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Central Point skier Suzanne Rotz has been to the four-day Senior Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe program at Diamond Lake five times. On Sunday she was traversing the Buck Prairie Trail east of Ashland. - Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch

Snow Diamond

Cross-country skiers converge on Southern Oregon every February to experience a real jewel: Diamond Lake. Two big events — the four-day Senior Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe program and the annual John Day Citizens Cross-Country Ski Races, make this high-mountain wonderland the place to be for cross-country skiers in February.

"I have friends who come from San Diego. One of the volunteer instructors comes from Montana. Last year there were about 140 people," says Central Point skier Suzanne Rotz, who has been to the Senior Week event five times.

For a fee of $175 plus lodging, skiers receive lunch, buffet dinners and as much instruction as they can handle.

"It's like a cruise with no ship. You're really being catered to and taken care of," Rotz adds.

Classes are held twice a day, in subjects ranging from how to dress to advanced ski techniques. If you think you're too young, take heart. The definition of "senior" is loose here. Some people bring their children.

Instructors lead day trips on local ski trails. For those who find themselves tired on the trail, a call on a walkie-talkie will produce a snowmobile for a ride back to the lodge.

This year's ski week runs from Monday, Feb. 7, to Thursday, Feb. 11. For Rotz, the timing couldn't be better.

"We go up a day early for the Super Bowl party at the lodge. There's a big-screen TV there," she adds.

If competition is your thing, 2011 is the silver anniversary of the annual John Day ski races, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 20, at Diamond Lake Resort.

These races — held the Sunday before Presidents' Day every year — were named for the Medford Nordic skier who was an alternate on the 1964 U.S. Olympic ski team. John Day was also the founder of the Oregon Ski Club.

Three races start together. Skate-style skiers race for 20 kilometers, classic kick-and-glide skiers race 10K, and all others race for a non-timed 5K.

The course is 5-kilometers long and traces a series of undulating loops that resemble the fingers of a hand. The longer races follow several laps of the course.

"We usually get 90 people, weather permitting, including Special Olympics skiers," says Edgar Hee, a board member of the Southern Oregon Nordic Club, the race organizer.

"Weather permitting" is a key phrase to remember — especially this year — because of the warm weather that has been eating into the snow pack all month. It's not impossible that one or both events could be rescheduled, so call ahead before loading the car.

The Southern Oregon Nordic Club runs a bus to and from the Rogue Valley for the John Day race.

"The longer races are competitive, but friendly. The 5K course is for people who don't want to be timed. We usually get a lot of school-aged kids in that race," Hee explains.

For those seeking a more solitary way to experience Diamond Lake on skis, the Hemlock Butte trail has something new to offer this year.

A 3.8-mile ski on this trail from the Three Lakes Sno-Park on Highway 230 takes you to the Hemlock Butte shelter. Last summer, the Roseburg-based Edelweiss ski club and the U.S. Forest Service renovated this structure, a three-story, enclosed, A-frame that sleeps 15.

"We cut the rot off the bottom logs and sealed it with epoxy. We also replaced the (wood) stove and the roof," says John Armes, a resident of Winchester, who coordinated the effort for the Edelweiss club.

The shelter was originally built in 1989-90 by Edelweiss members with materials provided by the Forest Service.

"All logs were felled within 100 yards of the present cabin site and yarded to a central site with a garden tractor, where they were peeled and milled with a portable chainsaw mill," says Armes.

The cabin is so popular that this winter is entirely booked.

"We're booked solid from New Year's through April. If anyone calls, I put them on a cancellation list," says Earl Singren, who works in the recreation department at the Diamond Lake Ranger Station of the U.S. Forest Service.

Because of the cabin's popularity, next winter the Forest Service will use an online reservation service with a fee.

According to Singren, the cabin is open for anyone to come inside 24/7 to warm up. It's up to the party with the reservation to decide whether there's enough room to accommodate one or two walk-ins for the night. The capacity is 15, and it's a popular destination for Boy Scout troops.

The ground floor of this 18-by-26-foot cabin holds the stove, as well as enclosed rooms for a woodshed and an outhouse-style toilet. A second-floor sleeping loft spans the interior.

Although it's warm inside, don't expect creature comforts.

"There's no electricity or water. You'll have to melt your own snow," Armes adds.

The trail to the shelter takes 11/2 to 21/2 hours, depending on skill and fitness level, as well as weather conditions. Even if it's not snowing, consider going with someone who's been there.

"Most of it is well-marked (with blue diamond markers), but the Road 300 segment is poorly marked. Some people have been less than 100 yards away and never found the cabin and turned around and gone home," Armes warns.

The first half of the trail to the shelter is shared with snowmobiles, but the second half is for nonmotorized travel only. The trip includes an elevation gain of 600 feet.

"I like wandering through woods. The wooded area is not completely closed in. On this trail you can see (Mount) Thielsen and catch glimpses of (Mount) Bailey, weather permitting, and perhaps Crater Lake Rim," says Kevin Wood, a Medford skier who has traveled this trail several times.

For information about the Hemlock Butte shelter or ski maps of the Diamond Lake area, contact the U.S. Forest Service at 541-498-2531.

For more information on the John Day ski races and Senior Ski Week at Diamond Lake, see the Nordic club's website at http://southernonc.tripod.com.

Entry forms for the races can be downloaded from http://southernonc.tripod.com/id6.html or can be obtained by calling Dan Bulkley at 541-535-5979. Day-of-race registration runs from 8 to 9:30 a.m. at Diamond Lake Resort. The mass-start race begins at 10:30 a.m.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

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