Visiting Crater Lake!

When I was a youngster growing up in rural Pennsylvania, summers were the season for daydreams. My school friends lived too far away to visit, and I liked to laze away the summer mornings, the coolest part of the day, by reading in my bed. My reading material came from two eagerly anticipated sources. One was the bi-weekly visit from the bookmobile that the library in the small town five miles away sent to kids in the neighboring townships. I would run out to greet it. Mostly I would borrow biographies. They were a series, and they all had orange covers. So while my school friends were deferred until September, I was making brand new friends, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Daniel Boone, Meriwether Lewis; early American explorers, and I envied their lives. These were the men that opened up America to a fledgling United States, saw things that no white man had seen before. And then, once a month, a magazine would come, addressed to me and my brother, an annual Christmas gift from my cousin Bill and his wife Phyllis - National Geographic - a magazine that frequently described in greater detail some of the more magnificent places my new friends discovered. And if they weren't in the new issues, they were in issues from the school year just passed. During these summers, the seeds of my wanderlust were sown.

One of the places I remember reading about most vividly was Crater Lake. The picture of this lake was stunning. I had nver seen such a deep clear blue in a lake. Created by a volcano that blew its top in the northwest corner of our country, it was the deepest lake in the United States, and the second deepest in North America at 1932 feet in depth. I couldn't begin to fathom that kind of depth, and quite frankly, it still boggles my mind. Of course, the article did not just describe the lake, but the Cascade Mountains also. It all sounded so magnificent, and I though how I would love to see it.

When one waits forty years to visit a childhood dream, the danger is that the place cannot possibly live up to the childhood remembrance that created the dream in the first place. So even though I moved to Eugene two years ago, I was in no hurry to visit Crater Lake, reluctant to perhaps tarnish a childhood dream that was so very near and dear to me. But this summer, two friends were coming to visit me, Jeff and his wife Sandy, and I knew I would have to take them there. It would only be one of several places we would visit, for which I was grateful. If it turned out to be a bust, I would only have to endure it for two days.

We left the area near the Columbia Gorge early in the morning, and travelled down the beautiful wet coniferous forests of the Middle Cascades, then passed over the spine of the High Cascades through the extensive lava fields of McKenzie Pass. It was July 10th, yet the pass had only opened on the July 3rd. Over 500 inches of snow fall here per year, and the road is so narrow and winding it is impossible to plow, there is nowhere to go with the snow, but it is the fallen trees and debris left on the road from a winter of heavy snow that keep it blocked for so long. Passing through this land laid barren tens of thousands of years ago, it is impossible not to recognize the awesome force that is the source of the Cascades, internal vulcanism caused by the Juan de Fuca plate submerging beneath the North American plate.

The forests on the eastern slopes of the Cascades are far different than the wet forests of the western slopes. At mid-altitudes, Douglas Firs and ferns are replaced by Ponderosa Pine and grass. This is the more typical forest of the western U.S., that can be found from New Mexico and Arizona to the Canadian border, and has grown to be my favorite. Hiking through these open forests, with the heavy smell of pine, fallen logs that take years to decay and take on a white hue, and various wildflowers, without the distraction of mosquitos can be quite an enjoyable experience. We passed through this type of forest on the way to Crater Lake National Park.

We entered the park via the north entrance late in the afternoon. On the way to the drive that circles the lake, we passed through pumice deserts, where very little grows. Tons and tons of pumice was blasted in the air by the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Mazama, a volcanic peak that was Ranier like in dimension, nearly twelve thousand feet in height. When it blew, nearly 7000 years ago, when Klamath Indians roamed the land, the top one third of the mountain blew off and created the caldera that is now Crater Lake. Think about that, from 12000 feet to 8000 feet. It makes the blast at Mt. St. Helens seem like a burp. It's said that ash from the explosion drifted to Nebraska. The Indians must have been terrified. To read more facts and statistics about the history of Crater Lake, compiled by the United States Geologic Survey, click here.

