CRATER LAKE LODGE, CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK

Finding a rental car with enough trunk room for four people—for a month—was no easy task. Finally, Budget came through with a Lincoln Town Car (the only full-size auto with enough trunk room).

In mid-June, Connie and I picked up Bob and Lucy Earp at the Portland Airport Hampton Inn. We collectively gulped as we looked at all their luggage (from Tennessee) and ours (from Colorado). How in the world would we ever get all that in? We did—but it wasn’t easy.

Finally, with Bob in front with me and Lucy in back with Connie, we looked at each other: would our friendship stand a month together in the same car? We bowed our heads and prayed that God would grant us His protection and blessing. Out of our battery of resource books, we read out loud the lead quotation in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’ National Park opus maximus:

One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made.
That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. . . . The whole wilderness in unity and interrelation is alive and familiar… the very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. . .

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in
and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest . . . in our
magnificent National Parks—Nature’s sublime onderlands, the admiration and joy of the world.

—John Muir

With that inspirational preamble, we drove off. I-5 South was predictably boring; but things got more interesting after we veered off onto Highway 58 at Eugene. Keeping us company for some time was one of Zane Grey’s most beloved fishing rivers, the North Umpqua. It was late afternoon before we hit the snowline. By the time we nosed the car into the Crater Lake Lodge parking lot, it was clear we wouldn’t be able to drive around the crater—too much snow!

By now, the lodge was an old friend: Connie and I first came here in 1962; our son Greg did too, but didn’t see much, since he was still in the hopper. The last time we visited it there was so much snow we had to tunnel our way through. But this year had been a light winter.

It is America’s deepest lake (almost 2,000 feet deep), and one of the ten deepest in the world; its beginning rocked the West: 7,700 years ago, towering Mount Mazama erupted with 100 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, blowing ash and pumice over what is today eight western states and three Canadian provinces. The resulting caldron (six miles across), over millennia, gradually began to fill with water from rain and snowmelt—no streams feed into it or drain it. Snow is heavy, averaging 44 feet a year, thus its summers are short. It has been documented as the clearest water in the world, with perhaps as deep a blue as exists on the planet.

THE LODGE OREGONIANS WOULDN’T LET DIE

Most of our national parks were blessed by single-minded visionaries obsessed with saving them for posterity; this proved true for Crater lake as well: in 1870, a fifteen-year-old Kansas boy, William Gladstone Steel, idly thumbing through newspaper sheets that had been used to wrap his lunch, chanced to see an article about a mysterious “sunken lake” in Oregon. Not only did he vow to see it some day, he kept his vow. Fifteen years later, in 1885, the now thirty-year-old man stood on the lake’s rim—awestruck. Right then and there, he made another vow; to spend the rest of his life on its behalf. No small thanks to him, in 1902, it became the nation’s sixth national park. Steel became park superintendent.

But Steel yearned for more than just national park status, he wanted several lodges of the stature of El Tovar, Ahwahnee, and Old Faithful to grace it. But that task proved to be a veritable labor of Sisyphus for a number of reasons, chiefly his failure to find wealthy backers and the short summer seasons. Finally, concluding that he’d just have to make do with what he had (the support of Portland entrepreneur Alfred L. Parkhurst, architect R. H. Hockenberry, and builder Frank Keyes), plans to construct a lodge of some 77 rooms were set in motion.

Sadly, however, so underfunded was the project that they were forced to cut corners—but it was either that, or nothing. One of those cost-cutting decisions resulted in their foregoing strong roof trusses. Predictably, the roof collapsed during the blizzards of 1913-14. But the lodge bravely opened its doors anyway, in its unfinished state, in 1915.

And the people came. The late teens and Roaring Twenties spawned an explosion of automobile travel, and Crater Lake Lodge became a popular destination—at least when snow melted early enough. But always it was a battle to keep it open. Ownership changed hands again and again. In 1959, plans were made for its razing—but somehow it survived until 1984 when the National Park Service recommended that it be demolished, and a new one constructed away from the rim. And they had reasons: “The truth was that the old lodge was a dump. The roof sagged, the bathrooms were spartan, light fixtures dangled from the ceiling, and the wind whipped through the walls”. . . . As time passed, “it would kind of move and creak and groan with the snow in the winter . . . so heavy that the roof was kind of flattening out the building and the walls were bowing.” (Barnes, 90).

But then the people of Oregon stepped in to save the beloved old derelict. In 1987, the Oregon legislature passed a resolution to save it. A state-wide campaign known as “Saving Crater Lake Lodge” was organized. But none of it arrested the deterioration. Finally, in 1989, with the central roof threatening to collapse, the lodge was ordered to close.

Then began a six-year effort to save it. It soon became evident that if it were to survive, it must be dismantled and rebuilt from the foundation up. In the ensuing process it was discovered that it didn’t even have a foundation; nor was there any solid infrastructure. $15,000,000 was spent in painstaking efforts to not only restore the lodge, but, more importantly, restore it to what it never had been: a lodge anchored by a solid foundation and a steel-beamed infrastructure. The great hall was rebuilt and the kitchen gutted, then replaced. Windows overlooking the lake were positioned so they would showcase the reason why people came here, and everything radiated out from the great hall and the fireplaces.

On May 20, 1995, Crater lake Lodge—against all odds—reopened. Barnes concluded her moving story with these words: “The essence of Crater lake Lodge lies in its memories. While the historic structure no longer bears the ragged signs of aging, the heart of the lodge remains the same. It is still a wonder of man perched on the edge of a wonder of nature.” (Barnes, 93).

* * * * *

We checked in. Our fourth floor dormer room was small, as are almost all old hotel rooms. Those who thronged early lodges spent little time in their rooms, but much time exploring the parks; in the evenings, they reveled in each other’s company in the great halls, listened to music, played board games, and dreamed by the great fireplaces.

At Crater Lake Lodge, time stood still. Here we met not only Oregonians but people from all over the nation and from around the world. Each had come to savor a long-loved artifact of a bygone world that had miraculously survived until the Year of our Lord 2010. Like us, they’d come here to escape a cacophonous modern world so devoid of serenity and peace.

As we ate our dinner by the window, we gazed out, entranced, at the breathtaking late afternoon diorama of changing colors. No one was in a hurry to leave the table. Afterwards, we walked outside again, then came back and played a board game by one of the fireplaces. Later, we crawled into our bed (small compared to our usual standards) and snuggled—we had to! During the night, the 95-year-old building talked to me. And I couldn’t help but wonder who else had slept in this same little room. What were their thoughts? One of my last thoughts had to do with gratitude: I’m so grateful this place is still here!

Next week, it’s on to Oregon Caves Chateau.

SOURCES:

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National parks, Vol. 2 (Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Books, 2008). These two books are must-reads for all who treasure our parks.
Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).
White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).