On a recent Saturday in the Dutchman Sno-park’s parking lot, a member of a snowmobile party gave up holding the last parking spot for a latecomer friend. When the man arrived in a large pickup truck pulling a snowmobile trailer, he was dismayed to discover the car driver who had taken the spot was pulling on nordic skis.

“I don’t know why he doesn’t park at the (Mt. Bachelor) Nordic Center if he’s going to ski,” the man grumbled to his friend. “Maybe I should just block him in.”

While the aforementioned blocking-in didn’t happen and the snowmobiler eventually found a spot, such rifts are not uncommon at Dutchman Sno-park, the only sno-park in Central Oregon that presently has sufficient snow. Dutchman, at approximately 6,350 feet, is also the highest sno-park in the state. The sno-park offers nordic skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing opportunities. With a 26-spot parking lot, Dutchman also features one of the smallest lots among Central Oregon’s sno-parks. The first-come, first-serve basis of the small lot can heighten tensions during high-use times, such as a weekend morning.

“If you look at last season and this sort of intense competition for sno-park parking, (last year) the competition wasn’t there because lower-elevation sno-parks provided access,” said Scott McBride, developed recreation supervisor of the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District. “Here we are being faced with Dutchman being the only sno-park accessing snow in Central Oregon, so naturally there is a lot of interest in all parties to be able to park there to do what we love to do.”

Pray for snow, a parking spot

Dutchman Sno-park, located on Century Drive about a mile from Mt. Bachelor’s main parking lot, offers snowmobilers 150 miles of dedicated trails and an abundance of off-trail, backcountry options, he said. Dutchman is also home to 19 miles of nordic ski trails and 3 miles of those for snowshoers. People use Dutchman to launch backcountry ski trips up Tumalo Mountain. Snowmobilers enjoy riding the trails to places like Moon Mountain, the face of which some advanced riders carve with their sleds. Other people like to nordic ski or snowshoe to Todd Lake, which is reachable on a 5-mile loop.

A $30 sno-park permit allows the public to park in sno-park lots from November 1 to April 30.

Virginia Meissner, Swampy Lakes, Wanoga, Vista Butte and Kapka sno-parks have insufficient snow cover to facilitate any fun. That means users who would normally be spread among five other sno-parks are all vying for fraction of snow that was available this time last year.

Snow levels at Mt. Bachelor ski area’s base offer some insight into Central Oregon’s shrunken snow cover. In the second week of January 2017, Mt. Bachelor reported nearly 100 inches of base depth, according to onthesnow.com, a snow tracking site. While more than 140 inches of snow has fallen at the West Lodge, the base depth that has stuck around is a little more than 40 inches, according to Mt. Bachelor.

Less snow to go around

On a blustery afternoon, Ron Crawford, an assistant nordic ski coach at Bend High School, was leading a group of his students to the Dutchman Flat trailhead for some classic skiing in the woods. He said “sometimes there is conflict in the parking lot, but once you’re out (on the trails), you’re good.”

This season, the Bend High Nordic Ski Team practices three days a week at Dutchman Sno-park and at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center on the weekends. Typically, the team’s go-to weekday sno-park is Virginia Meissner, where they would arrive early before the crowds showed up, Crawford said. Swampy Sno-park, which is 2.5 miles away from Meissner yet linked with groomed trails, provides parking when Meissner is particularly crammed. That Virginia Meissner presently has no skiable snow means Crawford and other coaches drive students in a 15-passenger van and other vehicles to Dutchman Sno-park, the nearest location to Bend with nordic ski trails. When they park in the sno-park’s lot, sometimes they block in one another’s vehicles to save space for other users.

“Someone actually got mad at me for double parking, even though we’d be coming and going at the same time,” Crawford said with a chuckle.

Often Crawford and his team share routes with snowmobilers such as the Cascade Lakes Highway, which is gated and groomed for snowmobiling as it extends toward Elk Lake. The skiers are mindful to move to the side when snowmobilers pass, Crawford said, and mutual waves between the different users are common.

Garrett Austin, as a snowmobiler and snowboarder, has a foot in both worlds. On a recent weekday afternoon, he parked his pickup truck and two snowmobiles without hassle at Dutchman Sno-park. Good thing — he’d hauled them from Crescent, where he lives. Austin sometimes uses his snowmobile to get to prime launching spots for split boarding. On this day, he made the hour-long drive to take a friend new to snowmobiling on a pleasure ride to the edge of the Three Sister Wilderness Area.

He said more cramped parking comes with the territory of snowmobiling.

In the past, Austin has found Dutchman’s parking lot so packed he has to park in a Mt. Bachelor lot and drive his snowmobile on the highway. It’s not something he’d like to repeat because riding a snowmobile on Century Drive is illegal, and on top of that, the cinders and grit in the road are hard on his snowmobile. Still, he’s not vexed by the sometimes complicated parking situation, particularly for snowmobilers at Dutchman Sno-park.

