UNDER THE SPELL OF VOLCANOES : Atop a caldera, checking in at Oregon's refurbished Crater Lake Lodge

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Next to Oregon's most famous hole in the ground stands a landmark that may be the state's most beloved bad idea.

The hole is Crater Lake. For thousands of years, its deep blue waters have collected in the eerily round cup of a blown-out volcano. Its altitude--7,000 feet at the rim's edge--means that it is bordered by stands of pine and blanketed in snow for most of the year. It is the epicenter of Oregon's only national park.

The bad idea would be the Crater Lake Lodge.

Now, don't take that the wrong way. The hotel, which reopened May 20 after six years idle, is handsome, rough-hewn and positioned to offer staggering views of the lake in its caldera below. But from its beginnings 80 years ago, the idea of a hotel that would open for four months and spend the rest of the year empty and snowbound--a building raised without a proper foundation on the edge of a famously steep cliff--well, it seemed a little shaky. And so it was, a four-story beast of wood and stone with a back patio that tended to crumble under certain tonnages of snow.

But as it endured, through warnings and crumblings and entire decades of dubious safety conditions, the lodge apparently won the nostalgic affection of all Oregon. At least, enough of Oregon loved the place, and wrote the authorities to say so, that today, 11 years after the National Park Service announced plans to kill it, it's been reborn.

Since its closure amid dire cautions in 1989, the lodge has been firmed and polished by a $15-million rebuilding effort that added a new foundation, basement and steel skeleton to the building. Instead of 150 small rooms, many without baths, it now counts 71, each with bath and toilet (although there are eight without showers).

It matters little that the National Park Service's historian on the scene, Stephen R. Mark, dismisses the lodge as "a bad example of rustic architecture." Before the first week of the lodge's new life was over, each of those 71 rooms was sold out for the months of July and August, and the phone company was telling hotel officials that their reservation system, designed to accommodate 50 calls per hour, was getting twice that many. In fact, as the summer of '95 began, it seemed that all up and down the American West, travelers were thinking fond, nostalgic thoughts of Crater Lake and that four-story beast on top of the cliff. I reached the scene on May 22, using the standard approach. Flew to San Francisco, connected to Medford. Then I drove 75 miles northeast on Oregon 62, through great green forests along the Upper Rogue River, and for the last dozen miles crawled up the well-plowed mountain road as the snow deepened all around.

At last, there it was: the round, blue lake, the surrounding pines, the beloved lodge, the tall snow. It's a surreal landscape, so striking that even I, a man who doesn't know how his own car works, or his microwave, or his television, was compelled to sit still for a brief science lesson from a park service interpretive publication. This is the short version:

Once, in the land we now know as southern Oregon, there stood a volcano, which we now know as Mt. Mazama. It was about 12,000 feet high, neighbored by glaciers, forced upward by volcanic pressure below. About 6,850 years ago (so say the carbon-dating specialists, looking at trees turned to charcoal), it blew. This was a big eruption, sending more than 50 cubic kilometers of magma into the atmosphere--that is, more than 150 times as much magma as was ejected in 1980 by Mt. St. Helens.

When the ash settled, the mountain was a ghost and in its place lay a caldera 4,000 feet deep, surrounded by cliffs, about 20 miles in circumference. Snow and rain collected. Eventually, despite the epic snows of winter--about 430 inches a year over the last five--the lake in the crater settled at its current depth of 1,932 feet. Hence the lake's relatively stable water temperature (its skin may freeze in parts, but its depths remain at 38 degrees), and the odd blue hue of the water.

If you visit in winter, well, you're a hardy visitor indeed. From October to May, there is no boat tour and no rim road. The lodge is closed, although the Rim Village cafeteria and gift shop do stay open. Mostly, the park in those months is a 183,000-acre haven of well-flocked conifers and two-story snowpacks.

If you're a visitor in summer, you explore amid the pine, fir, lichen, hemlock and craggy stones along the park's 90-odd miles of hiking paths. You watch for a glimpse of the resident foxes, bobcats, badgers, antelopes, elk or black bears--but probably settle for squirrels and chipmunks. Later, you take the strenuous, mile-long trail from the caldera rim down to water's edge at Cleetwood Cove (scheduled to open July 1 this year), and spend about two hours (and $10 per adult, if last year's prices hold) on a motorized boat tour of the lake. If you're inclined toward fishing, you can cast for rainbow trout and kokanee salmon (introduced early in this century, and holding their own). If you're a cyclist, you can circle the crater on 33-mile Rim Drive (estimated opening date about July 15). Or, if you have no inclination to exert yourself or confront the landscape on your own, you can make the two-hour drive around the crater, then repair to the lodge for a celebratory drink.

