For years I'd passed the Buck.
Or more accurately, I'd driven past the Buck Prairie Sno-Park off Dead Indian Memorial Highway. Thanks to a persistent friend, Niel Barrett, I now know what I've been missing.
The main Buck Prairie Sno-Park provides access to 16 miles of cross-country ski trails. Because it's only 13 miles from Ashland, it bustles with Rogue Valley Nordic skiers. It's a longer drive from Klamath Falls, about 50 miles.
"You've got to come," insisted Barrett, president of the Klamath Basin Ski Club and a walking Wikipedia of information about Southern Oregon cross-country ski areas. He frequently spends weekends in Ashland, often timing his winter commutes so he can ski Buck Prairie's enticing network of interconnecting trails. He also tracks online reports from the Southern Oregon Nordic Club, which provides regular trail grooming updates for Buck Prairie.
It didn't really take a lot of persuasion for me to join Barrett and Geoff LeGault for the drive to Buck Prairie, where we met Dan Rubenson, an economics professor at Southern Oregon University, at the trailhead parking lot. (Sno-Park permits are required.) Even though it was a weekday morning, the parking lot was filling fast.
We followed a well-tracked trail about a mile to an outhouse and trail junction, where we left the groomed trail and followed the signed but untracked Natashia's Web Trail steadily and sometimes steeply uphill. An overlook, Natasha's Viewpoint, offered a panoramic display of snowy peaks in the neighboring Mountain Lakes Wilderness along with, more pointedly, Mount McLoughlin.
Up and up we skied, passing signed junctions for Bullwinkles' Run, Rocky's Flight and the continuing Natasha's Web loop. The terrain somewhat leveled along the Table Mountain Trail before climbing out of the forest and sweeping around a broad, uphill curve to Boris' Bluff.
Wow! McLoughlin again dominated the view from the steep-edged overlook, but sunny skies also offered expansive sightings of peaks in the Sky Lakes Wilderness and Crater Lake National Park.
With Rubenson leading and breaking trail — "He's an animal," Barrett frequently announced — we continued south, sometimes climbing, sometimes cruising welcome downhill grades along the ridge by Henry Mountain to Natasha Fatale's Vantage Point.
Wow again! We gobbled snacks and devoured the views, including the peaks in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the mountains surrounding Ashland and, more jaw-dropping, the distant hulky slopes of Mount Shasta.
Because most of the nearly 5-mile ski to the viewpoint had involved making fresh tracks, we doubled back, skipping the upper reaches and views from Table Mountain. With Rubenson leading — "You see why I asked Don to join us," yelped Niel, "he knows the way" — we veered our rubber-legged way from the steeper downhills.
We rejoined Natasha's Web, mostly kicking and gliding down until eventually returning to the bathroom junction and, after the final mile-long push, the trailhead parking lot. We'd been out five hours and, according to the map, skied 10-plus miles.
It had been challenging. Early on, sticky skis caused me to make three waxing stops. But after they finally stopped accumulating clumps of snow, they slid like roller skates on the downhills. After two very ungracious, confidence-shattering, backward tumbles, in steeper sections I sometimes carved my own trail to avoid faster, previously skied downhill tracks.
It wasn't always pretty, but even a clumsy day of skiing is a great day.
Niel, as usual, was correct in crowing and rhapsodizing about the area. No more passing the Buck.
— Reach Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.