Though the ski season may be winding down, don't "summerize" those Nordic skis just yet. The Oregon Nordic Club is bringing back the John Craig Memorial Ski Race and Tour up McKenzie Pass on Saturday, March 19. The event starts at the East Snow Gate on the McKenzie Pass Highway (9 miles west of Sisters) and is a self-timed race and casual tour that honors John Craig, a pioneer mailman who died in 1877 while attempting to cross McKenzie Pass. Craig truly imbibed the mailman's creed of "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
"Twenty-five to thirty years ago, this race was sponsored by Dannon on a national circuit," said Ted Scheinman, this year's event coordinator. "They brought in a semi-truck full of swag and yogurt, of course, and there'd be up to 500 people racing." Though popular for many years, the race diminished in scope and size for various reasons. "It got down to the point of about a dozen people a couple of years ago and most of those were board members of the state organization [ONC]," added Scheinman.
"Obviously, I can't bring the race back to what it was in the old days but I think it's an important event for Central Oregon and has a good story behind it," said Scheinman. That story involves the history of John Craig.
John Templeton Craig was born in the McKenzie River Valley in 1832. When he was 30, he went to work for Captain Felix Scott to build a livestock trail from Eugene to Central Oregon. Scott wanted a route over the Cascades to drive cattle from the Willamette Valley to prospectors in Eastern Oregon where a gold-rush boom was taking place. The route aimed toward a low pass near North Sister but encountered massive lava flows and deep snowfields. Craig wanted to chip a route out through the lava, but Scott decided to skirt the edges of the flow to another pass higher up, which is now known as Scott's Pass.
Believing that a lower elevation route was possible, Craig eventually formed the McKenzie, Salt Springs and Deschutes Wagon Road Company in 1871. He and his crews cleared trees and chiseled out a roadbed through the lava to McKenzie Pass. A year later, Craig opened his toll road and charged $2 per wagon, a $1 per horse rider, 10¢ per cow and 5¢ per sheep. Later on, Craig won a federal contract to deliver mail from Camp Polk over McKenzie Pass to the Willamette Valley. In summer he traveled by horseback and in winter on skis. He built a cabin just west of McKenzie Pass, about the halfway point on this journey.
It was in his cabin that rescuers found his body curled up atop cold ashes in the spring of 1878. Craig had set off from Camp Polk on Dec. 3 and may have been ill or exhausted when he reached his cabin. Perhaps it was a raging blizzard, as well, but the reasons why he died will forever be woven into Central Oregon lore. To honor this pioneer postman, a memorial monument was erected near the summit in 1930, and the first John Craig Memorial Ski Race was hosted in 1934. In 1972, ONC took over the organization of the race.
This year's event will blend a self-timed race and casual tour to entice all skiers of various abilities. ONC will have the course groomed for skate and classic Nordic skiers, with volunteer course monitors, aid stations and medical support on hand. Participants can complete either a 12-mile round-trip ski to the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass or complete a shorter course of about 6-8 miles round trip to Windy Point. "What I'm looking for is to put together an informal and fun event this year that will start bringing this event around," said Scheinman.
Registration is open on the ONC website. Cost is $20 for adults and $5 for youth, under 18. After March 12, registration will increase by $5 for adults. Membership in ONC is not required. The race and tour start between 10 am and noon. A pizza buffet in Sisters will follow the race.
For more information or to volunteer, contact Ted Scheinman, at [email protected] or by phone at 503-914-9584 or go to the Oregon Nordic Club Website at www.onc.org.
John Craig Memorial Ski Race and Tour
Sat., March 19
McKenzie Pass Hwy., Sisters
Adults $20, youth (under 18) $5 before March 12; late registration add $5