More Than A Few Ghost Stories Swirl About Crater Lake National Park

How much longer will the "Old Man" dwell in Crater Lake? Photo by Andrea Lankford.

Too Scared For Human Eyes

Have you ever heard a man describe a woman as being “so beautiful it hurts”? Well, it’s a phrase that suits Crater Lake National Park perfectly. Just under 2,000 feet deep, Crater Lake is the clearest, cleanest, and deepest body of water in the United States. Filled with rainwater, the lake is so pristine and wavelengths of sunlight are able to penetrate so deep, the colors reflected back to our retinas are blues and purples of an unreal intensity. To the Klamath Indians, it was a sight too sacred for human eyes. To their way of thinking, to gaze upon the azure waters was to risk “death and lasting sorrow.”

According to Klamath legends, two spirits named Llao and Skell fought gory battles here. Llao ripped Skell’s heart from his chest, and Skell retaliated by dismembering Llao and throwing the body parts into the lake. Hideous monsters gobbled up everything but Llao’s head, but the lake still holds Llao’s spirit. When stirred, he may brew up storm clouds. When angered, he may appear in the form of a giant crayfish that climbs up out of the lake, snatches people off the rim, and drags them down into the water.

One day a group of friends were touring the lake in a rowboat, when Mrs. Mattie Hatcher looked over the side and saw something really big swimming underneath the boat. “That thing must have been a block long,” Mrs. Hatcher told a reporter for the Fort Meyers News-Star in May of 2002. “To me it looked like a dragon.”

Frightened by what they had seen, Mrs. Hatcher and her friends rowed to shore and climbed to the top of the rim. They warned people about the monster living in the chilly depths of Crater Lake, but no one believed them.

A Ghost and Goblin Park

Ranger Jan Kirwan calls Crater Lake a “ghost and goblin park.” It didn’t take me long to see Ranger Kirwan’s point. From the Indian legends of long ago to the modern tales of today, there is an undeniable fairy tale atmosphere to Crater Lake, a surreal landscape of enchanting moments and bizarre dangers. For example, in 1853, the first white guy to see the lake, a miner named John Hillman, was greeted by something extraordinary just before he reached the crater’s rim—a snow white deer with pink eyes.

Ranger Kirwan says Crater Lake rangers often see campfires burning on Wizard Island, but when they boat out there, the rangers find no sign of campers, no whiff of smoke, and no scorch marks on the ground. One evening Ranger Kirwan was patrolling the roads below the rim when she spotted ten people standing around a roaring fire, camping illegally in the forest far from the designated campground. The ranger parked her car and entered the woods to contact the illegal campers, but when she reached the site, she could find no people and no campfire. Somewhat distressed by the campers’ furtive behavior, the ranger got behind a tree and called for backup. The two rangers searched all over, but they still couldn’t find any sign of the “roaring campfire” or the ten campers RAnger Kirwan had seen just moments before.

When Ranger Kirwan and her partner told the other rangers about their unnerving experience, they learned that the place where Ranger Kirwan had seen the phantom campers was the site of an old Park Service campground. Cold Spring they called it. And before Crater Lake was a national park, the Klamath Indians used it as a temporary hunting and berry-picking camp.

But of all the freakish tales from this outlandish park, the story of the Old Man touches me the most. The Old Man is a mountain hemlock. He is 35 feet tall, stands vertically in the water, and has been floating in the lake since at least 1896, traveling as far as four miles in a single day.

If you’re lucky and have good eyes, you might be able to pick out the Old Man from the Cleetwood Cove Trail or from one of the overlooks nearby. Look for a grayish white, almost bone-like stub bobbing in the vast and lonely expanse of blue, where the stoic old log has floated for more than 100 years.

“We don’t like to mess with the Old Man,” Ranger Dave Grimes says when park visitors ask him why rangers no longer jump off the tour boats onto the Old Man’s stump to pose for pictures.

In 1988, a party of submarine explorers feared the errant log might damage their ship. They harnessed the Old Man and hauled him toward the shore. As soon as the tree was tethered, the weather turned ugly. The wind blew. White caps formed on the surface. A current stirred. So the scientists released the Old Man. Within minutes, the weather went from angry to benign.

Rangers say the Old Man has “taken a beating” over the years.” There used to be four feet of him sticking out of the water, and now there are only three. The cold waters are protecting the log from decay, but a tattered old tree can’t go on floating around a lake forever can it? And this scares me a little. What’s going to happen to us when the Old Man finally sinks?

Comments

Strange that this article never mentions Crater Lake's most storied ghost -- the one that haunts the Crater Lake Lodge.

I remember my family camping there some 57 years ago. I still recall the beauty of the lake, pretty much because I fell into the water and recall it was so cold. The beauty of that area certainly made an lasting impression on an eight year old girl. Who said it isn't worth taking children to experience natural wonders? My best memories where of all the State and National Parks my parents took us to.

Our parents taught us so much about the Creator by camping and fishing in the great outdoors.

I'd hardly call a story (and picture) of an old log more interesting than those weird ghost stories. I thought you were going to tell us that Crater Lake is a portal into another dimension next... you know, like is rumored about Mt. Shasta.

"In 1958 Richard Brown, John Wirty and Warren Fairbanks took core samples from the “Old Man of the Lake” and determine that the old floating log was 273 years old when it slid upright into the Lake." I imagine there have been several "Old Men" over the years. Thanks very much for the story on an All Hallows' Eve....

Quatrains of Crater Lake: Hemlocks

Serene where death once pitched his camp, they lift
Green spires against blue water far below;
And the scarred slopes where their slow shadows drift
Drink the cool peace that only trees bestow.

-- Ernest G. Moll (Nature Notes From Crater Lake, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1934)

Rob Mutch
Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
www.craterlakeinstitute.com
Robert Mutch Photography

I sayed at the lodge in 2000- I had no idea of any of these stories or happenings. I was totally un-nerved the entire stay. My husband, my one year old son and I were staying there for two nights after extensively camping our way through OR. We left after the first night- he and I both were almost frantic about leaving. It's not what we SAW, but the overwhelming feeling of doom and dread. I'm no weirdo, and I've never experienced that before or since-
it's pretty, but, I'd stay away.

I think Crater lake is one of the most awesome natural beauties in your America. I am 41 now but remember reading a National Geographic article about Crater Lake when I was a young teenager, and the magazine was from the late 60's. In it there was a picture of a young girl sitting on "the old man of the lake", I often wondered if the FLIP ship was inspired by someone who saw or read about "the old man of the lake"

When my Mother was a teenager (she died eight yrs ago at age 81), she lived for two years in a developing lumber town called Gilchrist. Her name was LaRue Bradshaw. She often talked of the wonderful times she had there, the dances at the lodge and their trips to Crater Lake. She always spoke of that part of Oregon with awe and said it was a special, spiritual place. She said the Indians talked of an indian girl who had gone to meet her lover at the edge of the volcano when the eruption happened. The indians thought the eerie sounds made by the wind were the sounds of the girl crying. A really good tale.