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Hikers stop for lunch along the Tomahawk Trail in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

Hiking where skiers use to whizz

We used to made tracks on Tomahawk Mountain on downhill skis.

That ended in the appropriately Orwellian year of 1984 when the Tomahawk Ski Bowl closed because snow, which in previous decades had buried the mountain, became sporadic. Some years there was enough for Tomahawk to open, but many years there wasn't.

The former ski area's base, off Highway 140 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Rocky Point, is now the gathering place for Crater Lake Zipline, which recently opened for its second season. A poorly signed trailhead near the zipline parking area marks the beginning point for the Tomahawk Trail.

After an awkward start over an obstacle course of fence poles — the Fremont-Winema National Forest needs to properly maintain and mark the trailhead and parking area — Mark Thordsen of the Klamath Basin Outdoor Group led the way along the three-mile long trail that curls west along Tomahawk's northern flanks.

The rewards come quickly. The 10-minute huff''n'puff climb out of the parking area reveals views of Pelican Butte, the once-upon-a-time proposed downhill ski-snowboard area and, more spectacularly, the towering pyramid of snow-capped Mount McLoughlin.

After some uphill grades, the rolling, undulating trail carves its way through a shaded forest canopy, including a section where evidence of past logging is evident. It's a pleasant walk with occasional views of meadows that ends where it intersects with a dirt road that accesses a Bible camp. Don't turn around at the road. Instead, follow the obvious wide-cut abandoned road to a creek, a tranquil setting for lunch before reversing course for the hike back to the trailhead.

Shortly after lunch, Thordsen found a 10-plus-foot-long tree limb that he hefted on his shoulders. When that quickly broke, we found him another, even longer pole that he dubbed his "stick of stupidity." Doggedly determined, Thordsen propped it on his shoulder for the trek back, sometimes lifting and shifting it to angle through narrow, tree-lined passages. Why did he do it? No particular reason, but he made a vow to carry it the distance, a promise he showed he could stick to. He propped it in a hole near the parking area.

About the Tomahawk Ski Bowl

The Tomahawk Ski Bowl was a small ski area with three runs accessed by a single poma lift. The total vertical was only about 600 feet from the hill’s 4,800-foot summit to the base area just off Highway 140 near Rocky Point. Its popularity stemmed in part from its short distance, about 30 miles, from Klamath Falls. Unreliable snowfall led Tomahawk’s owners, Don and Marie Nivens, to close it permanently in 1984.

One of the major challenges at Tomahawk was riding the poma lift used to transport skiers to the mountain's summit. Although frequently used in Europe, poma — also called button — lifts are seldom used in the U.S. At Tomahawk, it was common to see skiers, especially beginners — including me — catapulted off the lift when it jolted, usually seconds after sliding the disk between the legs. Less often but more catastrophically, skiers sometimes fell off two-thirds of the way up the mountain. It was hard to know which was worse, being a raw beginner skier and floundering around on the steepest part of the hill or embarrassingly flipping and tumbling in front of a line of hollering skiers waiting their turn.

Neighboring Pelican Butte

From Tomahawk, skiers could see nearby Pelican Butte. With a peak elevation of 8,037-feet, Pelican Butte is snow-covered long before snow falls on Tomahawk and remains snow-covered long after Tomahawk slopes are snow-free.

Proposals to build a larger ski area on Pelican Butte began in the 1960s. In late 1984, the Forest Service released a draft environmental statement that included a preferred alternative for a $14 million development that, at its maximum build-out, would have had nine chairlifts with a vertical rise of 3,800 feet, with 54 runs for beginner to expert skiers and snowboarders. The proposal included a "comfortable carrying capacity" of 4,800 skiers or up to 6,000 at peak periods. It was estimated a developed ski area would have had 40 to 85 full-time and 280 to 575 part-time/seasonal jobs with those numbers increasing to 150 to 180 full-time and 985 to 1,230 part-time jobs after 20 years of operation.

The proposal also called for a base lodge, mid-mountain lodge and restaurant, 11 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, a portable warming hut, 2.4 miles of snowshoe trails and snowmobiling within sections of the area.

After more review, including staunch opposition from such environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild), the Forest Service announced no development would occur.

— Reach Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.

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