You can find just about anything on the Internet, including this definition of “dawn patrol" at About.com: “'Dawn patrol' refers to a surfer's arrival to the beach at or just before sunrise."
The reasons for getting an early start might include wanting to seize great conditions, a desire to beat the crowds or just an urge to get in a ride before work. Or maybe all of the above.
The idea of a dawn patrol isn't limited to surfing, nor is it limited to dawn, which is pretty dang early. So let's call the cross-country ski excursion that Map Guy, his son, Map Guy Junior, and I went on Friday, a just- after-dawn-patrol of Virginia Meissner Sno-park.
The idea was to meet at Meissner before we began our respective work days of reporting, cartography and, in Junior's case, concrete demolition.
Sunrise was at 7:35 a.m., so I planned to get up there at 7:30 to interview whoever I found at the trailhead. Map Guy and Junior would then meet up with me at 8.
Accent on the words “I planned to." One of the things I've come to appreciate about cross-country skiing, which I've now done a grand total of four times, is its relative simplicity: Dress in layers you can shed as you heat up, and the only other things you need to remember are skis, poles and shoes, some extra water, sunglasses, and maybe a snack if you're inclined.
Am I forgetting anything?
Of course I am. Once I reached Century Drive, I realized I'd left my sno-park pass in my wife's van. Rather than drive home to fetch it, I parked at The Bulletin's nearby office, waited for Map Guy and Junior, and we headed up together using Map Guy's sno-park pass.
We arrived at about 8:20 to find just three vehicles in the parking lot, one of them belonging to Bulletin photographer Andy Tullis.
That absence of vehicles is a great sight if you're on just-after-dawn patrol and want Meissner's groomed 40 kilometers of trails to yourself, but it's not so great when you're hoping to interview dawn patrollers.
Gathered around one of those cars was Tana Clark, preparing to head out with friends Susan and Greg Warnick before work. Clark, a massage therapist in her 40s, said she wanted to get in some skiing before her workday began.
Same with Dean Harris and Annemarie Hamlin, both professors at Central Oregon Community College. Harris said they like to ski before work and beat the crowds.
“We try to come up once a week during the week," he said. “Usually Thursdays or Fridays." They were there a little earlier than usual.
The two typically arrive at 9 a.m., and even at that hour the weekday crowd is light compared to weekends, “where you're driving around and around looking for a parking place," Hamlin said.
With Meissner just 20 minutes or less from town, it's both the obvious place to go and a time-saver, they said.
Other nearby options for a morning outing include nearby Wanoga, which is less than a minute down the road and allows dogs, and Swampy Lakes Sno-park, which the U.S. Forest Service recommends when Meissner is full. (On Sunday, my wife and I arrived at Meissner at 10 a.m. to find the parking lot already full, then headed to Swampy, where we found just a handful of cars.)
Elizabeth Justema, who said she was a Nordic Center ski instructor at Mt. Bachelor, overheard our trio talking about easy trails and stopped to recommend Tangent Loop, adding that it does get “a little hilly."
Map Guy laughed and darkly added, “There's only one hill."
This was a reference to the first time I'd come to Meissner with him, in early December. We'd headed straight out Tangent Loop, whose first segment is labeled easy on trail maps.
Do not be fooled.
Oh, it starts easy enough, and I suppose it's easy to ascend its one big hill if you're in halfway decent shape, but if you're doing an out-and-back trip to, say, the Meissner shelter, there's one not-so-slight problem: namely, you have to ski back down that ginormous hill of seemingly interminable length and pitch so steep it should have a runaway-skier ramp off to its right.
Alas, it does not. My first time there, I'd ended up side-stepping and falling my way down the hill at the insistence of Map Guy, who acted as if a bomb might go off if I took off my skis and walked down.
“Exactly," Justema said. “There's the one big hill."
“Is there any shame in walking down the big hill?" I asked, for Map Guy's benefit more than my own.
“No," she said. “Of course not."
“YES!" Map Guy countered.
“There's no judgment," she said as she walked off to the trailhead.
After a quick study of the trail map, we headed out on Currant Way, an easy trail that lives up to the label, eventually looping into Tangent, labeled intermediate on the portion we'd eventually reach. If you stink like I do at cross-country skiing, I highly recommend Currant as the way to go.
Junior had inherited his dad's old skis from the 1970s, so his were the most classic of all. This didn't seem to hinder him in the slightest, despite it being only his second time on cross-country skis.
He even took advantage of the skis' sharply upturned tips to blaze across the hardened snow and bravely glided to the bottom of hills only to wait for his dad and me. And the only reason he had to wait for his dad was because Map Guy Senior was always hanging back, waiting for me to catch up.
Due to warming weather and lack of snowfall, we hit some icy patches, but overall it was a sunny day in a beautiful setting. While not as bold as Junior, I, too, began braving hills a little more gamely than I had previously, thanks to my strategy of crouching, yelping like a distressed seal and dragging my poles in a brakelike manner.
We made it back to the car relatively unscathed, gulped down some water and decided we didn't want to get on with the rest of our days quite yet. So we headed out Tangent Loop to where it connects with Manzanita, then to Meissner shelter. We had it all to ourselves.
On the way back out Manzanita to Tangent, I made it clear I planned to walk down the ginormous hill. When we reached the intersection, a woman who'd just ascended smiled and said to us, “Have fun going downhill!"
“I'm walkin', are you kidding me?" I said.
Her jaw dropped faster than a runaway skier on an icy hill.
“Oh, no," she said. “Snowplow. That's what I'm going to do going down."
Snowplowing is when you turn your skis inward so that you look pigeon-toed as you hurtle toward your doom. Seasoned skiers have no idea how esoteric a feat that actually is to accomplish, but supposedly it helps you slow down. But when I've tried it, it's helped me come to a complete stop by falling forward once the tips of my skis cross.
Maybe walking down is heresy to purists, but the views are just as easy on the eyes — and the lack of collision with the snowpack is far easier on the rest of the body.
You might think skiing before work would leave you feeling worn out, but as Brennan Wodtli told The Bulletin, “It's peaceful and Zenlike, and it makes you productive the rest of the day."