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Wide-open skiing at Wood River Wetland

Photo by Lee JuilleratNancy Freye and Sara Gray ski along snow-covered trail at the Wood River Wetland.

It was worth the wait.

Three years ago, friends and I were hiking along trails in the Wood River Wetland when we wondered what it would be like to cross-country ski the area in winter. The hike itself was subtly enjoyable, with frequent views of nearby marshes lining Agency Lake, the more distant Upper Klamath Lake, faraway Cascades peaks and, even better, an array of birdlife. What, we speculated, would it look like under a coating of snow while gliding along on skis?

Last week we found out. We weren’t disappointed.

Because of its elevation, about 4,100 feet, and its wide-open, sun-exposed terrain, it takes a series of snowfalls to create a suitable snowpack for cross-country skiing. Recent warming has melted the snow, but on the final day of 2021 conditions were still good enough to ski.

A day earlier Liane Venzke and I had checked out the snow conditions. We skied less than a mile before turning around, chilled by bitterly cold, blistery winds with gusts that tested our skills at staying upright. But the next day, when we were joined by Sara Gray and Nancy Freye, the winds had calmed.

The trail begins behind a gate that prevents motorized vehicles from entering the 3,200-acre wetland and follows the Dike Road. In about a half-mile it reaches a junction. The way north follows the scenic Wood River corridor. We continued west along the snow-covered gravel road about a mile-and-a-half to another junction, where the Dike Road veers south into the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and the route north parallels the Sevenmile Canal.

As we neared the canal/refuge junction, cattle paused from their grazing. Obviously bewildered by us intruders, two standing and staring in the road did an abrupt about-face and stomped off. As they rambled, others in neighboring fields followed, with the whole herd quickly romping lemming-like and out of sight.

The cattle were a fun surprise, but the true treat was the ever-evolving scenery. Throughout the day the sky was alive with a kaleidoscope of colors, repeatedly shifting and changing its moods. At times the views south revealed streaks of flaming red hues. But within minutes the miles-away horizon was muddied with cloud-shading grays that steadily changed tones. In some pockets, ever-expanding patches of black clouds abruptly changed formation, with some exploding like dark, distant fireworks. Then, only minutes later, the clouds vanished, replaced by indigo blue skies.

During other seasons, the Wood River Wetland provides habitat for a Peterson’s Field Guide variety of waterfowl, raptors and birds — American bittern, wood ducks, multiple varieties of terns and duck, yellow and tri-colored blackbirds, warblers, sandhill cranes, grebes, American white pelicans, peregrine falcons, avocets and more. But because it’s winter, sign of birdlife is sparse.

Instead, the main sign of life was one of death. Both days I veered off the section of snow-covered gravel road to follow a trail with interpretive signs that dips closer to the marsh and the shores of Agency Lake. Both days the sight that indicates what lives along the wetlands were the tattered remains of a young coyote, semi-hidden in the snow, its head chewed and bloody.

I was later told by an Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist that predators will likely dispose of what remains — and was assured that members of the Rogue wolf pack are currently miles away in Butte Falls area.

Life and death. There’s a lot to see and experience at the Wood River Wetlands. Here’s hoping winter makes a snowy return.

Getting There

The Wood River Wetland is about 81 miles from Medford and 26 miles north of Klamath Falls. To get there from Medford, take OR-140 E and Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway to Modoc Point Road in Klamath County. Follow Modoc Point Road to the signed entrance to the Wood River Wetland, which has parking for several vehicles and an outhouse. The area is open year-round for nonmotorized vehicle use.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.