Oregon Nordic Club hosts McKenzie Pass ski

John Craig Memorial honors 19th-century mailman

By Beau Eastes / The Bulletin / @beastes


Published Feb 24, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Feb 24, 2014 at 05:02AM

John Craig Memorial Ski

What: 13.2-mile out-and-back nordic ski to the Dee Wright Observatory via the McKenzie Pass

When: Saturday, March 8, 9 a.m.

Cost: Donation to Central Oregon Nordic Club

Website: www.conc.freehosting.net/newsletters.html

Get ready to embrace your inner 19th-century mail carrier.

The Oregon Nordic Club on March 8 hosts its annual John Craig Memorial Ski, a 6.6-mile nordic trek from the east gate of the McKenzie Pass to the Dee Wright Observatory at the pass summit. While the cross-country ski club has staged races in the past to honor the memory of John Craig — the postmaster who died attempting to ski mail over the pass more than 100 years ago — this winter’s event will be a noncompetitive, groomed ski tour.

“It started out as a tour, went to a race tour, and now is back to just a tour,” says Oregon Nordic Club president Lee Fischer, who will be grooming a 10-foot-wide trail approximately 2,200 feet up the pass. “Take a lunch and bring some extra clothing just in case the weather goes south. It’s pretty much a backcountry tour, except it’s groomed.”

As recounted in numerous publications over the years, after forming the McKenzie, Salt Springs and Deschutes Wagon Road Company in 1871, Craig chiseled out a road in the lava fields just north of North Sister to form a McKenzie Pass crossing lower than what was available at the time. By 1872 he was charging wagons a $2 toll — horseback riders were $1, cattle were 10 cents and sheep were a nickel — and eventually he won a federal contract to deliver mail from the Willamette Valley to Camp Polk in Central Oregon. Near Christmas 1877 — accounts vary as to when exactly he left McKenzie Bridge — Craig headed off on skis eastbound over the McKenzie Pass with a bag of mail. He never made it to Central Oregon, and his body was found the following spring in a small cabin he had built on the pass.

In 1930, the John Craig Memorial monument — it is about 2 miles west of the Dee Wright Observatory — and four years later the first John Craig Memorial Ski Race was held. The race was staged intermittently for several decades until the Oregon Nordic Club took it over in 1972, holding some form of event to and back from the pass every year since to honor Craig’s memory and promote nordic skiing.

“We do it (the race) to get people interested in skiing,” says the 69-year-old Fischer, who was part of Oregon Nordic Club’s leadership in 1972 when the organization revived the event. “(Craig’s) story, is real interesting. It’s something pretty hard to do, carrying the mail across the pass.”

Fischer encourages skiers of all ages and ability levels to participate in the event and to “use common sense” about how far to go before turning around. He estimates that in good weather an average skier can reach Dee Wright Observatory in about three hours and Windy Point in two. Fisher adds that skiers can expect to get down from the pass in about half the amount of time they took to climb.

“Last Sunday I went up (the pass) with a woman who was 75,” Fischer says. “She had three generations of her family with her and she got to Windy Point in 1 1/2 hours. … And last year Tom Gibbons (a longtime local skier) skied to the top and he was 89.

“If you have any kids that want to quit early,” Fischer jokes, “tell ’em there’s a 75-year-old lady (who skied the pass) just last week!”

—Reporter: 541-383-0305; beastes@bendbulletin.com.