Cool truth about Crater Lake

Special to The Times

WHEN I decided to visit Crater Lake in winter, I thought about cross-country skiing and ranger-guided snowshoe walks -- and the 43 feet of snowfall this place averages each year.

I had worked two seasons at the national park in southwestern Oregon (and when I say two seasons, I mean two summers) -- once as a supply truck driver, once as a cook.

In summer, when most of the park's half a million annual visitors come, they trek the trails along the lake's 7,000-foot-high volcanic rim in T-shirts and shorts. Or they take a boat ride out to tiny Wizard Island.

Between the altitude and thin air, it's easy -- despite the breeze off the water and lingering snowfields -- to get sunburned. RVs and tour buses jam the parking lots. Children race heedlessly to and fro, feeding the chipmunks that mirror the scurrying kids, turning the stacked-stone walls on the lake's edge into a little rodent superhighway.

But as magnificent and joyful as the lake is from June through September, the magic in the gold sunlight of summer and early fall pales compared with the lake in winter.

From the time my wife, Susan, and I entered the park to the moment we left, our entire world was snow. Driving into the state's only national park by the southern entrance on Oregon 62 (the only entrance open in winter), we passed through canyons made of snow. The roadside was lined with poles -- 30 feet tall and brightly painted -- that mark the road's edge. They were covered about halfway. Plows had cleared the road to the Steel Visitor Center near park headquarters, and driving on it was like driving through hard white badlands, except instead of centuries captured in the rock strata of canyon walls, we saw days, weeks or months compressed into banks of snow.

Driving in so much snow is a specialized skill, if you're not used to it. You need a reliable vehicle and a good set of chains. In my car I had a shovel, chains, a full tank of gas (gas isn't available in winter inside the park) and a sack of sand, essentials this time of year.

The campgrounds and recently renovated Crater Lake Lodge were long closed. The Rim Village Visitor Center, perched on the land at the lake's edge, is usually open all year but was closed at least until summer for renovation. That left the Steel center, one steep mile below the rim, as the only place open.

This high-altitude lake in the Cascade Mountains is the deepest in the United States -- more than 1,900 feet -- and was formed between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago when the peak known as Mt. Mazama exploded. The volcanic blast, about 40 times more powerful than that of Mt. St. Helens in Washington state, sent 4,000 feet of the mountaintop into the atmosphere.

Remnants of this event are littered around the lake: blocks of lava, ashy soil and elements of mythic tales built into the local Klamath Indian tradition. The caldera left in the top of the mountain filled slowly over the years with water so deep that it filters out all but the bluest of light waves.

On this sunny day the penetrating blue of the lake was edged by a cloudless winter sky.

"I have never seen it like this, never seen it so perfect," said Ranger Kevin Franken, who had led us on a snowshoe hike along the rim. The guided winter ecology trips continue on weekends through the end of March.

Anand Konanur and Pooja Srivatsa, who had traveled up from San Francisco, stood with me, my wife and the ranger on the rim of Crater Lake, marveling at the view. The lake was so perfectly still it had become a mirror for the surrounding peaks and clouds. Not a single gust of air ruffled the surface. All around the lake, where the rock met the water, the reflection looked like a kaleidoscope of rock and snow, shadows arching out in two directions.

The road to the rim was open, and we had driven up in our truck; Anand and Pooja hitched a ride with the ranger. We met at the closed, snow-shrouded Rim Village. We snowshoed through the forest to the lodge beneath Garfield Peak.

During the walk, the ranger pointed out things like a red fox track and a lacewing, fooled by the sun's warmth into hatching early.

'Mysterious whispers'

THESE same vistas provided solace for the Klamath Indians who came to the lake on purifying quests. As one writer put it in 1873:

"Here their medicine-men still come, as they always came in the olden time, to study spiritual wisdom and learn the secrets of life from the Great Spirit. In the solitude of these wilds they fasted and did penance; to the shores of the weird lake they ventured with great danger, to listen to the winds that came from no one knew where -- borne there to roam the pent-up waters and bear the mysterious whispers of unseen beings, whose presence they doubted not, and whose words they longed to understand."

We had signed up for the walk at the visitor center, named for William Gladstone Steel, who banged on the doors of Congress for 17 years before it finally agreed to make the lake a national park. It was a good place to get warm, buy a key chain or a candy bar, or watch the 18-minute film "Crater Lake: The Mirror of Heaven."

It was also the place to get a good weather forecast. (To plan your day, call at 10 a.m. when the center opens to find out whether the Rim Drive is open and what visibility on the lake is like. Blizzards can hit hard and fast.)

In the 104 years of Crater Lake's life as a national park, many people have been lost and never found, or found dead. In October, Sammy Boehlke, an 8-year-old with mild autism, was playing in the snow on a cinder slope right above where his father had parked their car. When it was time to leave, his father called him. Sammy made a playful dash through the snow over a ridge. His father followed but by the time he crested the hill, Sammy was gone. Two hundred people searched the area, but the boy was never found.

Dangers mount in wintertime and can include hypothermia, avalanche, falling down the lake's side slope or into a tree well (where the snow builds up a hollow area around a tree or snag), drowning and more. Rangers warn visitors to pack sturdy footwear, a water-resistant shell or coat, gloves and hat, backpack, food, water, emergency blanket, extra clothes, avalanche beacon or functioning cellphone, knife and other items -- and that's just to carry with you whenever you are out of sight of your car.

In the past when the road to the Rim Road was closed, I would strap on a pair of snowshoes and hike the steep mile to the lake's edge. With a 600-foot gain in elevation, I took my time; there's a big difference between how well your body processes oxygen at 100 feet above sea level versus at 6,500 feet.

Along with snowshoers, cross-country skiers love Crater Lake, though it's really for those with experience and conditioning. A series of trails circles the lake, a 30-mile route ringed with beautiful views. Backcountry camping permits are required; you can get them from rangers at the Steel Visitor Center only if they think you're equipped to make it.

The next time I go, I plan to catch a ride with the ranger to the rim and walk the same route. But instead of finishing with the group, Susan and I will walk down the steep, one-mile Raven Trail back to the visitor center.

As rewarding as it is to spend time with others captivated by the lake's beauty, sometimes you have to emulate the Klamath Indians and commune with the place by yourself.

For us, alternating between devotion amid the perfect and powerful spirit of the lake and capering cartoonishly down the mountain from posthole to posthole sounds just about right.

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To chill in Oregon

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, American and Alaska (operated by Horizon Air) fly nonstop to Medford, Ore. United offers connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares start at $258. Medford is 80 miles from Crater Lake National Park. For directions to the park, go to www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/directions.htm

ATTRACTIONS:

The Steel Visitor Center at park headquarters is open in winter from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. It's free to enter the park in winter, but only the southern entrance via Oregon 62 is open. Call (541) 594-3000 or go to www.nps.gov/crla/.

Rangers lead interpretive snowshoe walks at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through late March; reservations required. Call (541) 594-3100 or stop by the Steel Visitor Center.

-- Curt Hopkins

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