6,500 feet up and 16 feet deep: when you work at Crater Lake, the snowfall comes with the territory
December 20, 2001
By PAUL FATTIG
Mail Tribune photos / Roy Musitelli
Crater Lake National Park employee Phil Kelley, above, ascends a stairway from a deep snowpack to his second-floor office at the park’s headquarters complex. Kelley says he appreciates the slow pace winter brings to the park. Below: Park historian Steve Mark says at 192 inches, snowfall at the park is a little ahead of average for this time of year.
Steve Mark suggests that all new National Park Service employees facing their first winter at Crater Lake be required to watch “The Shining.”
Though the park historian was holding his tongue firmly in cheek while talking about the 1980 flick, which features a snowed-in Jack Nicholson slowly going mad at an isolated mountain resort, his point is well taken.
Snowbound isolation is a normal part of winter life at Oregon’s only national park, where a white Christmas is taken for granted.
“This is not Alaska, but the snow can get to you sometimes,” Mark said.
Never mind that winter just arrived Friday. With more than seven feet of packed snow on the ground, the windows on the first floors of the park headquarters are already buried in snow. Nearly 16 feet – 192 inches – of snow has floated down on the park this fall.
Severe winter conditions are believed to be the cause of a telephone service outage that hit the park headquarters on Dec. 13. However, employees were able to use radios and cell phones to communicate with the outside world before service was restored Friday.
But there are more than three long months left before the snowfall traditionally crests on April 1.
“We’re running a little ahead of average now,” Mark said. “Last year at this time, we were way behind.”
Mark, 44, who has worked at the park for 14 years, could see out the first-floor windows in his office all winter long during last year’s drought.
The agency built the headquarters at the 6,500-foot level because it offers some shelter from the storm. Indeed, the crater rim, a little more than 500 feet above the headquarters, is frozen in arctic weather for the winter.
“The ridge behind us here cuts the wind and reduces the snowfall,” Mark said. “If we were up on top, the weather would be much, much worse.”
It has been bad enough, he acknowledged. Although the park has remained open, travel has been troublesome, thanks to persistent heavy snowfall.
The road from park headquarters to the rim has been closed most of December. Snowplow crews have been concentrating on Highway 62, which connects the park with outside communities.
“We haven’t had this much snow this early in the year since ’84,” said Jim Houlihan, 53, a snowplow and snowblower operator in the park.
|A matter of inchesThe most snow recorded at Crater Lake National Park was the 879 inches that fell during the winter of 1932-33.That’s slightly more than 73 feet of snow.
The lowest snowfall came in 1991-92, when a relatively scant 243 inches was recorded.
Last winter brought 277 inches, the third lowest on record. The 1976-77 winter measured 251 inches.
The average for the park’s water year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30, is around 500 inches, give or take a few feet.
Complete snowfall records at the park go back to the winter of 1926-27.
“We’ve been going at it every day without much of a break,” he added. “We’ve been putting in the overtime.”
The work has been taxing on the equipment. Two of the park’s three rotary plows, which help blow snow up and over roadways, and two of three push plows have been out of commission.
“That’s why we can’t get to the rim right now,” he said of the temporary road closure.
Yet Houlihan, a Chicago native who lives near the headquarters, is no stranger to snow.
“Not this much,” he acknowledged, then added, “But the weather here doesn’t bother me. I like it.”
So does fellow park employee Phil Kelley, a cartographer by training who taught his craft and geography for years at Minnesota State University. He is starting his third winter at the park.
“I’m used to snow but not quite this much,” he said. “We got maybe two feet back in Minnesota. Of course, we didn’t talk weather in Minnesota without mentioning wind chill.”
Up until a few weeks ago, he and his wife, Mary, lived in staff housing at the park. They since moved onto property they own adjacent to Agency Lake near Klamath Lake.
Like many who spend their winters at the park, he appreciates the frozen quiet of winter.
“It’s a lot less hectic, a lot less rushed,” Kelley said. “That’s when you catch up on all the stuff you don’t have time to do during the summer.”
About a half-million people visit Crater Lake each year. But most come during the short summer.
Still, there is a steady trickle of winter visitors. Most come for cross country skiing. Others just want to take in the beauty and the incredible silence.
Gray jays and black ravens winter at the park along with about two dozen park employees.
“We have more snow on the ground now than we had at the end of the snow season last year,” Kelley observed. “It’s an early wet winter.
“But if you own cross country skis, you’re OK,” he added.
Mark, who also loves the park’s environs – whether warm or winter – agreed. Still, there is such a thing as too much snow, he reiterated.
“Sometimes the road crew just can’t keep up with it, especially when you start getting more than an inch an hour,” said Mark, who usually travels daily to work from Fort Klamath where he and his wife, Amy, own a home.
He recalled one series of storms that kept them holed up for eight days in one of the historic cabins that looks like a gingerbread house buried in snow. The couple had been renting one of the houses at the time.
“You can’t see out once the snow starts piling up,” he said. “It stormed every day – I was never so happy to get down to Fort Klamath in my life.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com