Now, about the lodge: I arrived in a time of crisis, two nights after the reopening, one day after the food and beverage manager's abrupt resignation and an equally abrupt power outage of several hours. Now the power was on, but the computers were frequently down. Busboys, drawn from a relatively meager supply of local labor, were occasionally vanishing, not to be seen again. During that first dinner (and most meals for the next two days), the director of marketing was pinch-hitting as maitre d'. But those are things that happen when you open a new building with a new staff in 91 inches of snow. And though the service at meals was sometimes quite slow, the employees were courteous and apologetic, the food wasn't bad, and smoother sailing ahead seemed likely.

More important in the long term, the place's looks gives nostalgia a good name. It's handsome as can be, sturdily rebuilt of rustic materials, a smaller, possibly even cozier version of Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee. Most of the furniture is Craftsman-style oak. There are no televisions and no telephones in guest rooms. On its linen tablecloths, the dining room has plates of the lodge's own design. The stone fireplaces in the dining room and Great Hall are enormous and warmth-radiating. The bathtub in my $114-a-night fourth-floor room had clawed feet. The dining room columns are encased in bark, the walls lined in stone. In most of the common areas, the ceilings are high and rich with wood beams and paneling. Essentially, the lodge is a new building in an old footprint, its most notable stones having been numbered, carted away and then returned and reassembled.

It's comfortable--so comfortable, in fact, that reading about its shabby and perilous history is a sort of sublime sensation.

The lodge opened in 1915, 13 years after Crater Lake won status as a national park, 10 years after the road to the rim was completed, six years after construction began. If ever there was admiration for the sturdiness of the work of the first builder, Alfred Parkhurst of Portland, it soon faded.

The lodge's stone walls stood on pumice soil, with no basement, no footings. Exterior walls were tar paper, the lodge's promotional materials acknowledge, and the interior walls separating guest rooms were finished with a thin, compressed-wood-fiber substance known as beaverboard.

"The old Crater Lake Lodge was not noted for fine decor, expensive furnishings or architectural refinements," points out a historical display prepared by the park service for the lodge's ground floor. "And despite its massive appearance, it lacked structural strength."

In the early 1920s it was enlarged and upgraded so that many of the rooms now had private bathrooms. But the property limped from summer to summer through the Depression and World War II. In 1943, an engineer labeled it "a fire trap of the worst sort." In the 1950s and early 1960s, workers stretched cables beneath the building in an effort to absorb stress and keep walls from bowing. But ceilings and floors sagged, masonry cracked, utilities and safety measures were "lagging behind contemporary codes and standards." (This from the hotel's own promotional material.) The lodge's operators protested that they couldn't afford the structural repairs that park officials were calling for, and in 1967, they ceded ownership to the park service.

But the park service had its own budget limitations, and though guests trooped in and out every summer, the deterioration continued. In 1982, a detailed park service report found that the building "does not meet modern standards of safety," and in 1984 park service officials announced plans to demolish the lodge.

Hue and cry ensued. The Historic Preservation League of Oregon led a campaign to save the building and focused pressure on state and federal officials. The preservationists prevailed in 1988, and the park service pledged reconstruction a few years down the road, but deterioration overtook them.

In the spring of 1989, shortly before the lodge was to open for another summer, engineers pronounced the Great Hall--the largest and most inviting room in the building--unsafe for occupation, and in danger of collapsing under its own weight. The lodge was closed, a search for money was begun, and the reconstruction began in 1991. If the cost of National Park Service staff time and planning since 1980 is added into the rebuilding tab, estimates Stephen Mark, the park service historian at Crater Lake since 1988, the bill would be closer to $30 million than to the widely quoted figure of $15 million.

"In effect, says Mark, "you have a new building that looks old."

*

Still, there is the fickleness of the seasons to contend with. Between the winter and the summer come those awkward in-between days of May, June and October, days such as the ones I spent at the lodge. Yes, the lodge was open, but the summer thaw was yet to come and the rim road, the trail to the water and the boat tours were not yet options. Snow lay in heaps high enough to block the view from first-floor windows, and daytime temperatures in the 50s fell to near 30 after dark. (In August, the warmest month of the year, average highs in recent years have been around 68 degrees; average lows, around 41.)

During those days, a visitor hangs out in the lodge; peers from a view point by the parking lot, or perhaps gingerly climbs a rise or two near Discovery Point, a more remote viewpoint about a mile from the lodge, which is among the first features made available when plows clear the roads.

And if you're going to stray from the plowed road at all, you'd better do it gingerly. Because when you're scrambling around so close to the caldera's edge, looking down at the miles of blue water, the rugged rocky outlines of Wizard Island and Phantom Ship, and the tops of pine trees below you, you may have 10 feet of snow and then solid ground beneath you, or you may have merely 10 feet of snow--melting snow under unaccustomed weight--and 800 or so feet of air beneath you.

