LAKEVIEW — There was a time when downhill skiing and snowboarding didn't include high-speed lifts, mountaintop gourmet restaurants, high-tech equipment and designer clothing.
The Warner Canyon Ski Area, 11 miles from the southeastern Oregon community of Lakeview, relishes its laid-back charm and history. It was on Warner Canyon's slopes that U.S. Ski Hall of Famer Jean Saubert, a 1960 Lakeview High School graduate who won a silver medal in the giant slalom and bronze medal in the slalom at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, honed her skills.
The rope tow that hauled Saubert and others up Warner Canyon was replaced about 15 years ago with a triple chair. But there's still a retro feeling, from skiers in blue jeans, many not wearing helmets, to an atmosphere where most everyone knows everyone else. And, although the remodeled kitchen in the ski area's cozy lodge offers hot dogs, burgers and bowls of chili, many folks still tailgate in the parking lot to palaver while grilling up lunches and post-ski snacks.
But what's really retro at the Warner Canyon Ski Area is the welcome abundance of snow. After being closed three of the past four seasons — and that one open year conditions were marginal — the snow returned in time for Warner Canyon to open just before schools closed for the winter holidays.
"We were able to open on the 23rd of December, and we had great crowds over Christmas and New Year's," says Jim Copeland, who's in his eighth year as the hill's manager.
Copeland and Barry Schullanberger, president of the Fremont Highlanders Ski Club, the group that oversees the area's operation, both say young skiers and snowboarders, especially those taking part in Saturday morning lessons, have helped revive interest while reinvigorating interest from their parents and other adults.
"We got a lot of kids up here, and they're getting parents on skis again, people I haven't seen for five, six years. They're bringing their parents up here," Copeland says.
"There's a whole bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds. That's fun," echoes Shullanberger, who is one of a half-dozen volunteer ski school instructors. He says they've worked with 55 young skiers and five boarders of various abilities, from first-timers to others with limited experience.
"It's a sweet deal," he says. "The big goal is to get them up and skiing or boarding and keep the sport alive."
Keeping the ski area financially alive has been a challenge. Shullanberger credits Lake County Commissioners with providing funding to help with ongoing costs for maintenance and insurance. This summer, a $40,000 grant will be used to install a well, while other funds are being used for ongoing ski-hill tree-thinning projects. There is also talk of adding RV hookups and dispersed camping to generate year-around use. Originally on land owned by the Forest Service, the ski area site was transferred to Lake County several years ago.
"The county has stepped in and helped," Copeland agrees, noting the area also draws skiers and boarders, including some who stay overnight, from southeast Oregon and northeastern California. "The commissioners have been great. I think they see this as something good for the community."
While Warner Canyon lacks the amenities of a Mt. Bachelor, its single three-person chairlift rises about 800 vertical feet and provides access to 21 runs, including a mix of beginner to expert terrain. And because of its relative southeastern location, lines are seldom seen.
"You can ski here as much as you can anywhere," Shullanberger says. He and Copeland say a busy day translates to 300 to 400 skiers.
"We actually had lift lines," Copeland laughs of crowds during the holidays. "People were having to wait a minute, maybe sometimes two minutes."
Along with short lift lines, Warner Canyon is also easy on the wallet. Adult day passes (19 to 68) are $32, student passes (13 to 18) are $18, and seniors (69 and older) pay $15. Shullanberger estimates about 150 people bought season passes.
This winter's snow also means the revival of the traditional Winter Snowfest on Saturday, Feb. 20. Events will include age-group races, a family fun race, snowboard freestyle events and a 4 p.m. tri-tip steak dinner to benefit the Warner Canyon Ski Patrol. After dusk is a torchlight parade featuring ski patrol members. The winners of Moonlight Dinner For Four, a five-course, gourmet, fundraising meal held at the summit ski patrol house to help maintain and upgrade ski hill operations, will also be named. Tickets for the drawing are $5 each or five for $20.
"People can choose to ride the lift up to the top of the mountain, take our snowcat for a ride, or ski down the mountain after a delightful dinner. Truly a one-of-a-kind experience," Shullenberger says.
Skiing Warner Canyon is a unique experience. The variety of runs is impressive, from beginner-friendly Easy Street and Little Cougar to smooth, sometimes steep groomers like Rock and Roll, The Face and T Bar Lane to carve your own routes like Oddie's Alley and Carlon's Slide. Along with being challenging runs, Coyote and Cougar offer expansive valley views both west and east of the ski hill.
"Warner Canyon is an old-fashioned ski area where the main goal is having fun," Shullanbarger says, a thought echoed by Copeland. As he boasts, "Lots of people are having lots of fun this winter."
For information about Warner Canyon, call 541-947-5001, visit its Facebook page, or see its website at http://warnercanyon.org.
Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.