
You can come out here and you're going to be the only person getting a picture of nine eagles fighting over a duck. Just coming here to have the experience of being in the forest. Now people pay for “forest bathing,” literally just sitting in the woods. So yeah, you can put that down as an activity, forest bathing. Forest bathe all weekend in the orchid gardens.
Top and bottom photo by Mike Hoderman
HC: Can you talk more about the history of this property?
SM: Indigenous people lived here from who knows when. Before the decline of salmon, it was one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. This was called the Miller Sands by Europeans, who came in starting around 1850. This wasn't even America at that point, but the traders came in and got the canneries going. That kept going until the 1930s and 1940s and they logged in the process. By that point, they were pretty well fished out and it just declined. I know people who have family that grew up here. When this was a town, there was a school, services and shops. Everything was by boat, and this was actually a stop between Astoria and Portland.
I gave this presentation about the Retreat and its history at the Marine Resource Committee Summit in Long Beach. This whole area had been trashed and clear cut. We also have a lot of geologic issues with fracturing because the hillside was blasted out, so now we have a big slide area. We're right in between two ghost towns, Altoona and Cottardi.
During the last big real estate boom here in 2005–2006, I was as an Environmental Consultant to banks, real estate developers, and nonprofits. I went in and looked at a piece of land to do a Phase 1, which is an initial environmental assessment. Part of that is going back and interpreting aerial photos that you get from the Army Corps. You have to special order these, you can't just get them off Google Earth. With that vocational background as a resource, I got all of these aerial photos when I started out here. Through that, I've been able to primarily reconstruct what was going on in the last several decades. In the 1930's it's just pretty much forested and you can see the towns here on the river. Like I said, there were no roads, so you got here, you got off the boat, and then you didn't leave until the boat came back. There were a lot of Finnish, Scandinavian, and Chinese immigrants. The Scandinavians ran the place alongside the migrant workers of the day. I've seen pictures of them where they're doing the fish processing. Altoona brand salmon was a big deal, people in San Francisco I'm sure ate canned Altoona salmon.
In the 1950s, industries came in and logged it and started building the logging road. After that they reforested in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, a guy came in from out of state and bought the property. He carved the land up and wanted to put a development up here. They put 12,000 cubic yards of material in the middle of our valley. That is hundreds and hundreds of truck loads coming up and down this road. The effect of that is the bowl started getting pushed down. Essentially, you have a lot of material sitting on top of a bowl of filled material, getting cut out at the bottom of the base.
So after years of destruction and neglect, this is what we decided to do: ecotourism, wildlife viewing and agroforestry. We never had owls, and then the owls started to come back. I've seen probably close to 10 bald eagles at one time. We have over 30 varieties of roses in here.
Top and bottom right photo by Mike Hoderman
HC: Was there a specific moment when you decided you needed to be the person to restore the natural landscape here?
SM: For a long time I was trying to advocate alternatives to psychiatry, and this was before ecopsychology was such a big deal. Even in the early 2000s, I was working with people who had mental health needs, to get them outdoors. I've also worked outdoors with at-risk youth. This method started with me, nature was therapy for my own struggles. A big part of why I came to Northwest in the 90s was to be in the woods and to find solitude and serenity. I worked and went to college, took internships and served in AmeriCorps to get training in environmental work. I became a geologist and also did mental health activism, promoting outdoor activities. When the recession hit, I lost my consulting job and I started to get into videos. I was making cable-access tv when my boss bought this place. When I came here I said "I could stay here forever, I don't want to leave this place." It was so quiet, when I'm not rambling, this place is just amazing. [laughs]
I wanted this to be a place for people to come where they could work and not be bothered. This is the kind of place where no one's going to hassle or gawk at you. Where you can come and be inspired. But also for people that don't necessarily feel comfortable in a mainstream campground. I’ve known a lot of people in the LGBTQ community over the years. Even in a liberal place like this there's a lot of queer people that don't necessarily feel comfortable being in a campground with a bunch of people who aren't used to being around different types of people. When you come here there's no issue at all, because I'm the one you're dealing with and I can't think of anybody that would be too far beyond for me. All people are welcome, but at the same time, it's also towards the side of alternative people. We want to be recognized as a place that is okay for people that don't want to be bothered or judged.
Top photo by Mike Hoderman
HC: Can you talk more about your efforts to utilize eco-recreation as a funding source for restoration?
SM: People come and they pay to camp and that means we can keep restoring it. We're not asking for a donation, we're giving you something. This isn't a charity, this is your place for how ever many days you pay. I've worked in the environmental field and I know the government model. For example, the Columbia Land Trust, they come in and buy all the old farm land and they push everybody out. What winds up happening is you have nobody to live out here, so you don't have leaders, a tax base, or people showing up to forums. In the other direction, you have people like us moving here and buying up these little properties and working the land in sustainable ways. We come together at places like the Grays River Grange and the Marine Resource Committee in Cathlamet to work on these issues. Wahkiakum has a goat farm, I know somebody up the road who has llamas, we've got speciality farmers on Puget Island that grow all kinds of speciality produce for high end restaurants in Portland. We're all part of that whole movement.
Too often outside eco-interests come in and they do a little bit of initial work when they buy land and then they just let it sit. I've worked for those types of people in the city before and they don't really care what happens to these places when they're depopulated. Whereas what we're trying to do is continuously improve and add to the land. When I worked for Metro in the early 2000s, they owned about 9,000 acres of land. They only had three people as park rangers. They don't have the resources. This kind of fixes that problem. You have somebody in the community who can be involved with community activities and you have somebody constantly working the land.
Rose Creek represents a third way, basically. Put in native edibles and turn a wetland into an agricultural area. This is something I'm trying to promote: agroforestry, huckleberry's, selective clearing to bring the health back, dense edibles for understory, and food for high end restaurants from wetland areas. Imagine if you had "Cascadian Sea Plantain" in San Francisco restaurants. What I want to have is the sea plantain and miner's lettuce salad special for the week. We're trying to advance our wetland edibles and agroforestry as an alternative to logging. This is fish friendly agriculture, which is huge in the Northwest. It's environmentally conscious forestry practices that we employ, and we want to spread this to as many people as we can. This place is a cause more than a business.
HC: When is the best time of year to visit Rose Creek Retreat?
SM: It absolutely depends on what you're looking for. If you want it to be completely quiet, and you love mists and sunsets of a certain variety, you should come in December. It's going to be cold, but you're going to see scenery that you don't normally see. If you really like hazy sunsets, July and August are good. The eagles come and go, I can never predict when they're going to be here. Springtime we have a lot of sea lions, so if you want to hang out by the river and watch them, spring is a great time to come. If you want to see roses, come in July. Anybody can email me and ask, and say this is what I'm looking for, whether a campsite recommendation, what animals might be here at a given time, or recommendations for a restaurant in Astoria. People can contact me and I'll give them the best information I can.
Top photo by Mike Hoderman, middle photo by Sol Mertz
HC: Have you found that you need a lot of spare time to host campers here?
SM: I'm definitely going to be here to at least greet people. If you're renting the Rose Garden I'm pretty much going to greet you, give you the run down, and split. You saw where my trailer is, so unless you text me, I'm no where around. I'm not going to come down here with a spotlight at 3 AM to see what you're doing. This is all about privacy and people feeling safe about being here.
Photos by Mike Hoderman
HC: Any advice or questions for fellow hosts?
SM: So far I haven't had any issues with anyone wrecking anything. Right now we only have one bathroom and this is our best parking. So, how do people deal with bathrooms for multiple campers?
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Lisse Lundin is a photographer based in San Francisco. You can follow along with her adventures via Instagram.