I spent enough time near the edge to scare myself (half an hour did the trick), then retreated and went looking for a daytime activity that didn't involve the possibility of death by crater. One day I drove down the mountain, beneath the snow line, and took a hike along the Upper Rogue River, which passes about 25 miles from the lodge. Beginning at the gorge by the town of Union Creek (and sweating in the 70ish temperatures at that lower altitude), I strolled an easy riverside path 3.5 miles south, then back again. A little farther downstream, where the water gets deeper and wider, several outfitters run rafting trips, operating from headquarters in Shady Cove, Medford and Ashland, among other river-handy towns.

The next day, I drove even farther--to the lovely, sloping, Shakespeare-saturated, tourism-transformed town of Ashland, 10 miles south of Medford. I arrived in time to catch a production in one of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's three theaters downtown--the 60-year-old festival's "season" now stretches from Feb. 17 to Oct. 29 and includes 11 productions, only four of them written by Shakespeare. As I said, I arrived in time. But instead of sitting in a dark theater on a sparkling afternoon, I wandered around town, lazed in 100-acre Lithia Park, and dawdled through a late lunch near the handsome confluence of North Main, East Main and Water streets.

Another option, a few miles farther from the national park and farther west at Cave Junction, is Oregon Caves National Monument, where visitors file through underground passages appreciating bats and strange rock formations. A 60-year-old, six-story, alpine-style lodge, the Oregon Caves Chateau, stands nearby. (That lodging is operated by Estey Corp., the same firm that has held the Crater Lake Lodge concession since 1983.)

My itinerary didn't leave me time for the Oregon Caves. But maybe next time I'll wedge that in, along with a Shakespearean comedy, a run down the Upper Rogue, a little cross-country skiing, and a couple of hikes. I'll do it all in, oh, three days. Spend a few hours in the company of the big hole and the beloved bad idea, and you begin to think anything's possible.

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GUIDEBOOK

On the Crater's Edge

Getting there: From LAX, United and Alaska airlines offer connections to Medford (via San Francisco on United, via Portland or Seattle on Alaska). Lowest restricted fares begin at $89 each way on United, $139 each way on Alaska. From Medford, it's a 75-mile drive up Oregon 62 into Crater Lake National Park's south entrance and another seven miles to the end of the road, and edge of the caldera, at Crater Lake Lodge.

Where to stay: Crater Lake Lodge (P.O. Box 128, Crater Lake, OR 97604; telephone 503-594-2255--expect many busy signals--fax 503-594- 2342) has 71 rooms, about half of them with lake views. All rooms have private bathrooms, 63 with showers, eight have bathtubs without showers. Ground floor rooms may have views impeded by snowdrifts in June, possibly even in July. Rates $99-$119 per night, double occupancy; $169 for loft rooms with two queen beds that accommodate up to four. Open season: May 20-Oct. 14; before May was over, the lodge had sold out July and August, with only scattered days in June available.

Seven miles downhill from the lodge stands the Mazama Village Motor Inn (P.O. Box 128, Crater Lake, OR 97604; tel. 503-594-2511, fax 503-594-2622), operated by the same concessionaire but homelier and more affordable. Forty rooms in 10 buildings. Open May 20-Oct. 14. Rates $74 May 27-Oct. 1; $59 per night per room, double occupancy, otherwise.

About 25 miles down the mountains from the national park entrance, surrounded by Rogue River National Forest and neighboring the Rogue River, is the rustic, modest roadside Union Creek Resort (56484 Oregon 62, Prospect, OR 97536; tel. 503-560-3565). Nine rooms and 12 cabins; $38-$80 nightly, double occupancy. Across the road, the affiliated Beckie's Cafe serves good burgers and such for about $4, boasts about its pies and offers steaks for $11-$14.

Nearby are various campgrounds, including 198 sites at Mazama Village. Eighty miles south, Medford has several large hotels, and 10 miles beyond that, Ashland is full of smaller hotels and bed-and-breakfast operations.

Timing: Lingering snow keeps many roads and trails closed through the spring, often into the summer. The scenic 33-mile road around the caldera, Rim Drive, is expected to open about July 15, weather permitting, and remain open through September. The 1.1-mile Cleetwood Trail, the only route from the caldera rim to the water's edge, is expected to open July 1. Once the trail is open, the Crater Lake boat tour season begins with two-hour tours in 60-passenger launches operated through September; fares are $10 for adults, $5 children under 12. Information about those services is available at (503) 594-2511--if you can get past the busy signals. Rim Village includes a restaurant, cafeteria and gift shop open year-round, except Christmas Day.

For more information: Oregon Tourism Division (775 Summer St. N.E., Salem 97310; tel. 800-547-7842).

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