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Chris & Allyson vs. Oregon (2018)

Day Five: Crater Lake: Cleetwood Cove Trail, a lake cruise, hiking Wizard Island, Crater Lake Lodge.

About 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted. You don't hear much about it, on account of the lack of Western Civilization at the time. Lava vented out the sides of the volcano for days, emptying the magma chamber and leaving the mountain hollow. The weight of the rock on top was now too much for the mountain to bear, and it collapsed inward to form a caldera. The hole was thousands of feet deep and about 20 miles in circumference.

Like a good hole, it filled up with rain. "Crater Lake" formed over the course of two centuries. It was very deep, very clear, and very clean. There were no animals living in it and very few people around to pollute it. The water almost reached the top, before a natural drain -- scientists still haven't figured out the exact mechanism -- held the water level steady.

Mount Mazama wasn't done. Smaller eruptions started underneath the water's surface, creating pimples on the caldera floor -- volcanoes growing inside a volcano. One of them outgrew the lake, poking its peak almost as high as the caldera rim. Today it's called "Wizard Island." There's nothing quite like it in America, so we rightly turned it into a National Park.

This park was supposed to be the centerpiece of our vacation, and we almost didn't see it. Wildfires were raging in Northern California and Southern Oregon in the weeks before our visit. The smoke from those blazes was blanketing the state with a gray haze. The smoke ruined visibility and made it hard to breathe. Every morning for two weeks, I checked the Crater Lake webcams. Every morning, smoke was hanging over the lake like a disease.

We reached the park at night. After driving from Salem, we turned on to the northern entrance road hours after sunset. We stopped to look at the stars -- it seemed like a promising sign -- then had a white-knuckle drive to our motel / campsite. The road had no shoulder, and it sure seemed like the steep drop-offs started about 3 inches past the white lines. While fearing for our lives, we burst out laughing when "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree started playing over the radio station we had tuned in hours earlier. You had to be there.

The morning of our anniversary, we woke up in our motel, then ventured outside to find ... clean air. Cold air, to be sure, but we weren't going to complain. The wind had shifted, and the smoke was gone. On our car ride to our excursion, we stopped at an overlook, on the road we had traveled the night before. And it was all there before us: The lake, the island, and brilliant sunshine. The night before, we ha no idea how close we were.

The park, which includes the volcanic landscape surrounding the crater, has lots of trails. But the Cleetwood Cove trail is the only one leading to the lake. The rim of the caldera is constantly crumbling, and landslides are a very real problem. It's 700 feet down to the water, along a one-mile path; the primary company is very large evergreens and ground squirrels. The big animals stay out of the caldera; there's not much for them to eat.

At the bottom, your chariot awaits. A boat took us and two dozen other adventurers around the edge of the lake, then docked on Wizard Island. You have your choice of two trails, but everyone we asked (volunteer ranger Kathy and boat captain Mike) said to go to the top. It's a 700-foot climb, switching back along the slope of the mini-volcano. The only real catch is that you're at 6,000 feet and your body probably hasn't fully adjusted to the change. But it is beautiful. Trees cling to the slope, sometimes thrusting out and bending up in search of sunlight. Their trunks spiralize, in nature's ingenious method for spreading scarce water to all sides of the tree. Neon green lichens cover the trunks, tapering off near the snow line -- a few feet off the ground in most spots.

Everywhere you walk, there are views: The multi-colored lava flows on the caldera walls, the blue sky and the island itself are reflected in the lake. The vistas from the top of Wizard Island are fantastic in every direction. You can even climb inside the mini-volcano. The top of the island has its own crater -- dubbed the Witches' Cauldron -- so it's possible to stand inside a volcano that's inside a volcano.

Another boat pulled up a few hours later, to return us to our circuit. It's a leisurely trip, past the most distinctive rock formations -- the most notable being "Phantom Ship," the only other island in the lake. (It's a spire that you can't land on.) There's also lots of time for trivia and questions. Our guide, volunteer ranger Kathy, was a retired Boeing design coordinator. After three decades in the workforce she finally found a chance to use the geology degree she earned in college. Fun facts:

  • The water of Crater Lake is cleaner than any municipal water supply. Everyone filled their water bottles straight from the lake and drank it. We all lived to tell the tale.
  • By some measurements, Crater Lake is the clearest body of water in the world, with visibility on some days going more than 100 feet. If you drop your iPhone in the lake, you can see it sinking for a long, long time.
  • Science people figured out which rock face on the rim has the "leak" that keeps Crater Lake from overflowing -- there's a slight current pulling that way. They still have no idea exactly where the leaking water goes.
  • You can fish in Crater Lake without a permit, because they want the fish gone. They were put in the lake for sport fishing many decades ago, and everyone now feels this was a mistake. The even bigger mistake: the crawfish they introduced to give the fish something to eat. They reproduce at a hideous rate, and now they have been attacking and killing some kind of orange newt, the only indigenous Crater Lake species that can be found nowhere else on earth. Why? WHY DID WE EVER TRY TO PLAY GOD?
  • They haven't ruled out more eruptions. Gas sometimes bubbles up from the bottom of the lake. Go see it before it's consumed by the molten fires of hell.
  • In the past, Crater Lake had a bunch of year-round snow fields hanging on the rim. Now there's only one. Hmm.
  • They helicoptered the boats to the lake, in case you were wondering.
  • One lady on our tour was very insistent on learning the secret of why certain rocks appeared to be shimmering. It was sunlight reflecting off the water. She refused to accept this explanation and will undoubtedly go public with the truth once she blows the lid off this conspiracy.

The long trip ends with another climb, 700 feet back up the Cleetwood Cove trail to the parking lot. Thoughts of a shower, and not wanting to be stuck behind the glitter rock lady, drove us forward. As we headed back to our motel, the wind shifted, and a haze returned to the lake. The clear skies had been the universe's anniversary present to us.

If it had been a milestone anniversary, maybe the universe would have kept the skies clear through our dinner at Crater Lake Lodge. But why complain? The lodge is historic: The original structure dates to the early 20th century, when an enterprising gentleman put up a large log structure on the rim of the caldera. It was a poorly built structure, with terrible drafts. But if a thing lasts long enough, it acquires nostalgia. When the lodge was on the verge of imploding, the Park Service arranged for a tear-down and a years-long remodel. They re-established the lodge as a sort-of-nice and very expensive vacation mecca.

The lodge restaurant is the only thing approaching fine dining in the vicinity of the lake, so that was the spot for our anniversary dinner. We had a nice locally-sourced meal and the usual "special occasion" conversation: X reasons (in this case X=8) our marriage is so wonderful. Anyone listening probably got a little misty. Mostly from the wildfire smoke seeping into the building, but still ...

On to Oregon Day Six

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