Neither wind nor blowing snow last weekend could stay 55 skiing “mail carriers” from their appointed rounds – from snow line on the west slope of the Oregon Cascades to snow line on the east – along the route followed by pioneer mailman John Templeton Craig.
The occasion was the 75th anniversary edition of the John Craig Memorial, said to be the country’s oldest ski race.
While wind-whipped snow stung bare skin and cut visibility at the summit of McKenzie Pass, conditions for the 2009 event weren’t anywhere near as severe as the blizzard that enveloped John Craig in December 1877.
The veteran mountain man died carrying the Christmas mail from McKenzie Bridge to Camp Polk, near present-day Sisters. About 400 Oregon rural mail carriers attended the dedication of a memorial erected at his grave site in 1930. The first ski race in his honor was held in 1934.
The event had an on-again, off-again history until 1972, when it was resurrected by the Oregon Nordic Club. It has been held almost every year since.
Participants – who are still referred to as “mail carriers” – for many years toted a few pieces of commemorative mail that got a special postmark. But that practice has fallen by the wayside.
So, too has the idea that the John Craig Memorial is a competitive event.
“It’s not a race,” said event director David Beede of the Willamette BackCountry Ski Patrol, which assumed responsibility for logistics this year. “But any time you hand out numbered bibs and record start and finish times, some people will treat it like a race.”
In fact, the John Craig Memorial is more like a fun run on skis – an 18- to 21-mile (depending on the snow level at mid-March) run over a mountain range.
Skiing over a mountain range provides a “pretty neat” sense of accomplishment, Bill Langdon of Lebanon, Ore., said minutes after completing his third John Craig Memorial in as many years.
Skiers in the March 14 event ranged in age from 14 to 71 and came from as far away as Seattle and Helena.
“The first year I did it was, for me, the most fun because it was really hot – about 75 degrees when we finished,” said Kip Keller of Eugene. “They had someone giving us the time and the temperature when we finished.”
The toughest, Keller said, was last year, when skiers had to break trail through fresh snow too deep and soft for the snowmobiles that usually set trail, following Highway 42 as it cuts between the Three Sisters and Mt. Washington Wilderness Areas.
The potential for severe conditions is why organizers advertise the event as being for “strong skiers” only. (A “family tour” that goes out and back from the east snow gate is available for less-experienced skiers.)
Five aid stations were set up along the course this year as the ski patrol took the opportunity to combine training with race support.
“We had seven guys who slept out in the snow doing a mountain travel rescue training class,” Beede said. “They’re manning three of the aid stations.”
Walter McKnight of Bend, Ore., was the first finisher at just a shade less than 5 hours. The last timed finisher came in at 8 hours and 35 minutes.
“It’s wasn’t as hard as I expected,’ said Sue Wolling of Eugene, who finished in 10th place. “This was fun. There was a lot of variety of conditions.
“But I’m glad I don’t have to carry the mail over there every day.”
The government awarded Craig, born in 1832, a contract to carry mail between eastern Oregon and the southern Willamette Valley. In summer, the mail was carried on horseback. In winter it was carried on John Craig’s back.
On December 3, 1877, Craig left McKenzie Bridge with the mail in a heavy backpack, never to return. Months later, his body was found curled in the ashes of a fireplace in small cabin that had been built near the summit to provide a resting place for the mail carriers.
Historians believe Craig, suffering from exhaustion and possibly ill, reached the shelter and built a fire, but did not survive.
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