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?