McKinzie Lane stands at the top of a snow-slick hill with a two-person inner tube in hand, staring into a dark abyss and wondering just what the heck friend Naomi Miller has talked her into.
Lane had heard that Diamond Lake Resort’s inner-tubing hill is a happy scream a minute in daylight, but at night...
“Honestly it is kind of scary,” Lane says. “There’s light, but at the bottom it’s pitch black.”
But the pair launch anyway, eventually reaching speeds of more than 35 miles an hour as they careen down the icy, strobe-lit lane, with 1980s Southern rock music blaring over a loudspeaker as they reach the bottom.
This isn’t your daytime tubing hill, for sure.
“It’s a lot colder at night, and it feels slicker than during the daytime,” says Miller, a one-day tubing veteran. “We were going really fast. Oh, my gosh.”
Then back onto the human conveyor belt the pair go for another round of oh-my-gosh.
Nighttime “innerstellar” snow tubing under the Friday evening stars at Diamond Lake is a popular winter experience for snow enthusiasts looking for a little extra slip in their slide.
Each winter Friday from 6 to 9 p.m., as many as a few hundred people plop down $30 for unlimited rides down Diamond Lake Resort’s tubing hill on Umpqua National Forest land near the frozen shores of Diamond Lake, located off Highway 138 about 90 minutes from Medford.
Just like daytime visitors, riders power down individually groomed lanes separated by snowy berms, allowing tubers to fly down the course like human Hot Wheels cars.
But the specter of doing so at night adds a measure of speed and sketchiness not afforded day-trippers.
“We come here all the time, and the night rides really are the best,” says Betsy Graham of Roseburg.
“Not really being able to see everything is kind of fun,” Graham says. “And the disco lights and the old music.”
Inner-tube use comes with admission, as do s’mores and hot cocoa at a warming fire at the base of the hill — remedies for the occasional light-headedness from spinning downhill the entire run.
“I’m just dizzy and I can’t stand up,” says a laughing Christine Hamb from Grants Pass.
“How fast was I going?” Hamb asks. “No idea.”
Hamb sat in the tube until her eyes stopped dribbling, then stood up and wobbled back in line for another go.
Hamb was back on the hill within 15 minutes, a far cry faster than a few years ago thanks to technical improvements ushered in by the resort two winters ago.
A 470-foot conveyor belt similar to those people-movers at airports has been a game-changer, ferrying tubers and tubes uphill far more quickly, easily and safely than in the past.
When the tubing hill was first developed in conjunction with the Forest Service in the mid-1970s, a tow rope was used to haul people and tubes up the hill.
“It was so popular, and the lines were so long, it was crazy,” says John Jonesburg, the resort’s events coordinator. “Only six
people could go up at a time. That’s why it could only get 120 people up there an hour. It was an old, archaic way of getting up there.”
Sometimes, the old tow rope offered quite a show on its own.
After rolling uphill in the tube, riders would have to dismount by literally rolling out of the tube and into the snow.
“The kids can live through it pretty good,” Jonesburg says. “But the older you get, the less you want to do that — roll off at the top.”
In December 2016, the resort installed the conveyor belt, which can handle more than two dozen sliders and tubes at a time, creating a 10-fold increase in uphill traffic.
“Now, if we have 6 feet between them, they can keep stepping on, and we can do 1,200 (tubers) an hour,” Jonesburg says.
“It’s done very well,” Jonesburg says. “It hasn’t paid for itself yet, but it’s definitely been a very good addition to our winter activities.”
In the past, parents would take their kids to the hill, but now they’re adding grandparents to the trip thanks to the conveyor.
“It’s kind of changed the dynamic of who comes and tubes with us,” he says.
Not only are tubers heading uphill faster, more are going down at a time, says Ariel Mehle, who oversees tubing from the top of the hill.
In the past, the resort’s larger Sno-Cat — used to groom snowmobile trails — was deployed on the hill, carving out just three bermed runs, Mehle says.
“Now we also have a smaller Sno-Cat, so now we run at least four, and as many as six lanes,” Mehle says.
The current set-up is for five lanes, with Lane 5 the fastest, Mehle says.
But every lane is faster for night tubers, because colder temperatures allow for the day’s light snowmelt in the sun to freeze, he says.
Duos like Lane and Miller go faster because the weight of two adds speed, Mehle says.
But the pair aren’t interested in a physics lesson, just a chance to feed their need for speed.
“I’m totally coming back,” Lane says. “This place is awesome.”