I spent two months in a tiny mountain town in Eastern Oregon called Sumpter. Population 200. It marked my fourth workamping assignment, my third in Oregon with Oregon State Parks. I left my month in John Day, Oregon, where I workamped at Kam Wah Chung and arrived at the historic Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge on September 1, 2021.

It was another wonderful workamping experience. Unlike the previous two with Oregon State Parks, I was not an interpreter (tour guide) at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge. You might remember that in addition to being an interpreter at Kam Wah Chung, I was the same at Heceta Head Lighthouse. However, at the gold dredge, I worked in the Visitor Center.

Small gray building with a flying US flag and old rusted rail carts in the front.
The front side of the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge Visitors Center with a display of old rail carts, an old safe and rocks painted gold. Visitors would exit the back side where the dredge stood.

Normally the dredge has two Hosts (the general word used to describe workamping volunteers) but because it was the time of COVID, I was the sole volunteer during both months. This meant the Visitors Center wasn’t open Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as visitor traffic was markedly decreased. Plus, after Labor Day, visitor traffic during non-COVID slows down a lot anyway.

The Visitors Center was divided in half on the inside. One half was a little gift shop so I kept the shelves stocked, rang up sales, etc. Then the other half served as the interpreter center with artifacts, displays and information about the gold dredge and its history.

Tours at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge

So, you might be wondering why, at a historic site, didn’t the volunteers give tours. The reason is pretty simple. Only park rangers (there are two) give tours. That leaves Hosts to work the Visitor Center.

Unlike Kam Wah Chung which visitors couldn’t go into without a tour guide, the dredge is open and includes information signs throughout. Visitors can come and go as they please. They can choose a guided tour or not.

And what this means to you, the reader, is that you won’t get a tour in words the way you have in the past. You might wonder why I don’t do one anyway. Well, the truth is because I had rangers nearby at all times, I just never needed to learn the details and history and stories of the dredge the way I did at the other two places I workamped. I gave basic info in the Visitors Center but if someone had a question, more often than not, I’d point to one of the rangers and say, “Go ask him.”

How COVID Affected the Dredge and the Experience

Like most places, the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge closed during the 2020 season. The season at the Sumpter Valley State Park, which includes the dredge, is May 1 through October 31 every year. In 2021, for three weeks, things operated normally. But when COVID surged again, the governor ordered a partial shutdown of some of what is normally offered.

So, my experience, is not a reflection of the full and normal workamping experience. In addition to having to wear masks in the Visitors Center (some people chose not to come in due to this though only one person was outright rude to me when I told her she had to put one on) and not being able to receive a guided tour from a ranger, the opportunity to try one’s hand at gold panning was also affected.

Normally, there are boxes of gravel that the rangers seed with gold flakes and purple garnet stones. Adults and children alike are able to partake in the gold panning experience. Because the boxes didn’t allow six feet of social distancing, they were closed.

As a consolation, we offered visitors a gold pan and said they could go anywhere within the state park and try their hand at panning. Some took us up on the offer though very few found anything. But they all said they had fun trying and that is more important than a little gold flake any day. Others were serious gold panners and came with their own supplies. The only rules were they couldn’t use a sluice box or a metal detector.

Three wooden boxes with lids in front of a small white building.
The back side of the visitors center where boxes of gravel and water are seeded with gold flakes and purple garnets for the panning experience. These remained closed during the summer and fall of 2021.

Panning for Riches

So, while it’s true that gold panning wasn’t available to visitors, guess who learned to gold pan? In late October when we could count the number of daily visitors on our hands, one of the rangers who himself is a gold miner (and owns one or two gold mine claims) showed me how to pan in the box on the far right. It was fun.

Truth be told (and you probably won’t be surprised to hear this), I liked the purple rocks more than the gold flakes. I left my time there with a little vial with dozen or so of each since the park ranger gave me some as a thank you gift in addition to that which I panned.

I’m rich. If not in actual riches at least in experience.

Ins and Outs of Workamping at Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge

The Weather

I loved this workamping experience. At least as much as the lighthouse, maybe even more. The fall months were perfect for me. You might remember from my time at Kam Wah Chung in John Day, which is less than 60 miles from Sumpter, that August saw many of the days in the 90s and 100s. This Alaska girl, even after fours years on the road, doesn’t handle heat with any grace whatsoever.

In Sumpter, it was warm when I arrived and could be hot in the direct sunlight for the first week or two and it was cold by the end of October but, overall, it was kind of perfect. In my two two months, I witnessed nearly three seasons. It was beautiful and amazing. Though, it goes without saying, that I was glad I got out before the actual snow started to fly. For the curious, the mountain town of Sumpter gets an average of 11 feet of snow a year. That’s no small amount.

A wooden footbridge coated in a heavy white frost.
One particularly cold morning on my walk. Normally, I’d crossed this bridge to follow the trail. But on this day, the frost was so thick I had visions of ending up on my backside if I dared cross it. You can guess that the temperature on that morning’s walk was nippy, to say the least.


On my first day, the ranger oriented me. He assigned me keys, gave me tours of the dredge (including the upper floors where visitors are not allowed because it is scary hazardous), maintenance shop, cabin (more on this shortly), etc.; and taught me to drive the golf cart on steroids (which I told you about in my 2021 List of Firsts post).

Let me pause here to say that my first reaction to the dredge, once we were inside, was that it would be an awesome fun place to play adult hide and seek. If you wonder what the difference between adult hide and seek and the game of your childhood is, I have two words for you: adult beverages. The dredge offered many nooks, crannies and hidey holes. Not to mention, even with the lights on, it’s kind of dark inside.

