Friday, August 23, 2013

Tour De Force

It never ceases to amaze me how many native Oregonians, mostly from Portlandia, have never been to Crater Lake. An even smaller percentage has actually been on the lake itself.

Although I had been to Crater Lake as a child with my family, the caldera was foggy, with no view whatsoever. So with great expectations, I headed east on U.S. 26 over Mt. Hood enroute to Bend and beyond to the fabled east entrance of Crater Lake National Park.

By the time I reached Chemult, it was well after dark, so I missed my turnoff to the east entrance and was obliged to proceed to the south entrance of the park through Fort Klamath. Reaching the rim of Crater Lake at Discovery Point near midnight, I parked at the turnout, pulled out my sleeping bag and crashed next to my VW bug.

The next morning, I saw the lake clearly for the first time live. Somewhat startled, it indeed took my breath away. Of course, I realized I was at about 7,000 feet above sea level, so the breaths were bound to be more frequent because of the altitude.

Reporting for work that morning, little did I know that I had stepped on the treadmill of a seven-day-a-week job conducting tours of Crater Lake. Because the season is so short, we ran the boats virtually every day from Independence Day until Labor Day.

As stated in the manual, “our operation is short-term, business is hectic, and every employee hired is needed full-time in his or her job.” We did have one day off: the Fourth of July, not because it was a holiday, but because it snowed 14 inches the night before.

And so it was: we’d hop into our six-pack every morning at Rim Village after breakfast in the cafeteria for the 16-mile drive to the trailhead at Cleetwood Cove on the other side of the rim, the jump-off point for tours around the lake.

The first two weeks were spent pulling the boats out of dry dock on Wizard Island and prepping the four, 45-foot launches for tours. Each boat had the capacity to hold 60 people.

As beautiful as Crater Lake is from the rim, it’s even more stunning on the water, which allows for an up-close-and-personal perspective of the caldera wall, not to mention Wizard Island and Phantom Ship.

Leaving Cleetwood Cove, the tour begins in a counterclockwise direction with passage through Steel Bay (below), named for William Gladstone Steel -- the “father” of Crater Lake National Park.

While many can share credit for the establishment of Oregon’s only national park, Steel’s single-minded, terrier-like determination in lobbying newspapers and politicians certainly helped make the preservation of Crater Lake a reality.

Llao Rock, the next significant landmark, resembles a giant raptor in flight. The formation developed when a massive lava flow from the summit of Mt. Mazama filled a U-shaped valley carved by a glacier.

The next feature is the Devil’s Backbone, the most prominent of numerous “dikes” inside of the caldera wall. These dikes formed when the pressure of the molten rock pushed upward from the feeding chamber, cracking the entire volcano. The molten material forced into the cracks eventually cooled to produce unusually dense rocks.

“Long afterward, when the top of Mt. Mazama disappeared, dense filling of the cracks, being more resistant than the bordering material, were sculpted into relief and so stand out like buttresses,” noted Howel Williams in “Crater Lake: The Story Of Its Origin.”

Passing below Hillman Peak, the highest point on the rim, the tour enters Skell Channel -- the narrow body of water between Wizard Island and the caldera wall. Emerald Pool, the green pond on the peninsula (above), was a favorite swimming hole for employees and others who preferred a warm water option to Crater Lake.

Circling Wizard Island, we pass by Fumerole Bay on our way to Governor’s Bay, the site of the dock on the island and boathouses for wintertime storage. Wizard Island -- the volcano within a volcano -- is the largest of three islands in the lake and most well known “because of its weird appearance,” wrote Steel.

Rising 732 feet above the level of the lake, Wizard Island represents the most recent eruptions in the park, perhaps less than 1,000 years ago (the Shasta red firs on the cinder cone are estimated to be 900 years old). After stopping on Wizard Island, some -- mostly fishers and hikers -- remain on the island until the last boat of the day.

Departing Wizard Island (above), we then continue to Chaski Slide, which was formed when a large section of the mountain broke off from the rim and slid down the caldera wall. On occasion, we’d back the boat up to one of several waterfalls for a refreshing shower.

Next up: my personal favorite, The Phantom Ship. With its form resembling a sailing ship, the ancient lava plug may appear and then disappear depending on perspective, weather and lighting conditions. The best places to view The Phantom Ship are from Kerr Notch and Sun Notch, two U-shaped valleys on the south side of the caldera.

From most every other perspective, the Phantom Ship (below) disappears like a haunted pirate vessel, blending into the adjacent caldera wall. Incredibly, The Phantom Ship features every major species of conifer found in the park, including fir, pine and hemlock.

Moving from the south end of the lake to the east wall, we would point out the Pumice Castle, a colorful volcanic formation that was popular with many visitors. The Pumice Castle (below) is part of an extensive lenticular bed, creating an orange outcropping resembling a fortress on the caldera wall about 1,300 feet above the lake.

Beneath Redcloud Cliff is Grotto Cove, featuring the third and smallest island in Crater Lake called the Madonna and Child. This tiny atoll, which resembles Mary and the Baby Jesus, was a popular fishing spot for the boat crew after hours. From here, it was back across another direct line to Cleetwood Cove, our starting point.

At mid-point on the last leg, we cross another significant feature, though you’d never know it unless you’re told. Merriam Cone, a small lava dome that rises about 500 feet above the floor of the caldera, comes about 100 feet short of breaching the surface of the lake.

Instead, we’d marvel at the Wineglass, a common place to slide boats down to the lake in the early days, and The Palisades, a striking feature composed of a lava flow of silica.

If we were lucky, we would see The Old Man In The Lake, a tall, barkless tree stump that floats in an upright position around the lake, mostly between Cleetwood Cove and Wizard Island.

After three tours a day, we’d pack up our stuff for the end-of-the-day trudge up the Cleetwood Cove Trail, a rigorous set of switchbacks that climbs about 700 feet in elevation in slightly more than a mile, followed by a 17-mile drive back to Rim Village.

If we still had energy at the end of the day, however, we were just as likely to linger on the lake for a spell, fishing for that elusive German brown trout who would occasionally visit Cleetwood Cove (below).