At Crater Lake, it's elemental

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Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times (Tribune News Service)
August 9, 2015

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, Ore.—The California border was just behind us, and Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster and I were roaring up a rain-soaked Oregon highway past fog-shrouded forests and green-stubbled boulders.

About an hour outside Ashland, Oregon, the road began to climb. Pretty soon we were 7,000 feet above sea level and there was snow. It seemed as though we would run out of mountain and launch straight into the leaden heavens.

But instead, a great circle of what seemed to be sky burst into view below us, its surface rippling gently.

Crater Lake, a caldera nearly 2,000 feet deep and four and a half to six miles across, is a mirror where a mountaintop should be. The Crater Lake Lodge, its sidekick for a century, is a fortified folly on a perch better suited to snowdrifts and hemlock forest.

When you reach the rim, you can't help but think of those brave or foolish souls who opened the first lodge in the summer of 1915: a four-story hotel on the edge of a dormant volcano, at the end of a rugged road, on terrain that gets 40-plus feet of snow a year. Only an epic view could sell such a project, and that's what Crater Lake has.

We parked the car, tossed our gear into our rooms at the lodge and started prowling the caldera's edge under intermittent rain.

Then it let up. The sky's grays gave way to scattered blues. The view of the water, 2,000 feet below, snapped into bold-hued focus as if somebody had thrown a light switch.

I had stood on the rim twice before, and it was just as jolting on this third visit in late May. Dew clung to the needles of the whitebark pines. Fearless birds with sharp little beaks swooped to pry seeds from the pine cones (Clark's nutcrackers, I later learned). On the far side of the lake, which covers about 20 square miles, a new set of storm clouds massed and smudged the sky with rain.

Klamath tribal myth says the lake is the result of a battle over a woman between a god of the heavens (Skell) and a god of the underworld (Llao). When Llao lost, the volcano blew and the lake was created. In some versions, Wizard Island is what remains of Llao's severed head.

The National Park Service version of the story is that a 12,000-foot volcano blew its top 7,700 years ago, leaving a 4,000-foot-deep caldera that happened to be symmetrical and watertight. As snow and rain fell, a lake began to form. Then, perhaps 400 years after the initial eruption, a smaller, younger cinder cone volcano, now known as Wizard Island, sprouted within the caldera.

We spent two days roaming the area: a damp dawn at Discovery Point, windy dusk at Watchman Overlook and a great hour at Rogue River Gorge, outside the park boundary. Between forays, we'd fall into the armchairs at the woodsy lodge, near one of the massive stone fireplaces. And I'd imagine how shoddy it used to be.

It took six years to build the first Crater Lake Lodge, which wasn't quite enough time to do it right. When NPS Director Stephen Mather visited in 1919, he was scandalized by its poor quality. Alfred Parkhurst, the builder and original concessionaire, was soon shooed away.

Through the years, a parade of concessionaires followed amid complaints about structural strain, deferred maintenance, inadequate fire escapes and other issues. Even after the park service took ownership in 1967, troubles continued, including a sewage spill that contaminated the lodge water supply in 1975. Yet Oregonians grew to love the place.

Through much of the 1980s, park service leaders wondered aloud about leveling the lodge while preservationists rallied to protect it. In 1989 engineers declared it unsafe for habitation. By the time it reopened in 1995, the lodge was a new building with a familiar skin.

That's when I visited for the first time, just a few weeks after the reopening. The view was intoxicating, but the service was a disaster. Somebody had quit, and the director of marketing had been pressed into service as maitre d'.

By April 2004, my second visit, veteran park concessionaire Xanterra had taken over the lodge, but it was still closed for the winter. I had come to write a column about its winter keeper, who basically had the Jack Nicholson job in “The Shining.” He proved to be about as menacing as Dale Carnegie, but I did get to see what winter does to the rim. The lodge's first two floors were buried in snow, and walking its halls was like pacing in a submarine.

On this third trip, I had plenty of company, and the front desk seemed to smoothly handle the daily tide of visitors. But the lodge's cooks and servers kept surprising us by forgetting to bring a dish, substituting ingredients without warning or being grumpy. When dinner entrees hover around $30, that's not a recipe for success.

The outdoors, however, has never let me down. The lake isn't perfectly round or perfectly pure: There's at least one crashed helicopter in it, along with two non-native fish species. But it meets the sky so well.

Before I said goodbye to Crater Lake this time, we did get a few more glimpses of the bright blue hues that astound tourists in July, August and September. And I got to see some newbies take in the scene.

“I've never even made a snowball before. I wasn't expecting the snow and all the trees. That's made it a thousand times better,” said Amanda McGrather, 24, visiting from Melbourne, Australia. Then she launched her first snowball into the face of her friend Ryan Jones, 22, of Jacksonville, Oregon.

Rangers say most visitors at the park stay several hours, perhaps a night, but rarely longer, because there's just one marquee attraction and because you can't camp within sight of the lake.

I get that. But it's too bad, because the longer you look at the lake, the more mesmerizing it gets. The green shallows at the edges of Wizard Island. The wind on the water. The shadows creeping down the slopes.

If current trends continue, I'll be back in 2024 or so. And I might bring a sack lunch. But I'm not sure I can wait that long.

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