Paradise in Blue: Snowshoe trek at Crater Lake informative, easy, free
January 22, 2009
By ALANDRA JOHNSON
Sometimes in life, for no reason in particular, you are handed a gift, and all the elements — the weather, the setting, the company, the mood — are perfectly aligned.
On such rare occasions, I see it as my responsibility to try, as Henry David Thoreau would say, to suck the marrow out of the experience.
My trip to Crater Lake last weekend was one of those delicious marrow-sucking opportunities.
Photos courtesy Robin Johnson
Visiting Crater Lake during winter — when snow lines the lake’s rim and covers Wizard Island and ice floats on the lake’s surface — offers a different view than the summer visitor’s experience.
Photo courtesy Robin Johnson
Park ranger Don Clark talks about black bears, currently in hibernation, during a free 90-minute guided snowshoe tour Saturday at Crater Lake.
Ranger Don Clark, 66, led a group of 19 people on a tour of the landscape surrounding Crater Lake on Saturday.
Getting there: From Bend, drive south on U.S. Highway 97 until you reach Chiloquin. Once there, head west on state Highway 422 and follow signs for Crater Lake and Highway 62. Head north on Highway 62 and then turn right at Rim Drive. The trip takes about 2½ to three hours, depending on weather and road conditions. Visit www.tripcheck.com for road conditions.
Snowshoe tour: Ranger-guided snowshoe tours take place each Saturday and Sunday through the end of April. The tours are free, and snowshoes are provided. The trips, which are for ages 8 and older, start at 1 p.m. Reservations are essential, as the trips fill up quickly. For more information about the lake, visit www.nps.gov/crla or for reservations, call 541-594-3100.
Traveling to Crater Lake takes time, so planning to stay overnight in the area is a fun way to avoid a lot of driving.
Next Thursday, The Bulletin’s Outing focuses on Day 2 of our trip, with a look at Diamond Lake.
I hadn’t been to the lake, Oregon’s only national park, since I was a girl, and I had never visited during winter. Some friends and I signed up to go on a short snowshoe tour led by one of the park’s rangers. We reserved our spots well in advance to guarantee our slots for the popular free tours, so we had no idea what kind of conditions to expect.
We were exceedingly lucky. The skies were bright blue and the roads clear of ice as we traveled south on U.S. Highway 97 on Saturday morning.
Because the north entrance to the park is closed during winter months, we had to travel south to Chiloquin, then cut over to state Highway 62 and travel north to reach Crater Lake. The trip took about 2½ hours, and we arrived well before the tour started at 1 p.m.
After parking, we walked up a few icy steps to the rim and got our first view of the lake. The normally deep, deep blue color of the lake was clouded with chunks of ice floating on the surface. The hazy patches resembled ice cream floating in a blueberry soda. Deliciously beautiful.
The air felt crisp, but far from cold, as temperatures neared 50.
We met park ranger Don Clark by the lodge, which is closed in winter. Clark, 66, has been a ranger with the park since 2005 and loves it.
“Can you think of a better job in your life?”
The tours are easy tromps through the snowy hills and forests that border the lake. The trips vary depending on conditions and the inclinations of the ranger guiding the tour.
We had 19 members in our group, with the average age of the participants hovering near 50. Familiarity with snowshoeing is entirely optional. My husband and I were the only ones to bring our own snowshoes, and more than half the group had never been snowshoeing before.
Clark was an affable and knowledgeable guide. He paused our trek every five or 10 minutes to talk about various features of the park. He didn’t stick to a marked path, choosing to blaze a trail away from the lake and through a wooded section filled with hills. He infused his tour with humor. For instance, when explaining the makeup of lichen (algae and fungus), he said, “Fungus met the algae and they took a lichen to each other.”
He explained that Crater Lake receives an average of 445 inches of snow each year, but that is down significantly since the 1930s, when the average was 614 inches.
Clark also talked about how the lake was formed. Mount Mazama was 12,000 feet tall during the Ice Age 40,000 years ago. Large glaciers formed on its surface, which ground down the slopes and formed U-shaped valleys. Then, 7,700 years ago, the mountain erupted, and pumice and ash flew down the mountain at 100 miles per hour. I had assumed that the top of the mountain blew off, revealing the crater. Not so.
Clark said the lakes of magma underneath the mountain emptied. When they did, they left vast caverns. In a matter of hours, the top 5,000 feet of mountain sank into that empty space and created the giant caldera that became Crater Lake. At 1,943 feet, it is the seventh-deepest lake in the world and is renowned for its clarity.
We didn’t spot any animals during our trek through the woods, but we learned a great deal about their presence in the park. Some animals, such as the gold-mantled ground squirrel and black bear, hibernate through the winter. Others, like deer and elk, migrate to lower elevations to find food. And a third group of animals, like weasels, stick it out and are called “confronters.”
Some of those confronters, like voles and shrews, live underneath the snow in what Clark called the subnivian world.
“There’s a whole ’nother world under the snow.”
I liked picturing scurrying creatures scavenging for food underneath the thick layer of snow I was walking across.
The snow surface varied a great deal along the path Clark chose. Some was soft and melting like slick marshmallows. Other patches were sharp and icy, and we had to make sure our snowshoes were latched securely to the surface before taking the next step. We traversed under giant trees, along a lovely valley and across open expanses.
After going about a mile (in about 90 minutes), we arrived at the lake. The vista was even better than the one we saw from the entrance.
While we spotted chunks of ice floating on the surface, the lake was far from solid. Because it is so deep, Clark says the lake hasn’t frozen solid since 1949.
Our guide made certain to let us know just how lucky we were. On most trips, he arrives at this point and it’s too snowy or foggy to see much of the lake at all. Clark feels bad for the people who drive so far to see the lake and then don’t get a good view. But days like the one we had are a perfect showcase for the lake, with the white, snowy rimmed banks offering a perfect contrast to the true blue of the lake. Clark thinks the park is the prettiest in wintertime.
Surveying the gorgeous view, the sunny skies and smiling people, he had this to say:
“This is as good as it gets.”
And I, for one, was in hearty agreement.
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