Lava rock is porous, riddled with cracks and fractures that let water percolate through. The lava flows around Mt. Washington cache snowmelt and rainfall within their rocky holds, eventually sending it downslope to a spring that feeds a basin with one outlet. Cold, clear water ushers forth and fills up behind the walls of a 3,000-year old lava flow — the flow that created the lake. The natural dam is incomplete, and the lake drains out while fresh water reliably drains in from above. The McKenzie River is born in Clear Lake.
It’s really spring now. Here on the west slope of the Cascades, abundant water has brought the forest floor to life. The conifers shade pockets of color at the base of their trunks. Oregon grape, our state flower, blooms in a vibrant yellow. Bleeding hearts dangle daintily beside the trail in a pastel blend of purple and pink. My eyes search for one brilliant blossom more than any other, and it takes a few tries before I find one in full glory.
There it is: the trillium. Vernal splendor comes in threes.
I am consistently impressed with the clarity of Cascadian lakes and streams. My formative experiences with water were not so pristine. Tennessee is a beautiful land in its own right, but the days when it held a bounty of natural lakes in its hills and mountains are long gone. It’s an older territory, worn down by the ages. Almost all of the lakes it can claim now are the product of a dammed river or stream, and these waters are never so clear. For me, it is still novel and wonderful to round a corner in the forest or crest an alpine ridge and be greeted with a transparent body of water or stand on a bank and peer down into the blue-green flow of rushing current. May this novelty never fade. As I stand over the McKenzie, I am sure it won’t.
The clouds thin and the sky does its best to match the color of the water below. We are walking along the western shore of Clear Lake through a forest of Douglas fir and western hemlock. The trunks frame vistas over the lake to the east, and up above their sylvan peers on the opposite shore there is a mountain making itself known. The jagged spire of Mt. Washington peeks/peaks out as if to remind us all what made this landscape possible. The lake, the trees, the rain, the river, the rocks — they are all here because of the molten fury that wrought this terrain long ago. The black of the basalt has greened with forest and flowers in the shadow of this snowy, eroded summit. The snow and ice have torn Mt. Washington down, but at the same time they have given rise to the glimmering waters we walk beside now. From the summit to the lava flow, from the lava flow to the springs, the springs to the lake, the lake to the river, and from the river… onward.