I said as much to the ranger who loved the idea. In his five years, none of his Hosts had ever made the suggestion. It surprised me because it seemed so obvious but I was also his youngest Host which happens most places I go (proof of this is forthcoming). Then somehow the time whizzed by and we never played. Next time.

The very last photo I took during my time workamping at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge. This was on the walk back to my trailer from the dredge, taken on the afternoon of Halloween when I was officially no longer a workamper. The photo does no justice to the beauty of the moment. Of course, I was getting ready to leave so it’s also possible I was simply feeling overly sentimental about the scene.

The Cabin

One of the reasons I accepted the position was because it included access to a shower. You know how I feel about my trailer’s shower. I put up with it at Kam Wah Chung because I really wanted to work there and because it was only a month. You can put up with just about anything for a month. But since the dredge asked for a two month commitment, I probably wouldn’t have done it without access to the shower.

The really cool thing about the place was that it was much more than a shower…it was a whole cabin. I’d never heard of such a thing so, when I applied, I emailed to verify that what they said on the job description was true. I couldn’t envision I’d have access to a whole cabin. Once verified, accepting the job was a no-brainer.

The bonus for me was that, since there wasn’t another Host, the cabin was mine alone. Now, to be honest, I really didn’t use it much. I showered, washed dishes, did laundry and used the refrigerator. I didn’t ever sleep in the cabin or cook, though I could’ve done both. That said, in an upcoming post, I’ll share my sister’s visit to Sumpter. She stayed in the cabin which, ended up meaning, the space allowed her to stay longer than she would’ve had we both been in my trailer.

You won’t believe this but I took a zillion pictures while at this workamping assignment and somehow managed not to take a single one of Quill parked. You’ll have to use your imagination with the photo I have. It was a nice little set up too. Dang.

This is the official entrance sign to the park, the railroad (which is not part of State Parks) and the dredge. To the left, you can make out a gate. Because it was a day-use park, one of the things I did every day of the week was open the gate in the morning and lock it at night. To the right of this is the maintenance shop, the cabin and the place for the two workampers to hook up.
There is even a nice privacy fence for the workampers. Quill is happily tucked behind the fence. Can you make out the white just above the fence? Across the parking lot to the left is the maintenance shop and cabin. For showers, I only had to walk across the parking lot.

Nature Trails in the Sumter Valley State Park

I staffed the Visitors Center from 10 – 4 each day that I worked. I loved the schedule because it allowed me to, every morning, get up and walk before getting ready to go to work. The state park includes 1.5 miles of trails. Rather than go on every trail twice each morning, first I’d walk the park trails and then I’d head up to the main road (only one of two paved roads in town) that is Oregon Route 410 (also called the Sumpter Highway, also part of the Elkhorn Scenic Byway) and walk the highway until I got to the speed limit sign allowing drivers to go 55 mph. I didn’t want to go further for fear cars going that fast might not see me. Through town they were supposed to go much slower.

A gravel trail among pine trees with a wooden sign that reads: South Trail .54 Miles.
One of two nature trails within the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge State Park. I walked both the South and North Trail every day during my stay.
Three deer among the hills with trees and wild grass.
A deer family who seemed to know there was no hunting within the state park boundaries. I saw them regularly.
Person from the back walking in the middle of the road with buildings on either side of the street.
Walking on the highway through town. You can tell how much traffic there was in Sumpter that early in the morning by the fact I walked in the middle of the road.

Host Appreciation Picnic

The Oregon State Parks system is made up of what they call Management Units (MU). Multiple parks are within a single MU. I don’t know if they have names but the MU that Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge was in is one of six (or maybe seven) parks, including Kam Wah Chung.

Anyway, in September the MU had a Host Appreciation Picnic down at the Clyde Holliday State Park. Clyde Holliday, you might remember, was where I went to do laundry during my time at Kam Wah Chung. That was a fun bonus for the timing of my assignment. In addition to the picnic, we got nifty swag. They offered a lot of things but with space being an issue I limited myself to one of their bags that now serves as my computer bag.

Me and the other Hosts in our MU. Notice anything? Yep, I’m the youngest by a decade or two. That gives you some perspective of what I was talking about regarding adult hide and seek. Not everyone in the photo is a Host but you get the idea.

Baker City, Oregon

Since Sumpter is a town of only 200, I’d drive 26 miles down the mountain every Monday to the town of Baker City. I’d go to the grocery store and run other errands. When my sister visited, trips to town may or may not have includes multiple visits to a micro-brewery and wine tasting. In town, I also went on a coupe of geocaching adventures. One successful. One not successful.

Baker City is a town of about 10,000. It’s decent-sized enough that you find most of what you want and need. There are a couple of museums and a quaint historic downtown area. Many of the visitors who came to the dredge stayed in Baker City.

More to Come about the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge

In the coming weeks, I will share more of my experience at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge. This includes:

  • Events during my time at the dredge, both at the dredge and in town, including a really cool classical pianist concert at the dredge, Halloween activities and the annual Flea Market.
  • A photo essay of the dredge and the surrounding area.
  • The story of my sister visiting which includes the tale of how and why I ended up in a bar clucking like a chicken. So, embarrassing. But as longtime readers will know, doing embarrassing and stupid things is kind of my middle name. Though never purposefully. And, really, what kind of sister visit is it if someone doesn’t end up doing something embarrassing?

Stayed tuned for more exciting stories to come!

I loved my morning walks, especially the really clear days where I got shots of the dredge and its reflection in the pond it sat in.

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