Travel to the lost world of Paulina Lake Lodge, just 45 minutes from Bend and you will feel transported to a wintry haven, far from the traffic lights and noise that can at times feel claustrophobic to so many of us who made the move to Bend for a life of serenity.
I embarked on the journey out to Paulina Lake with two rafting buddies, Sandy Arch and Tom Clawson, whom I met on a trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. These guys are a work hard/play hard kind of couple that I knew would make this short little jaunt extreme in everyway.
Although the ski into the lodge is only four miles, it's all uphill and the scales on our crosscountry skis were not much help in grabbing the icy snow. Upon arriving at Paulina Falls, the whiskey flask was passed around and we took in the view of the river at sunset. The light was just right to cast an orangey glow on the rocks and pierce through the water so they glittered as they fell into the pool below.
Paulina Falls and the Newberry Caldera are usually one of the top destinations for tourists in Central Oregon, but since living here, I've only been down that way a few times for trail running and biking excursions, and never in the winter. The whole area feels more desolate than its cousin to the north, Elk Lake Lodge, despite the roar of snowmobiles, which was a constant during our ski up the trail. Once we reached the lodge, the view of the frozen lake opened up to a silver icy slate with the rim of the Caldera undulating on all sides. A feeling of peace washed over us. The whiskey kicked in at this point, which may have exacerbated this feeling, but I'm a firm believer that good views are always enhanced by a healthy reverence for cocktail hour.
Our cabin was right on the lake, although we couldn't appreciate the location once inside, as the windows were insulated with clear plastic for winterization. Tom got to work chopping wood as Sandy and I talked over the best plan of action for lighting the fire. There was no newspaper available, and in its place was a plastic bottle of lighter fluid. It did not occur to us until late into the night that we were actually allowed to pour this fluid into the fire to light it, but from that point on we had Insta-fire and burned through most of the wood collection on the deck.
I have always wanted to have a meal at the restaurant at the lodge. The owners, Todd and Karen Brown, renovated the space, adding an invitingly enclosed deck with windows on all sides as well as a rooftop balcony off the upstairs bar looking out onto the lake. Karen and her son, Sean, were closing up shop when we arrived, but they graciously got back to work in the kitchen to make us a scrumptious spread of chili, grilled cheese and a plate of fried goodies that seemed well deserved after our slog up to our cabins.
Many rounds later, our small crew was swapping stories with the owners and the staff in the small bar upstairs, which felt more like my uncle's "man cave" than a place of business. We finished the evening sitting at the end of the dock listening the lake moaning and cracking, soaking in the bright stars of the night sky that are so often dulled by the lights of our little city.
Though fire was our only heat source in the cabin, we used electricity to pump the jams from our iPods and had an impromptu dance party with Sandy's Labradors. It is really hard to find places that are truly dog friendly these days, and the Lodge's $30 fee for the two pets was well worth seeing the dogs' faces as they ran up and down the trails.
The next morning, we embarked on an adventure around the rim of the lake, following the trail that is often used by mountain bikers in the summer. The snowmobiles had thinned out and we felt like we had the caldera all to ourselves as we skied along, enjoying views of Paulina Peak and the glassy expanse below.
We ended our speedy ski down to the Sno-Park with a photo finish of Tom sledding down a nearly vertical snowmobile trail. Our best action shots were of Tom suddenly veering to the left to launch off a snow bank and onto the pavement below... landing on his head. As with many extreme sledding escapades, this one ended with a trip to the emergency room. I guess the best lesson from this weekend was: helmets - not just for downhill skiers anymore.