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The enduring majesty of Oregon’s Crater Lake

From time beyond memory, Crater Lake in south-western Oregon has been revered by the Native American people for its beauty and spirituality. Known to the Klamath tribe as “giiwas – a sacred place”, the lake symbolizes power and danger. Young tribal members still come here to pursue a “vision quest” or rite of passage by communing with nature and searching for guidance and purpose.

Crater Lake, OregonToday, Crater Lake retains an enduring majesty. We visited Crater Lake National Park on “a peach of a day” in September. The sun shone down from a cloudless sky. The air was crystal clear. The view to the opposite rim of the crater six miles away was unhindered. The water was a pure sapphire blue. The encircling mountain peaks were perfectly mirrored in the lake. It was, well, just simply wonderful! We were lucky to see it this way. Often the lake is shrouded in fog and in wintertime the Park may be covered with up to 44 ft. of snow.

Reservations at the historic four-storey Crater Lake Lodge are hard to obtain. But the stars were aligned correctly and we secured a much-sought-after comfortable room for two nights. The imposing stone structure sits on the southwest rim of the caldera, 900 ft. or so above the lake’s surface. It opened for business in 1915 when the nightly rate was just $3.50, including meals! In the 1980s it fell into disrepair and even its demolition was considered. Thankfully, after a six-year multi-million dollar renovation, it regained much of its original 1920s appearance and re-opened in 1995. The interior, including the Great Hall with its large fireplace and high ceiling, displays Art Deco-style furniture as well as comfy sofas. A row of rustic rocking chairs are lined up invitingly on the back terrace which overlooks Crater Lake. Here from dawn to dusk guests sit and watch the changing moods of the lake or listen to various presentations by the resident ranger. It’s the ideal place to unwind while sipping a steaming hot latte or nursing an ice cold beer. In the lodge dining room, with its leaded glass windows, we hungrily devoured several delicious meals. For a change of pace, one evening we ordered some of the tasty appetizers which are served in the Great Hall in the evening. This is where people came to relax at day’s end or perhaps to play board games with young family members.

Our accommodation organized, we boarded an historically-designed trolley for a two-hour 33-mile narrated tour around Rim Drive. Our trolley made a number of stops. On board and at the various stopovers, we learned so much about the history and geology of the area from our Ranger Guide that our minds were simply bursting.

It was only just over 150 years ago that three white men searching for gold first set eyes on Crater Lake. At that time they named it “Deep Blue Lake”. About 10 years later, it was renamed “Blue Lake” and then “Lake Majesty”. It wasn’t until 1869 that its final and definitive name “Crater Lake” was coined by an Oregon journalist.

About 8,000 years ago, there was a tremendous volcanic eruption. The 12,000 ft. Mt. Mazama imploded and created a huge caldera. Over time, this deep crater filled up with snow and rain. At a depth of 1,943 ft., Crater Lake is so deep that if the Statute of Liberty was stacked atop the Washington Monument atop the Eiffel Tower, Lady Liberty’s torch would still remain under water. Our guide informed us that the lake contains an amazing five trillion gallons of the clearest fresh water in the world. It was mind-boggling to discover that even at the rate of one gallon per day it would take the world population over 18 months to drink all this water! Then there’s the color of the lake. This is caused by the blue and purple wavelengths of the sun’s spectrum which penetrate deepest into the clear water. These are then scattered and reflected back to the surface where they are visible to the human eye.

At Watchman Overlook, we got our first view of Wizard Island. This volcanic cinder cone resembles an oversized magician’s conical hat. From our vantage point on the rim, it’s hard to realize that the island rises more than 750 ft. above the lake and is about one mile in diameter. Having taken our fill of photos, we pile back on the trolley and choose a seat on the not-so-comfy slatted wooden benches.
Amazingly, it is the young children on board who ply the Park Ranger with incessant questions. Tell us, please Mr. Ranger, about the region’s flora and fauna. And so he informs us about the indigenous Mazama newt, the non-native crayfish and the 150 or so species of phytoplankton that live in lake. At one time, the lake was stocked with rainbow trout and Kokanee salmon. These fish still spawn here today. And, yes, there are bears in the Park … 27 of them. He then instructs the youngsters (and us) to observe the surroundings. Look! There are Mountain Hemlocks. There are lodgepole pines. There are sugar pines. They ask about the many dying trees. These, he says, are whitebark pine. They once thrived here but, unfortunately, are slowly becoming a threatened species. As the climate warms, he explains, the mountain pine beetle attacks these trees and will eventually kill them. And if the beetles aren’t successful, a fungus also threatens the trees. And in that endless circle of life, it is the Clark’s nutcracker who will suffer the most. This intelligent little bird is dependent on the whitebark pinecones. If it cannot replace this primary food source, its continued existence may be endangered.

The trolley chugged steadily up to Llao Rock Overlook. At over 8,000 ft., it is one of the highest points around the Rim. Mr. Ranger, a tweenie asks why is it called Llao Rock? Well, he says, according to Klamath folklore one day, Llao who was the chief of the “below world”, and Skell who was the chief of the “above world”, had a great battle and Llao was defeated. And this was how the overlook got its name. Then the youngsters’ attention focuses on a huge outcrop of jagged boulders nearby which resemble a dinosaur’s spine. These rocky vertebrae tumble steeply down the side of the crater. And who can name this unusual formation? Why yes, of course, it is the Devil’s Backbone.

Our next stop was the Phantom Ship. This small volcanic island is formed of very old rocks and is so named as it resembles a sailing ship complete with hull and masts. On this picture-perfect day, it appears misty and ethereal. Another stop was at Vidae Falls where water, fed by snow melt from the surrounding mountains, cascades down a sheer drop of 100 ft.

In his teen years William Gilbert Steel, one of the Park’s first Superintendents, read a fascinating commentary about Crater Lake. There and then he decided that Crater Lake was a place he truly wanted to explore. During his first visit in 1899, he was immediately dumbstruck by the splendor of the region. From thereon, he spent many hours and wrote more than 1,000 letters in his quest to ensure the area’s protection. And so it is to Mr. Steel that we owe a huge debt of gratitude for his success in 1902 in securing the establishment of Crater Lake National Park for our enjoyment and that of future generations.

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