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Back-country Playground

From November through March, the parking lot off Highway 140 near the "great meadow" becomes a mini city. Bailing out of their travel trailers and motorhomes, campers roast hot dogs, swap stories around the fire and wage domino tournaments. But the real "play areas" are just off a nearby network of snow-covered trails.

Any open meadow clad in untracked powder can keep a snowmobiler happy for hours.

"The logged-off areas are our play areas," says Gene Bowling. "Most of the time, we play hard enough that we're actually sweating in the snow."

Bowling, 70, first went snowmobiling 25 years ago with a friend near Lake of the Woods. Afterward, he told his wife, Bonnie, that he wanted to buy a snowmobile. She coolly informed him that they'd be buying two.

"I have more fun than anybody else," says Bonnie Bowling, 67.

Over the years, the Medford couple has graduated from riding hundreds of miles of groomed trails between Crater Lake, Diamond Lake and the Klamath Falls areas to "boon-docking," or touring back country that would be virtually inaccessible most times of the year.

"I go places most people can't even find," Gene Bowling says. "It's absolutely, perfectly quiet, and I see no one else."

Whether it's hopping from one mountaintop to the next outside Lakeview or enjoying an open-air lunch atop Jackson County's Huckleberry Mountain in full view of Crater Lake, Southern Oregon's snowmobiling is unsurpassed, local residents say.

"We're in the trees; we're in the mountains, and it's just one view after the next," says Paul Hildebrand, 44, of Medford.

Hildebrand's parents, Arden and Pat Hildebrand, helped form the state's largest snowmobile club, Rogue Snowmobilers, in the early 1970s to ensure that their son and other kids could snowmobile, too. In addition to affiliation with a snowmobile club, the state requires children to obtain a permit to ride.

Those under age 16 or who don't have a valid driver's license still must obtain certification in one of numerous free classes held by Oregon's snowmobile clubs. Instructors, however, recommend the safety course for anyone who wants to snowmobile.

Among the basic rules are bans from snowmobiling in designated wilderness areas and other protected lands. Snowmobiling clubs around the state assume responsibility for maintaining and grooming vast trail networks, of which maps are readily available.

"The trails are an advantage," says Robin Blanks, 39, of Medford. "When the snow's as deep as it is ... you couldn't ride the trail if it wasn't groomed."

While snowmobiling clubs volunteer their time, the money to buy and maintain the groomers, which look like tractors, comes largely from state gas taxes.

The Oregon Department of Transportation furnishes funds that otherwise would go to highway improvements because snowmobilers buy thousands of gallons of fuel.

Combing the state's trail system are 27 groomers, says Bowling, grooming inspector for the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. A half-dozen of these machines operate within 100 miles of Medford, a range that includes about a dozen Sno-Parks, a third of which have snow shelters open to the public.

In many cases, the snow shelters are joint ventures with local cross-country skiers who, contrary to stereotypes, typically share the winter landscape with snowmobilers in a measure of harmony. Snowmobilers admit that a tiny fraction of their ranks flout riding restrictions, but the sport, as a whole, doesn't mar the landscape, they say.

"There's no sign that we've been there," says Chuck Biegert, a 51-year-old Ashland resident who also is an avid snowshoer.

"When the snow's gone, we're gone," Bowling says.

Between 3 and 6 feet of snow needs to accumulate before snowmobiles can safely operate off trails, Bowling says. The club starts operating its groomers once 2 feet of snow falls.

Fresh powder can challenge some of the most experienced riders if there isn't a frozen base several feet deep underneath, Blanks says. Dropping down into a deep valley covered in soft snow can leave a snowmobiler stranded, he says.

"It's like whipping cream."

Blanks and 42-year-old pal Sam Butler, of Medford, rely on global positioning systems to navigate the back country. But in case they ever crash, run out of gas or have another ill-fated reason to spend the night outdoors, Blanks and Butler carry emergency packs with food, water and some other supplies on their Ski-doo Summit X 800s. Bowling carries enough tools on his Polaris 700 to make emergency repairs.

If they ran across other snowmobilers, good-natured assistance would surely follow. This no-one-gets-left-behind attitude is one reason, Biegert says, that he and his wife, Laurel, enjoy the pastime so much.

That and cultivating "great friendships" in winter's outdoor play areas.

Back-country Playground