“Bringing snow machines is a bigger package than bringing skis,” he said.

The Dutchman summit meeting

Yet some snowmobilers feel shoved around.

Brothers Matt and Tyler Mahoney are lifelong snowmobilers and members of Moon Country Snowbusters, a nonprofit snowmobile club that grooms 250 miles through Dutchman, Wanoga and Kapka sno-parks and along the Cascade Lakes Highway past the gates near Mt. Bachelor.

“(Congestion) has progressively gotten worse over the past 30 years as Bend has grown,” said Matt, the former president of the club, which counts 140 member families. (He emphasized that his comments reflect his personal views, not those of the club.) Dutchman “typically gets snow first and has it last … it gets a ton of use for that reason,” he added.

They feel targeted by the Dutchman Sno-park rule that a vehicle and snowmobile trailer not collectively exceed 40 feet. Matt used to haul his snowmobile up to Dutchman about every weekend until a couple years ago. His dissatisfaction with the sno-park was a long time coming. His 52-foot-long truck and trailer once cost him a $600 fine, he said, which he fought unsuccessfully in court.

“I’ve been driven out of there simply for the type of vehicle I have. I have a family of four, so I have a crew-cab pick-up and a four-place snowmobile trailer. My length is not allowed … even though you can take two vehicles up there with two trailers that are within the 40 feet but overall the two vehicles take up a longer length to haul the same amount of machines and people,” Matt said. “The powers that be don’t seem to be efficient in that manner.”

There are no plans for a temporary lift of the 40-foot limit on truck-trailer combinations, said Kevin Larkin, district ranger for Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District.

The 40-foot rule stems from the public meeting called the Dutchman summit, which the U.S. Forest Service hosted with sno-park users in 2004. The round-table discussion rewrote how the public would enjoy Dutchman Sno-park. Snowmobilers lost some access to Tumalo Mountain (their access was cut to a cumulative half of the mountain) and in the high country around the Bend municipal watershed, according to the Forest Service. Additionally, stemming from the meeting, snowmobilers’ truck-and-trailer combinations were limited to 40 feet, a length that some said is prohibitively short.

Larkin doesn’t know the specifics of the summit, however. Having been the district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District since 2012, Larkin said he’s now the third to occupy the position since the Dutchman summit, at which he wasn’t present. He wasn’t able to say how the Forest Service arrived at the 40-foot truck-trailer limit.

“At least by legend — I shouldn’t say I know — it was a part of that compromise to allow for some trailers to get in, but to limit things so that a couple really long rigs couldn’t clog up the whole parking lot,” Larkin said. “Rules like these can create problems. Like anything, when you set a limit like that, it both solves problems and creates problems for different sets of users.”

Larkin said the Forest Service welcomes solutions from the snowmobile community that will help unclog sno-park lots like Dutchman’s.

“We’re certainly open to that discussion. Snowmobilers should channel their proposals through the grooming clubs that coordinate with the Forest Service. …The perspective of the snowmobilers is absolutely valid.”

The Dutchman summit also laid plans for then-to-be-built Kapka Sno-park, which the Forest Service completed in late 2014. Kapka, featuring 70 parking spots, was intended to alleviate pressure on Dutchman. Situated 500 feet below Dutchman, however, Kapka has been infrequently used this season due to spotty snow.

Larkin doesn’t recommend nordic skiers and snowshoers intent on using Dutchman Sno-park leave their vehicles in the Mt. Bachelor parking lot — a mile away — to begin their excursion. But he does want to make sure users are aware that the fee-free Common Corridor — which leads from the Nordic Center to the Dutchman Sno-park trail system — is an option. “A season like this really highlights the compromises that have to be struck and the challenges we have as we have more winters like this one,” Larkin said.

Kapka West

As an active topic of discussion, the Forest Service is considering the addition of a “Kapka West” Sno-park they would tack onto the current Kapka Sno-park for non-motorized users. This will hopefully alleviate some of the pressures at Dutchman Sno-park “several years” from now, Larkin said. Dutchman will still be a launching point for backcountry skiers and snowboarders destined for Tumalo Mountain, but nordic skiers and snowshoers might be drawn to Kapka West, freeing up Dutchman. Larkin wasn’t able to say whether the user relegation would be mandatory.

“Kapka West would be more like the experience you get at Virginia Meissner or Swampy Lakes sno-parks where you have specific trail networks built for those users,” he said, adding that groomed nordic trails “are definitely on the roster.”

The presence of beauty

Ultimately, snowmobilers like Tyler and Matt Mahoney are trying to couple their appreciation of the Cascades with their favorite snow sport.

“There’s the high adrenaline rush,” Tyler said of the joy of snowmobiling. “It’s also enjoyable to cover quite a bit of ground on snow that comes and goes and melts away. You can get into some spots that are absolutely breathtaking. When you snowmobile into them, whether it’s snowing or a sunny day — (you’re in) the presence of God’s beauty.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com