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Step Back In Time At This Small Town Ski Hill

Warner Canyon: It's small, it's simple — and locals work hard to keep it that way. 

Photo: Ian McCluskey/OPB

The kids want to show me their favorite run. To get to it, we cut across the groomed run and head into the trees.  

“It’s pretty easy to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going,” says Annette, my new volunteer backcountry ski guide.  

Skiing beside us are Annette’s middle school classmates, Levi and Reed. We glide through stands of pines, sun glinting down.  

As a reporter for “Oregon Field Guide,” I am spending the day skiing Lakeview’s Warner Canyon, one of Oregon’s smallest and most remote ski areas. Cameraman Greg Davis and I are here to experience the second-oldest ski hill in the state (started 1938 — the same year as Timberline.)

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What is quickly becoming obvious to us is that skiing here is different. There’s a feeling I can’t quite fix — like I’ve stepped back in time.

The kids carve easy turns. Reed cuts through the heavy spring snow as if it were fluffy powder. He’s been skiing since he was 3. Annette says she has been skiing Warner Canyon since she was 1 and a half. Her dad, who is on the ski patrol, is somewhere out there on the groomed runs, patrolling. Levi and Reed’s parents aren’t even at the ski area today.    

“When we were real little, our parents would check up on us,” Reed says.  

“Yeah,” Annette agrees, “but nowadays our parents don’t really check in with us. They’re like, ‘Well, here you are, here’s the hill, have fun!’”   

The locals call this small-town ski hill “the world’s largest babysitter.”  

Our volunteer ski guides show us their favorite trail.

Our volunteer ski guides show us their favorite trail.

Greg Davis/OPB

Suddenly the trees open.   

This is what the kids wanted to show me: a wide vista of the valley sprawling out before us for hundreds of empty miles.  

If this were a destination ski area — Breckenridge, Aspen, Whistler — we would see rows of condos, boutiques, breweries, ski shuttles and gondolas.

Instead, all we see is the expanse of khaki winter grasslands blanketed in snow. If we had binoculars, we could spot cattle in lowland pastures and antelope. In the distant hills, we’d spot deer and bighorn sheep. There are ranches, an antelope refuge, a wetlands reserve and thin ribbons of two-lane backroads. Far in the distance is Hart Mountain.

We take in the vista and cut back toward the lift — the one and only lift.  

"It's round and round you go," says hill manager Jim Copeland. Pictured: the lift lines at Warner Canyon

“It’s round and round you go,” says hill manager Jim Copeland. Pictured: the lift lines at Warner Canyon

Greg Davis/OPB

“At the most we have maybe a 10-, 15-person lift line,” says hill manager Jim Copeland. “It’s round and round you go!”

Jim, aka “The Powderhound,” is one of the few paid employees of Warner Canyon. For the most part, this small ski hill is a volunteer effort, headed up by a hands-on board of directors.   

It’s only open on weekends. Each Saturday morning, hours before dawn, Dave Knowles starts a fire in the wood stove of the small lodge and then climbs in the snowcat.

“Downhill Dave” has been groomer for Warner Canyon since 1984. He started as a volunteer, but now he gets paid a little. He donates 80 hours before he takes pay, and even then he doesn’t log all the hours he works.    

As he bounces in the cab, he presses and releases the blade controls with the ease of familiarity. He’s logged nearly 20,000 hours in the snowcat, he says. This model is called a Bombardier, a fitting name, as Dave steers it straight downhill. I have to grab to keep myself from slamming through the windshield.  

“I got this job by necessity because these are kind of like a Harley Davidson,” he says over the rattle of the tracks and the grumble of the diesel engine. “You gotta work on ‘em for an hour and ride ‘em for an hour.”  

"Downhill Dave" grooms the slopes of Warner Canyon at dawn.

“Downhill Dave” grooms the slopes of Warner Canyon at dawn.

Greg Davis/OPB

To stretch money, Warner Canyon buys used snowcats from other resorts. Dave fixes them and ekes out a few more miles. The one chairlift was also used — a hand-me-down from Squaw Valley in California. A rural spirit of thrift and resourcefulness seems to be applied to this ski hill.  

When volunteers first started the hill in 1938, they made a rope tow, powered by the engine of a Chevy pickup. Then, in 1971, they replaced it with a T-bar — made possible because individual families agreed to each “sponsor” a tower by digging out the foundations by hand.  

Brothers Pat and Mike Sabin recall helping their dad dig the foundation for one of the T-bar towers. They both grew up skiing Warner Canyon in the 60s, and then joined the ski team as high schoolers in the early 70s. Now, they bring their grandchildren.  

Skiers kick back to soak up some winter sun, circa 1950s.

Skiers kick back to soak up some winter sun, circa 1950s.

courtesy Fremont Highlanders Ski Club

Around noon, folks take a break and hang out in the small lodge. It has a wood stove and a snack bar. A volunteer restoration project of board member Barb Stephens, it’s cozy and cute, trimmed in salvage barn wood and decorated with vintage skis and framed photos of ski teams past.  

These images trace back a proud ski history, including local Jean Saubert, who won bronze and silver medals in the 1964 Olympics.  

On this evening, Barb has organized a “Moonlight Dinner,” where raffle winners will be served a private home-cooked meal by Barb at the top of the mountain in the tiny ski patrol hut.  

Barb has been cooking for hours, trying her best on the wood stove. “It either burns or doesn’t cook,” she says. “But I tell myself it’s fun!”  

Her goal: raise more money so the lodge can have a deck. It seems simple, but it fits the larger picture here.  

Parents relax toward the end of the ski day as kids squeeze in a few more runs.

Parents relax toward the end of the ski day as kids squeeze in a few more runs.

Greg Davis/OPB

In the afternoon, as the day slows, the adults hang out in chairs outside the lodge, kicking back cold ones and soaking up winter sun. Some barbecue. Kids come to check in and head back up the lift.  

“I know everyone on the hill,” Annette says. As we ride up the chair again, she spots her dad in his red ski patrol jacket, waves and yells out that she loves him.  

I came to Warner Canyon to report a story about a ski hill. What I found is a story of a close-knit community. The theme repeated again and again. Like how a young couple saved the town’s only ski rental shop when they heard it was going to close. Or Loy, the eldest skier of the hill, who once skied here with his wife, Jennie. She died of cancer. The hill named her favorite run in her memory.  

The residents of Lake County could have picked a lot of things to rally around. They picked their ski hill and stuck with it.  

“I remember when I was president (of the board),” recalls Dave Knowles. “We’d have bills come in and nothing in the checking account, and people would just take turns and say, ‘I’ll pay the power bill. I’ll pay this bill.’”  

Folks like Dave, Barb and Jim have given so much to this hill. In turn, the hill has given back in the form of community building and bluebird powder days.  

For our last run, we have the hill to ourselves. It is just a short run from the top of the hill. We can see the small lodge below and cars and trucks of parents arriving to pick up their kids.  

We slip on pole straps and point downhill.

Warner Caynon Ski Area: One hill, one lift, no lines

Warner Caynon Ski Area: One hill, one lift, no lines

Ian McCluskey/OPB

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Warner Canyon, Friends Of Trees, Climate And Butterflies (2904)

Oregon Field Guide: Episode #2904
Most Recent Broadcast: October 26, 2017