“Can we see the lake today?”
As a winter seasonal volunteer interpretive ranger at Crater Lake National Park, I get asked this question at least a couple dozen times each day – either in person at the visitor center or on the phone.
As big as the lake is – it is the deepest lake in the United States and ninth largest in the world – the famously-blue water comprises a relatively small portion of the 287 square mile park.
But, it is what people come to see.
And who can blame them?
Located in south-central Oregon on the ridge of the Cascade Mountain range, the caldera is the result of the collapse of 12,000 foot Mt. Mazama, a mere 7,700 years ago.
Approximately 500,000 visitors come to Crater Lake annually, the bulk of whom visit in the warm months of July, August, and September.
But, it is the winter season that tells the real story of Crater Lake.
Receiving an annual average of 44 feet of snow, Crater Lake is known as the snowiest inhabited place in North America. Surprisingly, it does not get that cold here, with January temperatures averaging a high of 35 and a low of 18 degrees. And, no, the lake rarely freezes, having done so only twice in the last century.
I’ve been asked a number of times by my friends, some with a look of disbelief on their face, as to the sanity of my decision to actually volunteer to live at Crater Lake for three of the snowiest months of the year. The short answer is that it was close by (I live in Bend), a position was available, and I was itching to get out of town for awhile. Crater Lake is my third volunteer gig, having worked at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Bend.
My responsibilities at Crater Lake include manning the visitor center desk as well as leading snow shoe guided walks on weekend. The walks are the highlight of my responsibilities. People from all over the world come to Crater Lake to experience snow like they never have before. It is also possible to have visitors who are seeing snow for the first time! Crater Lake provides quite the introduction.
As with any visitor, seeing the lake is the number one goal, but the walks also provide a lighthearted introduction to the geology of the park and the ability of local wildlife and fauna to adapt to the harsh environments found in winter.
Of course the snow pack on the slopes of the caldera are also important to the residents and wildlife of the Klamath Basin. As goes the snow depth so goes the drought conditions faced by farmers and fisheries.
On my walks, I have hosted newlyweds who exchanged vows mere minutes before the hike began, tourists from other countries achieving a life-long dream of visiting national parks in the United States, and many locals who are treating their distant relatives or friends to a treat in their own backyard.
On these walks, I’m often asked to reveal my most favorite experience at Crater Lake. Those asking expect me to reply with some physical, visually stunning aspect of Crater Lake, be it the incredible blue color of the water on a sunny day, the amazing cross country skiing and snowshoe opportunities, or the freedom to camp along the rim on a clear, cold winter evening.
But my answer is none of those.
At some point during my guided walks, I ask my group to be as still and quiet as possible. When they settle in, the silence is deafening. After about 30 seconds, I ask them to think about all of the things that they cannot hear that are usually part of their lives.
It is always rewarding to see the looks on their faces as they “get it.”
National parks aren’t all about having the senses stimulated, especially in a world where attention spans are shortening and people seem to require more and more external stimulation to be entertained. Sometimes, we just have to be still and count the snowflakes.
When visiting Crater Lake, views of the lake may be elusive and road conditions may make it difficult to travel. Visitors come to realize that they can’t control what they see or do at Crater Lake. They have to appreciate what the park provides them on any given day.
As one visitor said to me at the conclusion of a recent walk, “This place reminds me of what I tend to lose track of in my everyday life. Crater Lake has centered me again.”
So, no, I’m sorry, you may not be able to see the lake during your visit in winter. But, you sure will sense it.
Kevin is a three-year resident of Bend, Oregon. A retired Computer Science instructor and former professional news photographer, Kevin now spends his time in Bend, training for triathlons and working as a lifeguard at Bend Park and Recreation’s pool complex.