It’s a wonder that in 1885 Captain Clarence Dutton, William Steel, and their canvas boat made it to the water’s edge at all.
Most of the caldera’s walls are vertical or near so. The only exception is a cove on the north side where pockets of fine pumice and ash must have made for a dusty, dangerous and quick trip down to the lake. Never-the-less they did it, paddling around the edge of the crater and over to the volcanic cone Steel nicknamed “Wizard Island,” because of it’s resemblance to a wizard’s hat.
The two men returned the next year as part of a USGS survey, lowering the half-ton survey vessel, “Cleetwood,” from this cove. Over the course of a week the party made depth soundings from 168 different points. The deepest, at 1,996 feet is close to the modern official depth of 1,932 feet.
At 1,943 feet (592 m) Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States .
From the Cleetwood trail I can see evidence of this depth in how quickly the turquoise water of the cove turns to a dark indigo. The path down is broad, well maintained and has many benches to rest on, however the 700 feet of elevation loss puts this in the “strenuous” category and the park recommends that hikers begin their trip to the cove 30–45 minutes before their boat leaves.
For a fit person not carrying much gear it should take about half that time. The hike back up is another matter, equivalent to climbing more than 70 flights of stairs.
The cove consists of a fairly narrow band of volcanic rocks hugging the rim of the caldera. There is no beach, only boulders and smaller pointy rocks that make for an undignified scramble to the freezing water. There is no good way to ease into this so I follow the lead of the other hikers and jump from one of the big sun warmed boulders into water so cold (50° — 60°F in Summer) that it feels like being struck in the chest with a cartoonishly large mallet. Gone are all thoughts of swimming a few laps, my brain is shouting at me to get to shore and I dog-paddle there as quickly as I can while keeping my arms and legs as close to my body as possible.
The boat broke down before I could take my trip out to Wizard island and I learn from one of the guys running the shack at the dock that it’s not an uncommon occurrence. The boats are well maintained but older and I assume that no one wants to trek down any more supplies than absolutely necessary.
The boats appeared to be running on my second attempt and I look around for some indication of what I should do. A man wearing swimming shorts and a big straw hat stands by the dock. I figure he must be waiting for the boat, or for someone, or standing around… I get behind him, just in case. The rest of the passengers arrive more or less on time and we stomp down the dock to the boat five minutes before the scheduled departure.
I take a seat in the stern, starboard side (back right) because it faces the caldera wall and because it allows for the greatest range of view without needing to stand up. The lake is still and far quieter than I expected considering the amount of traffic on the ring road. The only sounds are the gentle thrumming of the boat’s engine and the ranger’s voice, raised as she pointed out one of the natural features best seen from the water.
We make our way counter-clockwise around the lake towards the island. Rocky fingers of Fumarole Bay pass by, the boat turns and the little dock appears.
We round Fumerole Bay and the docks appear like white fingers emerging from an avalanche of pitted dark stones. The few outbuildings that I can see are metal and painted the same color as the surrounding rocks. There must be other people on the island, but from where I sit I cannot see them.
One ranger jumps onto the dock and guides the small boat in by hand while the other drills us on the importance of being at the dock on time for the last pick-up of the day. A late rid back costs $100 a person. I opted for the half-day stay, which amounts to a few hours alone on this sun baked little cinder cone. The only line of communication is the next boat. Cell phones don’t work. There is no potable water, but there are vault toilets. One out of three isn’t bad.
We scramble out of the boat and onto the boulder field that passes for a beach. It’s difficult to see where the two trails begin, though I know that one leads to the top of the cinder cone and the other snakes west to Fumarole Bay. Judging by the size of the boulders here on the “beach,” I opt to hike to the top.
The trip is a short but relentless scramble over small volcanic slabs, loose pumics and ash that eventually gives way to a windy path through spicy smelling pines. At the tree-line, the trail curves west, affording views of a barren rocky cut by channels of turquoise water.
Ghost pines crown the summit rim, casting slivers of shade down the gentle depression that leads to a patch of nondescript ground that once lead into the heart of Mount Mazama.
Wizard Island is an excerpt from a larger project about exploring Oregon in words and pictures. If you like this, please recommend it on Medium. I’m interested in what you think of the idea in general and travel stories like this in particular. Feel free to let me know via the comments or through Twitter.
words & pictures © Matt Sundstrom 2015