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Skiing the Moon

Discovering the beauty — and history — of Moon Prairie
Photo by Lee Juillerat Mary Smelcer kicks and glides through unskied snow along Moon Prairie.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Mount McLoughlin dominates the landscape from meadows along Moon Prairie.

The day was sunny and surprisingly spring-like warm. Even better, the snow was the stuff of fluff — powdery and light, just perfect for cross-country skiing.

We were skiing the Moon Prairie Loop Trail with some improvised variations. From the Deadwood Sno-Park, located off Dead Indian Memorial Road at milepost 22, we crossed the highway, clipped into our skis and headed south.

Mary Smelcer, who was leading the way, likes setting her own path. “I like to wander off,” she later laughed.

We followed as she left the tracks created by earlier skiers and cut a new path through an open meadow with views of surrounding mountains before returning to the trail.

But we didn’t follow those tracks for long. Instead, we followed Mary as she again began carving her own route, curling around and angling gently up through open meadows, past a stand of towering grand firs along the mostly snow-hidden Hoxie Creek. We paused to ogle a one mammoth fir, with branches so low to the ground that it can serve as a bivouac. Working our way to Upper Hoxie Creek, the route steepened and climbed to another opening, where stacks of humongous boulders blocked the road.

The full realization of the elevation we’d gained came as we kicked and glided down a snow-covered road, one enclosed in a portico of trees. Even in untouched powder, for several minutes we zipped along, with those in the rear just gliding or double-poling to add speed in the freshly cut tracks.

Mary, who is retired from the Bureau of Land Management and also served as a district ranger for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on the Ashland and Applegate ranger districts, is familiar with the trails and the region’s backcountry.

“Now,” she tells, “I’m a professional recreationalist.” Mary also knows about the area’s history.

Moon Prairie, as she explained, is a meadow on Hoxie Creek on private land just outside the present National Forest boundary. More details are provided in, “A Place Name History and Gazetteer of the Rogue River National Forest.”

The meadow, it reports, was “almost certainly named prior to 1900 for Andrew S. Moon, a Pennsylvania-born settler on the upper Bear Creek Valley whose cattle grazed the area. A 20th century descendant logged and milled much of the vicinity during the 1920-’40s.”

Likewise, “Place Name History” tells that Hoxie Creek was named either for Obadiah Hoxie, who was born in Massachusetts and settled in the upper Bear Creek Valley in the 1870s, or for one of his six sons. Hoxie family members grazed their stock and hunted deer in the “lush meadows” of the Dead Indian Plateau.

Deadwood Creek, which we followed south from the parking area before veering cross country, has its own history. Again, according to “Place Name History,” based on evidence from early photos, Deadwood “was apparently named for the presence of fire- or insect-killed timber around the edge of the meadow,” originally on maps as “Dead Wood.” The area is now dense with lodgepole pines.

But the area’s history wasn’t something we thought about during our ski. Instead, the focus was on our delicious surroundings — the trees, the creek, the often forever views and the ideal snow. Even Niel Barrett, who has spent a lifetime skiing miles of backcountry terrain at Moon Prairie and seldom-seen areas of Klamath and Jackson counties, hadn’t experienced that area Mary guided us through.

Our ski, especially away from the established route, had been scenic with its bucolic mix of sights. But it was on the final mile or so while skiing back to our cars when the four of us paused, awed by the sight of snow-lathered Mount McLoughlin, its broad triangular base rising to its pointy summit. Sometimes it was framed through the trees and other times broad and expansive, totally dominating the landscape.

With the ongoing fickle, ever-changing so-called winter, it’s hard to know if the snow will linger long enough to offer more backcountry ski experiences. Here’s hoping.

And here’s hoping, too, that along with providing a much-needed snowpack, places like Moon Prairie will offer others opportunities for an over-the-moon experience.

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