Finally, we approached Rim Drive for the first time. We pulled into the pull-off to the left, and got out of my Jeep. I looked out over the edge, and my jaw dropped. Even with the wind kicked up and a slight chop on the lake, the blue was deeper and more cobalt than I could have imagined. Like all truly magnificent creations of nature, no picture could do it justice. Even now I know that my memory does not and will never serve what I saw there in person.

I got my first in person view of Wizard Island, the cinder cone that built gradually over time after the cataclysmic explosion, and which has erupted as recently as 800 years ago. With the knowledge that the lake was 1910 feet in depth, the realization that the cinder cone that Mt. Mazama formed from the depth of it's caldera was no small hillock sank in, and my awe of the volcanic forces and it's power at work in this area of the country grew. I wondered when the next eruption would take place. The Juan de Fuca plate is still submerging, so it is only a matter of time.

We would learn the next day in our cruise of the lake that Crater Lake averages over 500 inches of snow per year, and even at this late date, July 10th, snow fields were still in abundance. Coming from the east coast, my friends Jeff and Sandy were not used to seeing snow in the middle of summer, and couldn't resist the temptation to stand in the snow and make a snow ball.

The next morning we were up early, as was our habit for the whole trip. We had decided to take a cruise of the lake, but the first boat out was not until 10:00 AM, so we had some time to kill. We discovered this waterfalls on Rim Drive. what made it especially unique was the fact that the creek ended at the pool into which it fell. At that point it went underground, but it was not the only stream or even river that goes underground in this area of the Cascades. Along the highways, at points where the highway is cut through the canyons, the pumice is sometimes twenty feet deep or more. There are also empty lava tubes, and streams will disappear underground, only to reappear downstream. Even the Rogue River, with it's headwaters in this section of the Cascades and which cuts through the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains on its way to the Pacific Ocean in Brookings, disappears underground for several miles just south of Natural Bridge.

That morning the lake was like glass. Seeing it for the first time that morning, I was once again struck by how blue it was, and with the calm, the perfect reflection it created. I had seen reflections of the skay and horizon in lakes before, but none was as clear and stark as the relection here at Crater Lake. This was the advantage of coming out to the lake in the morning, by afternoon, the thermals would kick up the winds again, and with it earths perfect natural mirror would disappear. Enjoy these images of Crater Lake reflections.

Jeff and I are both birders. In fact, I owe this passion I have to Jeff. A decade ago, when I felt as if my life were falling apart and I was as depressed as I have ever been, it was Jeff who took me out and said, "Come on, I want you to go out with me and see something." When I saw my first Scarlet Tanager I was hooked, and it may very well be that my newly found hobby of birding is the only reason that I was around to take Jeff and Sandy on an Oregon tour. With a dearth of human traffic in the crater, and plenty of stocked Rainbow Trout and Kokanee Salmon in the lake, this was a perfect place for a Bald Eagle to make a nest and raise a family. It is always thrilling to see one of these raptors, especially on the nest like this.

We would learn the next day that not all parts of the caldera are equal in age. As I said before, the cinder cone that makes up Wizard Island was still forming as recently as 800 years ago. There is a smaller and less well known island in the lake however, that makes Wizard Island look like a newborn baby. It is called Phantom Ship, and the lava that makes up this island is over 400,000 years old. I liked this island much more than Wizard Island. It was craggy and sharp, it had character. Violet-Green Swallows nested in every crevice of the island.

We wound our way around the lake back to our starting spot. Now came the hard part, climbing back out. It is a short but steep climb back out of the caldera to the rim, but in little more than an hour we were back on top. We did some hiking later that day along the Rogue River into an old-growth mixed coniferous forest, and later saw the Rogue River dive into a gorge. At the end of our vacation, we would be rafting up the Rogue River at it's mouth in Brookings, so it was nice to see it here at it's headwaters. I hoped the beginning of our vacation was a portend of things to come. It was! For more information on Crater Lake Click Here.