Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 28, 2005 Oh the Places Youíll See: Crater Lake, Oregon.

Iíve always known that the US was a vast and diverse country. Who doesnít grow up seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, Big Sur, and Yosemite? Years ago, thinking about how the US compared as a tourist destination to Europe, I concluded that while they had history and charming cities to offer, our real comparative advantage was our fantastic landscapes.

Yet until I went on the road, I donít really think I appreciated how very true that was. Lately people keep asking me what are the most impressive or amazing things Iíve seen, and I have to say itís the landscape. How trite is it to say that the Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring? Very. But true nevertheless. And the same is true of a dozen less dramatic places Iíve been in the past year; the Olympic Peninsula, the Badlands of South Dakota, the huge open spaces in Arizona and New Mexico, the rangeland of Wyoming surrounded by walls of mountain.

So when people kept telling me I had to go to Crater Lake, I figured I would, even though I had no good idea why.

Crater Lake, it turns out, is amazing. Yet another one of those places that just makes me say ďoh my gosh, who knew the US was like this?Ē Well, of course lots of people did. I just wasnít one of them.

Crater Lake is in the caldera of what used to be Mount Mazama, a massive volcano that blew off its upper five miles some seven thousand years ago, leaving a ring of rock walls with a lake in the middle. It is the deepest lake in the US and the clearest lake in the world. But its real claim to fame is that it is blue. Incredibly blue. So blue that itís hard to even capture in a photograph. Deep, brilliant, sparkling blue, shading to vibrant turquoise near the edges.

Its color is, of course, related to its history. After Mount Mazama exploded, its steep exterior walls remained, but its guts

were spread across the landscape. That empty bowl filled with water, creating a lake almost two thousand feet deep, ringed by one-thousand-foot walls. All the water in the lake comes from rain and snow that falls into the caldera, and because of the peculiarities of the microclimate it is one of the highest snowfall regions of the country. No streams run into the lake, so there is no sediment or organic matter brought in from other ecosystems. Because the lake is so deep, it canít warm up; most of it maintains a constant 38 degrees year round.

All of which combine to make the lake very clear, and its clarity and depth create the outstanding color. Such a nice combination of geology, hydrology, meteorology and aesthetics!

Crater Lake is, fortunately, a national park, so this wonder should be protected from mad condo builders with visions of lake-view balconies dancing in their heads. A road runs around the rim of the caldera. Iíd hoped to bike it, but itís at around seven thousand feet, and I knew I couldnít do thirty three miles of hills at that elevation when Iíd just come from sea level. So I drove this way and that around the lake, stopping at overlooks to take pictures or look at small creatures, climbing hills, watching the sun set, and filling my sandals with the volcanic dust that forms all of the hiking trails.

Only one path runs from the top of the rim down to the lakeshore, a mile walk that drops some seven hundred feet. Going down is easy, but returning to

the top at the end of the day is a bitch. Private boats arenít allowed on the lake Ė how would you get them there anyway? Ė but a Park Service concessionaire runs a boat trip around the lake, with a stop at Wizard Island, the remains of the volcano itself. Outrageously priced, but I decided it was worth it, and it was. From the bottom, the water sparkles like jewels in the sun, and the inside of the caldera is dotted with fabulous rock walls and castles. In some places the rock swirls and spirals, remnants of the rushing flow of hot volcanic sludge when the explosion happened. Towards one shore of the lake, the remains of a rock wall that long predates the explosion rise above the waterís surface. From a distance it looks like a pirate ship; in fact, it is called Shipwreck Rock. From close up, the change in water color around this ďshipĒ shows where this ancient wall heads down in a sheer drop all the way to the bottom of the lake thousands of feet below.

The boat stopped at Wizard Island, and I decided to get off for a visit. I hiked to the top, a thousand feet above the lake surface, and sat for an hour or so eating lunch and trying to absorb the intense blue to hold in my mind for later. Back down at the island boat dock, I braved the cold and jumped into the water; at the shore it is a ďmildĒ sixty degrees. Once I was sufficiently numb, it was wonderful to be in the lake instead of above it. It made it a richer experience, to be surrounded and filled with its color and cold through all of my senses, not just my eyes.

But still, itís ephemeral. By the time I had returned on the boat and climbed back up to the rim of the caldera where my van was parked, I was hot and dusty, and the cold blue living lake was just a memory. Albeit a wonderful one. You have to see it yourself.

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