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Nordic tracks

Spring might seem an unlikely time to think about cross-country skiing, but veteran skiers know April and May often bring fine days in the snowy high country.

And if you're looking for a new way to get out and enjoy Southern Oregon outdoors next winter, those "skinny skis" might be worth looking into.

Many popular cross-country ski trails follow forest roads, so as long as there's a few inches of snow to cover the gravel or the pavement, skiers can actually ski.

Logging roads that crisscross the Cascades provide miles and miles of routes for cross-country skiers to explore, says Michael Dawkins, who teaches cross-country skiing for the Southern Oregon Nordic Club.

"We have terrain equal to any in the country," says Dawkins, and he should know. He spent years working in the ski industry in Vail, Colo., before returning to Ashland, his childhood home.

Many of those forest roads are groomed — smoothed and compacted to produce a uniformly dense skiing surface with shallow grooves ("corduroy") just like an alpine ski run. The consistent surface enhances the ski experience for everyone, but it's especially helpful for beginners who are still getting the feel for being on skis.

"They are awesome roads and little-used," Dawkins says. "They're totally groomed out, and that makes skiing easier."

The nordic club grooms trails that are reserved for skiers only at the popular Buck Prairie area, 13 miles east of Ashland on Dead Indian Memorial Road. Rogue Snowmobilers, the local enthusiasts' club, grooms roads that are also open to skiers who don't mind an occasional encounter with snow machines.

Dawkins recommends newcomers take one of the classes offered by the nordic club to get off on the right foot. The nordic club also grooms several areas at Hyatt Lake, where the flat terrain helps new skiers focus on learning to ski, says Bob Plummer, one of the nordic club volunteers who drives the grooming machine.

"There are some nice little loops in there," Plummer says. When conditions allow, the nordic club generally offers lessons every Saturday at Hyatt Lake.

When novices feel comfortable on the snow, they can join a nordic club outing or set off on their own. Many start at Buck Prairie, where several trails offer a range of terrain. Skiers can choose from several short loops that cover 3 to 5 miles. (There's a convenient forest toilet just 1 mile from the parking area.) Those who have basic skills can stay on the easier routes such as Natasha's Web and Bullwinkle's Run, where there are several scenic viewpoints that cry out for a camera.

It won't take long before you realize cross-country skiing comes in several different flavors. "Skate" skiers use narrow skis and long poles on groomed surfaces, pushing off the sides of their skis and pushing with the poles in a motion that recalls ice skating. "Classic" skiers wear wider skis, using the "kick and glide" motion that most people associate with cross-country skiing. Backcountry skiers like to get off the groomed surfaces in pursuit a more isolated, wilderness experience, but they generally go slower because they often have to make their own trails, pushing each ski slowly ahead of the other. Telemark skiers enjoy skiing down steep slopes and use heavier skis and boots to maintain control.

There are enough routes for skiers to choose a different one for every weekend outing. A number of trails around Highway 140 at Lake of the Woods follow forest roads that go as far as Fourmile Lake. Groomed roads such as Forest Road 37, which connects Highway 140 and Dead Indian Memorial Road, offer more opportunities for exploring. Other routes follow sections of the Pacific Crest Trail.

"We have so many places," says Stefanie Ferrara, a longtime nordic club member. Maps of winter recreation sites are available for $6 from the U.S. Forest Service, and at the nordic club's regular meetings. (For more information about the nordic club, see its website at southernonc.tripod.com or search for Southern Oregon Nordic Club on the Web.)

Skiers soon learn that weather plays a huge role in their experience. Some routes, such as the trails on the south side of Mount Ashland, are spectacular in good weather but miserable on many days.

The Grouse Gap Trail, for example, with its picture postcard views of Mount Shasta, "is the best place in the world on a spring day with a good snow surface," Plummer says, but it can turn icy after several days of sunshine and clear, cold nights. The trail is nearly impassable when storm winds blow out of the southwest and visibility shrinks to just a few feet. Even veteran skiers have become disoriented in whiteout conditions just a half-hour's ski from the parking lot. Some have had to spend a night in the snow waiting for clear skies.

Once you've got your skiing legs, you might think about entering the John Day Citizen's Cross Country Ski Race at Diamond Lake Resort. The race, open to all ages and abilities, happens every February and includes 20K, 10K and 5K freestyle (skating allowed) events and 10K and 5K classic (diagonal stride only) events. Entry forms can be downloaded from http://southernonc.tripod.com/id6.html.

Members of the Southern Oregon Nordic Club ski along the dog-friendly portion of the Buck Prairie trail network off Dead Indian Memorial Road. - Jamie Lusch