The Rest of the Story – Tricky Clean-up at Crater Lake National Park After Car Goes Over the Edge

Here's what's left of part of the car after its plunge over the edge. (Bottom photo): Removing most of the debris required some fine flying skills. NPS photos.

Earlier this month the Traveler reported on a car that went over the edge of the caldera at Crater Lake National Park. The vehicle was destroyed by the 1,100-foot fall, and the park was faced with a challenging clean-up before the snow flies. Here's an update, and there's more to the story: in an amazing coincidence, this accident has something in common with a similar event from the distant past.

The good news from this incident is that all of the occupants of the vehicle were safe—including Haley the dog, the Dingo-Akita mix that some who followed the story dubbed "Lucky." Although the two humans involved in the situation had gotten out of the car at an overlook to enjoy the view, Haley was still aboard when the driver-less car rolled over the edge.

One look at the accompanying photo of what's left of the car confirms that it's fortunate Haley was ejected through the vehicle's sun roof early in the unplanned ride, and the dog managed to scramble 600 feet back to the top with only minor injuries.

Unfortunately for the park staff faced with how to clean up the mess, that big chunk of mangled metal wasn't all that remained after the crash, and parts of the vehicle were scattered along the 1,100-foot path down the caldera wall.

Winter comes early and stays late at Crater Lake, and the quickly approaching fall rain and snow added urgency to the task of removing the debris. The combination of the steep slope, loose rock and long distance between rim and lake made this salvage job anything but routine. Just "leave it be" isn't an option; not only is the junk unsightly, but there was concern runoff from the rain and snow would wash any remaining debris into the water, where it would be difficult or impossible to retrieve.

So, how's it going?

Phase one of the clean-up involved helicopter operations, and that work went smoothly. Marsha McCabe, the park's public information officer, said a helicopter from Swanson Group Aviation in Grants Pass, Oregon, hauled out two rigged loads of debris and mangled car parts. The skilled helicopter pilot was also able to use a grappling hook to extract some of the larger items scattered along the caldera wall such as a seat, bumper, and muffler. It's estimated the operation removed about 80 to 90 percent of the remains of the 2003 Volkswagen Passat.

Phase two of the operation will most likely require technical climbing to retrieve the smaller pieces of debris still scattered all along the path the vehicle followed on its tumble to the lakeshore. Park officials plan to conduct an operational safety review to determine how best to proceed. They point out that "protecting the pristine nature of the lake and ensuring the safety of personnel are the highest priorities."

According to McCabe, the last auto mishap of this magnitude occurred in October 1922 when a brand new Lincoln rolled over the rim near the present day location of the Sinnott Memorial Overlook in Rim Village, and that incident was definitely a close call.

A history of the park compiled by former rangers Larry and Lloyd Smith notes that shortly before the 1922 accident, the people with that car had removed their baby from the vehicle … because it was crying. The owner of the Lincoln was a barber from Klamath Falls, Oregon, whose last name was Swanson.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In a bizarre coincidence, one of the occupants of 2003 Passat involved in this month's incident was also named... Swanson.

If your name happens to be Swanson and you decide to visit Crater Lake in the future, perhaps you'd do the park and yourself a favor, and be just a bit more cautious than usual whenever you're near the rim.

Comments

A very comprehensive article, makes one completely informed about the topic in hand. A really good effort by the Park management, and the dog is indeed "lucky"!! Good to hear that no one was injured, thought the incident clearly advocates the need for taking the utmost care while on trips.

maybe they should screen for people named "Swanson" at the entrance? Or post a sign in that area saying that if your last name is Swanson and your car goes over, you're liable for all clean up costs? Just a thought...

Anonymously-Yours

Well, in fairness to the Swanson clan, in this month's accident the car didn't belong to Mr. Swanson; he was just a friend traveling with the owner of the VW. The unlikely connection of the names to both situations was just too good to miss for a little tongue-in-cheek comment, though. What are the odds??

Really folks - isn't the amount of "contaminant" that could run the equivalent to a "drop in the bucket" given the size of Crater Lake?

I heard they quoted the dog after the rescue as saying: "That's Swan small step for dog, one Swan leap for dog-kind."

If you were aware of just HOW pristine the water at Crater Lake is, you would NOT question the concern for the "small amount" of contaminant involved. ANY amount is a diasaster in as clean an environment as Crater Lake offers!!!

William E Hardy:
If you were aware of just HOW pristine the water at Crater Lake is, you would NOT question the concern for the "small amount" of contaminant involved. ANY amount is a diasaster in as clean an environment as Crater Lake offers!!!
There's already lots of runoff that contains contaminants. I'd be surprised if there weren't cars leaking oil that gets carried off by precipitation. Perhaps a big concern would be the fuel. Vehicle exhaust can also be pretty nasty, and a lot of that ends up dissolved in the water.

