TrainingSki Across Oregon — In Search of Backyard Adventure

FasterSkierApril 3, 2008

Wouldn’t it be neat if you could ski across your state? That’s assuming it snows in your state. If it does, what about a winter travel corridor that patches together existing ski and snow mobile trails, unplowed roads, power line cuts, private property, lakes, and farmers’ fields to allow continuous travel on ski all the way from one end to the other?

Add a few good places to stay along the route so that camping is not required, and you have the ingredients for a multi day hut-to-hut style backyard adventure that is well within the abilities of many skiers. All you need is a map and a day pack. And good weather. Do part of it, or do the whole thing. Maybe you link up several states in a row, like a Pacific Crest Trail for skiers.

How many states could support a “ski thru” trail like this? Depending on the snow year, more than you would think. 10? 15? Aside from snow, the main challenge is finding the way. “Across” could mean any orientation — east to west, or north to south. Go diagonal for extra distance. Wherever the obvious line points (dictated by topography and existing trails), that’s where you go. Maybe you can’t go all the way across a state, but a significant section is doable.

There is something about multi day, human-powered surface travel. You learn about a place. You meet people who live there. You develop a rhythm and a story. Whether by bike, foot, ski, kayak, sailboat or roller skates, moving across the landscape under your own power has been the source of many classic travel tales through the ages. It still works. And skiing, one of the most efficient modes of transport ever known, is a great way to go.

Where are good places for a ski thru? Vermont’s Catamount Trail [Link] may be the only existing border to border ski trail in the US today, and 2008 is the first year it has been around. The CT shows that volunteer groups can work together to secure the necessary permissions (200 private landowners involved) to piece together a continuous winter route. It also shows that people want such a trail. The entire CT is not open year round.

Snowy, woodsy New England is an obvious place for a ski thru trail (Come on New Hampshire and Maine! Are you gonna stand for that?!), but with enough snow and open space, the whole northern tier of the US is a possible playing field. Ski across Minnesota? Iowa? North Dakota? New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio? In a big snow year, you never know. All the mountain states are candidates, but they also have — well — mountains in the way. I’m really talking about cross-country ski trails, not mountainous back country traverses. The ideal terrain is relatively flat, possibly groomed, close to trailheads, and doable on light nordic skis — skate skis on the perfect day.

After reading an article about the CT last fall, I wondered whether a similar trail could exist in Vermont’s sister state: Oregon. If you can do it in the Green Mountains, why not in the Cascades? Oregon has the mother of all snow machines and hundreds of miles of moderate, high elevation terrain along the east side of the Cascades. If any state should have a ski thru trail, it’s Oregon.

I got out the road atlas. You could follow the Pacific Crest Trail, but that would mean waiting for spring conditions or breaking trail through ludicrous amounts of mid winter snow. I wanted to go fast with minimal gear and route-finding concerns, so a back country trip seemed out of the question. I looked for someone who had done it before but turned up nothing. Then in January I heard there is a groomed snow mobile trail system that crosses about 2/3 of the state on a north-south axis.

Mount Thielsen from BPA Powerline. “See in me the work of the master builder.”

My first attempt at the thru ski was doomed. I got in some good skiing, but my tactics were wrong from the get go. Too much stuff, which made me go too slow. I left my car at the finish line in Sisters and had a friend drop me in Ashland. I planned to go self-supported and camp. I didn’t have much (like no tent — what was I thinking?) as I set off from Route 66 outside Ashland, but the pack was too heavy. Luckily, I did have the sense to bring two pairs of skis — one skate and one waxless classic.

Ok, not the end of the world. Car-less, I spent the next few days trying to get back on track and considered changing the name of my quest to “Hitchhike Across Oregon”. It turned out hitch hiking was a pretty good way to get around. Many people’s first words were inevitably something like, “Are you ok?” Who was this guy in the middle of nowhere with two pairs of skis? I skipped ahead to the Crater Lake section — I would come back for the Klamath Basin — because I knew exactly where I wanted to go and thought I could do it whatever the conditions were.

Crater Lake could be one of North America’s nordic ski capitals. It gets lots of snow, starting early and lasting late. My second ski day of the season this year was at Crater Lake on October 21, and it was solid mid winter conditions. The loop road around the 7000 foot rim, which is exactly 50K, is a favorite overnight ski camping trip and can also be done easily in a day when conditions are right. If the Park Service were to groom any part of this road, Crater Lake would be a ski mecca. Even without grooming, when a solid melt freeze cycle sets in, the area offers amazing potential for wide open, high speed cruising and gorgeous views.

From the south rim, I skied clockwise around the crater on several inches of dry, cold snow until I hit the North Entrance road, which is groomed for snowmobiling. I had dreamed for years of skiing out the North Entrance road on hard conditions, and this was the day. I switched to skate skis at the junction and stepped onto the packed road for a nine mile, 2000 foot descent from the rim. For the first four miles or so, the grade was steadily down and I just tucked it. No need to even pole. When I hit the Pumice Desert and the first flat area, I started skating and was able to go the rest of the way at a good clip. This was what I came for (minus the pack).

Yo Rocco! One order of thin, hard crust. No onions. To go!

The second attempt was successful. I returned with the car and each day I would ski a section or two, then hitch hike back to my car and move ahead. I stayed in motels in Ashland, Chemult, and Bend. The freedom of skiing with no weight was amazing. Total freedom to ski for hours on end day after day. Returning to a room at night to shower and eat something warm was nice. After another six days of skiing (all on skate skis), I was able to link up the sections from Ashland to Sisters. There is indeed a groomed ski highway across most of Oregon that is perfectly suited to skiing and waiting for you to carve your signature on it. Strangely, I saw almost no snowmobiles, and only one other skier.

Compressed view of approximately seven miles of the finest crust cruising Central Oregon has to offer. Along the BPA Powerline at Diamond Lake Junction. Come ski yourself silly. Then do it again tomorrow. All day, every day. No wonder sled dogs are so happy! *sigh*

Chemult to Crescent Lake

Probably the single most compelling and straightforward of all the sections, if you are going to do just one. A beautiful 30 mile section of mixed terrain. When frozen, a race course. There should be a 50K race on this route. Incredible views.

Cascade Lakes Highway

Skied over 50 miles from Mount Bachelor all the way south to Route 58. Out of control steep downhill for first few miles on frozen surface (in dark). Double poled most of the way from Elk Lake on. Hours and hours of double poling. Road is in the shade a lot of the way.

Downhill to Sisters

The last day I skied from Mont Bachelor to Sisters, an easy distance. After some uphill, the route turns into a long, sustained downhill into Three Creeks Sno Park. It had just been groomed and looked like a run at a ski area. I tucked for miles, then skied another six miles through the woods until the snow ran out and there was nothing left to do but have breakfast at the appropriately named Ski Inn in Sisters. Probably the first time they had a pair of skis leaned against the window.

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