Finding Therapy in the Snowy Blue Mountains

How one skier found solace and a new appreciation for winter trail restoration in Eastern Oregon.
December 10, 2021

Editor’s note: Face coverings (ages 5 and up) are required at all indoor public spaces statewide, regardless of vaccination status. Learn more here. 

The snow drifts over my cross-country skis in Eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. The sun breaks through the clouds. All is quiet until my friend Kyle encouragingly calls to me from down below: “C’mon, it’s not that steep.” But it’s no use. After slowly climbing uphill and blissfully gliding through a section appropriately called the Enchanted Forest, I’d come to a pause. Looking down at the tilted slope between my shaky legs, the jitters set in. The nervous kind, not those that come from the brisk winter air I love so much. 

Years ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about hopping in and going straight down. As an avid double-black diamond downhill skier, I was all about the steep and deep at my Mt. Hood Meadows stomping grounds. During trips to Cat Ski Mt. Bailey — an expert-only area at Diamond Lake — the crazier the terrain was, the wider my smile. When everyone else was going inside due to cold weather at Mt. Bachelor, my friends and I knew what to do: beeline it for the chairs, knowing we’d have more runs for ourselves. 

It seemed like the thrills of skiing in Oregon would never end — until they did one evening in a gym two years ago when I blew out my knee while prepping for the upcoming season.

Healing on Skis

Working through my rehab, I could stare at the taunting poster of Mt. Hood on my physical therapist’s office wall for only so long. The itch was setting in. I knew downhill skiing was still a long way off but wondered: What about cross-country skiing? My therapist gave me the green light but advised me to take it easy.  

Too late. I was off into the woods as fast as some of the snowshoe hares I was hoping to see there during my admittedly slower journeys through Oregon’s winter wonderland. The joy I once experienced ripping down a slope with powder flying in my face was replaced by a new one. It was the therapeutic kind that comes from watching snowflakes fall gently through tall trees and getting into the quiet, steady rhythm of my skis on a track. These trips out to the Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Area — part of the Meacham Divide (open seasonally, Nov. 1-April 30, weather dependent) did more than help heal my knee. They healed me mentally like no gym ever could — and I had the hard work of a local volunteer trail crew to thank for it. 

Solace in Oregon’s Outdoors

While I was on my own recovery journey, there was a group out in the Blue Mountains going through some snow therapy of their own. Which brings us to my friend Kyle McFarley: He’s part of the Blues Crew, an all-volunteer group funded by the Blue Mountain Land Trust, which has been working in partnership with the Umatilla National Forest Service. 

Years ago, due to the U.S. Forest Service experiencing resource limitations, there were limited staff to maintain the area’s trails. As Blues Crew founder Greg Brown recalls, he could either sit around enjoying his time off or he could dig in and get to work on the trails he loved. The Forest Service welcomed the help and away he went. 

What began as just a handful of volunteers now numbers more than 79 who’ve logged more than 3,000 hours of trail-maintenance time. “It’s an eclectic mix,” Brown says of the crew volunteers, “but we all share an interest and love for the outdoors and making it better for everyone.”

Since early 2020, the crew has been clearing and putting up trail markers on the Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Trail, 40 miles northeast of Pendleton — getting their heart rates up, and enjoying warm cups of soup and hearty laughter at the workday’s end while keeping this storied area intact. It’s been a welcome distraction from all the anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Liz MacDonald, a Blues Crew member and NASA worker by day, likes to put it: “You walk out onto the trail on a weekend as this group of strangers and come back as a team of new friends.” 

The collection of volunteers also includes people like Ted Bergstrom, a retired pediatrician who now puts his effort into crafting trail signs, attracting new members and showing them the ropes. “Working with younger folks is special, that’s the future,” he’ll tell you.

Bergstrom has helped mentor volunteers like PeiPei Cai, a recent college graduate and international student from China. “No matter where you’re from, everyone on the Blues Crew is always there to teach you how to be safe with the tools,” Cai says. Sometimes that’s using a two-handed saw and other times it’s a Pulaski (a firefighting axe). But one thing is for sure: It’s a good release from being cooped up inside.  

“Everybody has stress. Everyone needs to have an outlet for it. The forest provides that for me,” says Brandon Schmidtgall, a Blues Crew member and firefighter/paramedic working on the frontlines. “The Oregon mountains are my safe workout facility.” 

Trails Welcome All

While the Blues Crew group is inclusive, so too is the Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Ski Area. “If you have a little bit of experience or a lot, there’s something for everybody — no high-tech apparel or lift ticket required,” Blue Mountain Land Trust president Linda Herbert likes to tell people. 

Here, miles of trails wind along a picturesque plateau above the Umatilla Watershed. It’s a place where tamarack trees shed bright saffron-colored needles every fall, which are later covered by a deep white blanket of snow. You can see it all from the perfectly groomed paths. Or venture a bit off the main trail at places like Hoot and Holler to let your skis make the first cut through crystalline facets of snow, and later rejoin the main loop. 

There are plenty of choices here. The point is to safely push and challenge yourself. 

Which brings us back to the hill in front of me. As patient as Kyle is, I can tell I’m holding him up with my nerves as I stand motionless on the steep incline outside the Enchanted Forest section. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to just go for it if I want to reward myself with hot cocoa back at the cabin. With a deep breath, I tuck into the set track and my skis glide along it like a controlled roller coaster on rails. For one moment, I feel like I’m back downhill skiing again.  

A trail marker provides direction

A person on a ladder places a blue diamond on a tree

How to Volunteer

The Blues Crew has several projects going on during the year — both in winter and summer — in scenic areas of the Umatilla and Malheur forests. The Blue Mountain Single Track Trails Club is building and maintaining single-track and cross-country ski trails in the Mt. Emily Recreation Area near La Grande while creating an actively engaged community. The Greater Hells Canyon Council has been restoring parts of the Greater Hells Canyon Region and Blue Mountains Trail through trail-maintenance programs that happen throughout the year.

A round wooden sign marks the entrance to a brewery
The Prodigal Son Brewery (Photo by Susan Seubert)

Stay and Eat Near the Blue Mountains 

If you head out to explore Eastern Oregon’s wintry wonderland, there are plenty of places to book a comfy room and grab a hearty meal. Consider staying at WildHorse Resort & Casino or Best Western Pendleton Inn in Pendleton, or discover the historic splendor of the Pendleton House bed & breakfast. Fuel up with European-style baked goods and coffee en route to the trail at The Blue Mountain Outpost. Later, sit down and grab a slice of pizza at Daisy’s Central Station in Weston. Or head back into Pendleton and check out Prodigal Son Brewery for a refreshing ale paired with a burger or fish and chips. While road-tripping through the region’s friendly small communities, be kind, patient and respectful of frontline workers at businesses that may be understaffed. 

If You Go:

If you don’t have one already, be sure to purchase a Sno-Park Permit online as they do ticket vehicles. The annual permit is $24; the daily permit is $4.

About The

Guy Ragnetti
Guy Ragnetti is a writer and creative director living in Portland, but his true home is in Oregon’s outdoors. When not working on stories for clients in the outdoor-recreation industry, you’ll find him backcountry skiing, surfing, fly-fishing and sailing. He shares these adventures with his wife, his daughter and their overly happy chocolate Lab.

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