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'Freedom' Rides

Pristine, powdery snow covers the valley like frosting on a cake, irresistible to two men idling machines atop the hill.

As if choreographed in slow motion, the snowmobiles drop into the depression, sending up a spray of snow. The sleds lazily sashay over the creamy surface, the engine noise muffled by heavy silence all around.

Unlike the shallow scuff of snowshoers or the side-by-side ribbons of cross-country skiers, the snowmobilers proudly mark their territory. In just a few minutes, the valley looks like some hefty animal wallowed there.

"It's my own little secret," says Robin Blanks. "I brought a snowboarder in here once," he adds, explaining that he towed the rider behind his sled like they were on a lake.

Blanks, 39, and 42-year-old Sam Butler, both of Medford, will spend every weekend through May seeking solitude on a snowmobile. A 250-mile maze of groomed trails is just a short jaunt from Blanks' log cabin near Lake of the Woods. But the friends prefer backcountry sledding. With the Winema National Forest to the east and the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest to the west, there's hardly a spot out of reach.

"We just see a mountain, and we go," Blanks says. "We don't need a trail."

The word "freedom" comes to mind when they think of snowmobiling, Blanks and Butler agree. Meeting several years ago during a water-skiing and camping trip organized by a mutual friend, the two recognized a kindred spirit.

Butler started riding 25 years ago in Eastern Washington. When he moved to Medford in May 1999, the palette of browns — broadening with each mile he drove south — sunk Butler into a funk. Mountains robed in summer colors offered little encouragement.

"I'm like, 'I'm glad I just bought those two new sleds because there's no snowmobiling.'"

It didn't take long, however, for Butler to discover what so many Southern Oregon residents already knew.

"It's the best riding I've ever ridden."

The state's biggest snowmobile club, Rogue Snowmobilers, formed in 1972 and now includes more than 200 families. Club volunteers groom a network of trails bounded roughly by Highway 62 to the north, Crater Lake National Park to the east, and Lake of the Woods to the south — the spur that comes so close to Blanks' cabin off Dead Indian Memorial Road.

Money to buy, operate and maintain the groomers, which look like tractors, comes largely from state gas taxes. Because snowmobilers buy thousands of gallons of fuel, the Oregon Department of Transportation furnishes some funds for trail grooming from taxes earmarked for highway improvements.

"The majority of the riders will stay to the groomed trails," Blanks says. "It's safe; it's comfortable."

Snowmobiling's popularity is obvious in the dozens of pickups crowned with camper shells and towing cargo trailers that fill a parking lot off Highway 140 nearly every weekend in winter. Nearby, several snowmobiles race across "the great meadow's" flat expanse.

"As much as its a motorsport thing, it's a social thing," says Chuck Biegert, a Rogue Snowmobilers board member.

And the pastime has become much more enjoyable in the past decade, enthusiasts say. A far cry from Butler's 1972 Scorpion, new snowmobiles cruise effortlessly at 70 mph and generally come equipped with luxuries like heated hand grips, heated floorboards, thumb-warmers and even heated seats.

"The old sleds didn't have very good suspension." Butler says.

"Now they're sports cars," Blanks adds. "We got the biggest, baddest ones now."

Their 2008 Ski-doo Summit 800s come with an $11,000 price tag apiece. But that doesn't keep Butler from buying a new one almost every year.

The friends also invested in two-way radios on their helmets and emergency packs strapped to the back in case they get mired and have to spend the night outdoors. Such precautions are particularly important for "boon-dockers" like Butler and Blanks who eschew groomed trails.

"We live by GPS now," Butler says.

The two adhere to laws against riding in wilderness areas. Their only other limitation is how much gas they can carry. Riding at night is better, Blanks says, because fewer snowmobiles are out and the sled's headlights cast the snow in precise contours.

"You can go anywhere," Blanks says. "There's literally not an obstacle you can't get over."

Sam Butler makes fresh turns on his snowmobile outside his friend’s cabin at Lake of the Woods. Andy Atkinson Photo