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Skiing the Owens River: improbably perfect, elegant, easy

February 12, 2011

This rabbit brush looks more like a giant ice flower against the deep, blue water of the Owens River. Times Photo/Wendi Grasseschi

Imagine skiing along a sparkling blue river, skies whispering softly over the white, blanketing snow.

Imagine the river, blue, silver, indigo, glimmering, a ribbon of color in the white land.

Imagine the quiet; perfect, joyous, broken only by the riffle of the river, the whoosh of the wings of a blue heron flashing far above.

The Owens River cuts a wild and wide path through upper Long Valley, flashing down to Crowley Lake from its birthplace at Big Springs, southeast of Lee Vining.

It’s still a wild river, rimmed now by a few fences to keep the cattle from its fragile banks, but otherwise frequented only by anglers, and those, only in fishing season.

Not too many think of the river as a good place to ski, especially the adrenaline junkies that equate skiing with speed and steep descents.

But for those with a love of open spaces and perfect solitude, the Owens River, where it slips under the swallow’s dream home of the Benton Crossing Road bridge, is as perfect as it gets.

The ski is an easy one, for someone willing to leave the groomed trails behind and cut her own trail, and it’s impossible to get lost, since all you do is follow the river as far as you wish.

The rewards, on the other hand, are surpassingly beautiful – wide open spaces that allow the soul to breathe, the sweep of two huge mountain ranges rising, one to the east, one to the west, cradling the river, the colors of wind and water and snow and sky and not much else.

And then there are the birds. Herons, blue and white, eagles bald and golden, mergansers, blue-winged and cinnamon teals, Canada geese, California gulls, and sometimes the unbelievable turquoise of a mountain bluebird singing from a fence post.

Getting there

Take U.S. 395 to the Green Church and the Benton Crossing Road.

Follow Benton Crossing Road east until you hit the Owens River, about five miles from U.S. 395.
Cross the bridge and go another half mile past the now-closed Browns Campground. Park your car off the side of the road, just past the campground, or wherever you can find a good, wide spot to pull over and where you see one of the many dirt roads under the snow, heading toward the river.

Gather skis and dogs and gear and head west, toward the river, skiing easily across the snow to the blue ribbon you can see from your car. In less than a quarter mile, you will hit the fence line that protects the river. Follow it south, downstream, until you get a fisherman access through the fence. Go through it, and head another hundred feet to the river.

Begin skiing south, toward Crowley Lake. Go as far as you wish, then turn around and retrace your steps.
It’s about two miles to the lake, a good place to turn around.

The ski

The Owens River here is wide and clear and calm. The snow this week is beautiful and with a bit more forecast next week, it could get even better. Right now, it’s spring snow, really, slick and fast, elegant and easy. The best time to go is after noon, when the crust on the snow has softened and the spring snow conditions make the skiing as perfect as a flatland ski can get.

Follow the river, skiing like water on the snow, same speed, same movement, same flow. After a while, it’s hard to know where the river leaves off and the skier begins, both gliding smoothly, quietly, keeping pace with one another.

It’s mid-February now, and the deep winter grip on this land has lessened, meaning the birds are coming back. Watch for herons, wide-winged, human-sized, in both their blue and white phases as they rise and head down river, away from the intemperate human intrusion.

Golden and bald eagles, while uncommon, have been seen, fishing for trout in the wide river.

The ducks are out this warm winter, crackling and gabbing as they flash under banks or take flight, heading, like the herons, always down river.

The sun is brilliant here and warm. The river mutters and talks to itself, slipping under deep banks, cutting deep holes where the river bends, riffling quietly as it flows over gravel bars and beaches.

The White Mountains rise to the east, topped by 14,252-foot White Mountain Peak, still draped in the thick snow from December’s storms.

To the west, the high Sierra Nevada rises: Wheeler Crest and McGee Mountain, Laurel and Bloody, Morrison and the Sherwins. The tiny town of Crowley Lake sits in its winter bowl, smoke rising slowly from a few rooftops, dwarfed by McGee Mountain and Red Mountain.

To the south, the bluffs above Crowley Lake are topped by the Casa Diablo Range, before the horizon dips down toward the Owens Valley.

To the south, Mammoth Mountain hulks like a giant mammoth, and the Dracula’s castle peaks of the Minarets rise sharp and craggy above the tiny town.

Ski until the white and wind and blue become you, then head back.

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