I'd like to know who pays the bill for the clean up. The Park Service, meaning U.S. taxpayers, or the driver's insurance?

That story reminds me of a coincidence at Roosevelt-Vanderbilt NHS. An elderly gentleman backed out of parking space, forgot to put the car in drive, then excelerated - backwards. His car headed down an embankment but not before hitting some visitors sitting on a park bench. Luckily nobody was hurt. During the investigation the ranger learned that the same gentleman pulled the exact same move several years earlier. I don't know if their name was Swanson.

Island Paddler:

Good question. In such cases, standard procedure is for the NPS to recover costs from the owner's insurance company. That applies for incidents such as aircraft crashes as well as vehicle accidents.

My own preference is for the inner caldera and lake to be managed as a most sacred place. This is presently the situation for at least 9 months of the year when snow prohibits lake access. Throughout the spring, fall, and winter months, the inner caldera of Crater Lake is essentially pure wilderness. The commercial boat tours (ranger guided), operate only during the short summer season (early July through early September). These commercial boats, and the NPS boats used for research and monitoring, are winterized in obscure lava-covered shelters located on Wizard Island.

During the 1970's, there was concern raised by former lake researcher Dr. Douglas W. Larson, that contaminants originating from human waste might be entering the lake via subsurface seepage from septic fields at Rim Village, causing a measureable loss of the lake's pristine transparency. Those septic fields were removed in the early 1990's.

Measurements of the transparency of Crater Lake's water are quite remakable. USGS geologist Joseph Diller made the first measurement in 1896 by lowering a white 10-inch-diameter dinner plate until it disappeared from view. The dinner plate was still visible at nearly 100 feet (30 m) deep. Since that time, investigators have taken hundreds of readings using a standard black and white Secchi disk to measure water clarity. The deepest reading, taken in June 1997, was a staggering 139 feet (42 m). A natural body of water that is this pristine deserves special protection and care.

Regarding who pays for it; whether the park pays, or the insurance pays, we all pay. Park=tax dollars. Insurance=higher premiums for all. just saying.

I think the "lack of luck" for the Swanson name ended when the Kmax came to recover the "car" successfully. Truly a great story and was wondering when someone was going to write something about the SWANSON/SWANSON/SWANSON connection.

I was at the lake when this unfortunate incident occurred. (My name is NOT Swanson) My main concern was for contaminants entering the soil/water. I'm reassured that everything possible is being done to clean up this mess before the winter storms. My sincere thanks to all involved in the recovery of the debris.

Anonymous -

Good eye, and congratulations on catching the third "Swanson" connection in the story! In case some readers missed it, that was also the name of the company that provided the helicopter for the clean-up. It's in the seventh paragraph of the story.

My comment is inspired by mention of the dog that fortunately escaped serious harm. I worked at a hotel in the Columbia River Gorge near Hood River Oregon a few years back. Behind the hotel was a viewing area that looked out over the river. It was in a natural rock setting with a wall built at the edge. Below the wall was a 200 foot drop straight down. I was horrified when visitors approached the wall one day with a dog that was not on a leash. It saw a chipmunk scamper to the back side of the wall and excitedly jumped up and over the wall and fell to it's death. It was not the first time that that happened there. There were discreet signs asking people to be sure their dogs were leashed, but they were ignored.

Again, this comment isn't related much to the story at Crater Lake. However, I saw this as an opportunity to plead with tourists visiting unfamiliar places to never take for granted that an area is dog safe unless it is obviously so. Keep your pet on a leash for it's safety, if for no other reason. I love dogs as so many people do and I and the many visitors who were there when it happened were heart-sick over it. The owners of that dog were extremely grief stricken at their loss and the manner in which the dog was killed. By all means, bring your best friend along, just be sure to protect him from the unknown. It feels good to finally get this off my chest.

Thanks,
Don

There was a car that went off the West Rim Drive at Grand Canyon (sometime before 1985) that they could not extract, so they simply painted it the color of the surrounding rocks in an attempt to help it "blend in"... has anyone else out there spotted that car during your Grand Canyon viewings...? Don't know if they've since removed the car (a few pieces at a time) or not. Would be an interesting Eagle Scout project.

Crater Lake doesn't have any runoff. It holds the world's record for the clearest water in the world & doesn't have any streams or other water sources that feed into it other than rain water. It's a true crater surrounded lake.

[Edited for gratuitous remark]

We have been to Crater lake and it is the most beautiful lake that i have ever seen and it would be a real tragedy if it were not cleaned up from this accident.