Crater Lake National Park
Visiting in Winter
By: Pete Myers
Onset: Winter 2000 © 2001, Peter H. Myers
"Onset: Winter 2000"
The beautiful light
Blows winter down
Day turns into snow
And from its depths
A lake does fill
© 2002, Peter H. Myers
Approximately 7,700 years ago, a dormant volcano awoke and once again erupted in the Pacific Northwest in an area we now refer to as the Cascade Range. The volcano, known as Mount Mazama, built up to a towering height of 3,660 meters (12,000 feet) before collapsing in upon itself. The resulting collapse left a crater—a caldera—that is more than 1,220 meters (4,000 feet) in depth and 10 kilometers (6 miles) in width.
As Mount Mazama collapsed, it scattered parts of itself over 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 square miles) of the Pacific Northwest. Over 54 cubic kilometers (13 cubic miles) of volcanic magma erupted from the volcano. It buried the Pacific Northwest in a rain of ash—the likes of which makes the modern-day eruption of Mt. Saint Helen's look like a mere volcanic “burp.” The Mount Mazama eruption is considered by many volcanologists to be one of the most violent and devastating natural events during the past 10,000 years.
The lore of the Indians in this region sets the scene as one of the most dramatic moments witnessed by humans in North America. The four tribes surrounding the Crater Lake area believed so strongly in the intensity of the event, that to this day, the area is considered sacred land.
Crater Lake National Park is the location of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama. The Park is one of the uncommon jewels of our National Park System and one of the oldest parks in the United States. Located in Southwestern Oregon, fewer than five hundred thousand people come and visit it each year—mostly during the three summer months of June, July, and August.
I am a fine arts photographer (www.petemyers.com). In the fall of 2000, I was invited as an Artist in Residence to the Park. My work there would be used to help celebrate the Centennial of the Park—which took place on May 22, 2002.
As one of the first artists invited, I had my pick of any time of the year for my residency. I chose the onset of winter as my time. For if there is a story at Crater Lake, it is the snow.
The caldera of Crater Lake is not stream-fed. All the water in the lake is from snowfall. As such, the water purity and clarity of the lake is some of the cleanest and clearest in the world.
In a normal winter, the snow depths can accumulate on the rim of the caldera to great depths. The western rim is where the deepest snow accumulations occur. In an "average" year, drift depths in this part of the Park range from 12 to 18 meters (40 to 60 feet) deep. Every spring the Park Service spends months bulldozing out the road from these drifts, so that the rim road around the lake can be opened by summer. Mining the road out of the snow pack is a yearly event.
The rest of the rim and Park see milder conditions—with peak accumulations in the 4 to 5 meter (14 to 17 foot) range, and with perhaps 12 meters (40 feet) of total snowfall per winter.
The latest scientific studies have yielded an estimate that indicates that the caldera initially filled in approximately 300 years. It then took another 1,900 years to stabilize to its present average depth of 325 meters (1,066 feet). Current measurements show that the lake’s peak depth is about 592 meters (1,943 feet). Considered about half filled with water, the caldera now seems to be at an equilibrium point between its surface evaporation, subterranean flow, and the incoming snowfall.
My adventure at the Park began in early November of 2000. The Park Service provided me with a residence down at the Park Headquarters. This gave me a unique opportunity to live in the Park at the onset of winter and truly become part of its winter wonder. It takes a small, but very dedicated, staff to keep the Park open and running year round. The weather can be so intense during the winter months that headquarters is often referred to as Ice Station Zebra, referring to the movie of the same name.
As a rookie to the Park's winter powers, I was fortunate to be there during a drought year. The two winter storms that passed through the Park during my residency were rather mild. But the spectacular beauty that these storms revealed brought about a transformation to the landscape that I will treasure for a lifetime.
For me, there is a physical feeling of envelopment, and a sense of embrace, when standing on the rim of Crater Lake. It's as though one becomes part of the 42 kilometer (26 mile) round circumference of the caldera rim and the lake below—you are connected to it like the arms from your shoulders.
Needless to say, the beauty of Crater Lake has drawn some big names in fine art photography over the past century. Both Ansel Adams and Edward Curtis photographed the lake, as well as many, many others. For me to find my own artistic voice here was a real challenge.
The caldera is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in diameter at its peak, and the shear walls fall 300 to 600 meters (1,000 to 2,000 feet) at an extreme angle. It’s a huge physical space—and all that geometry and scale must be reduced to a small, two-dimensional picture—in my case, a 35mm x 24mm negative
Fortunately for the fine arts photographer, our tool is the use of light. We can use the light from the sun to create a sense of geometry, which can represent the feeling of what it was like to be there when the image was photographed. But to do so on such a large scale as Crater Lake requires extraordinary light.
A Moment of Clarity © 2001, Peter H. Myers
A Moment of Clarity—detail © 2001, Peter H. Myers
That most wonderful light at Crater Lake typically shows as the first winter storm clears—when the storm has left a fine powder coating of white on the caldera walls, highlighting the geological formations of its volcanic form. The rolling clouds of the storm clearing create modulated moods filtering the sun.
Later on in winter, as the snows accumulate, there is less geometry, as more and more of the surfaces are blanketed in deep white snow—leaving the caldera once again featurelessly faced.
My hope through my work was to give a sense of the size, grace, and envelopment that one senses when standing on the edge of the caldera. During my residency, I skied more than 32 kilometers (20 miles) of the rim trails. As the two major storms cleared, I made about 300 exposures on film in total.
At times, the working temperatures during my photo shoots were pretty extreme—especially up towards The Watchman (the name of the southwest corner of the caldera) where the snowdrifts are the thickest. Even clad with thin gloves, my camera would quickly soak the warmth right out of my shooting hand, and I would lose all feeling. I was fortunate to be using a Leica M6 camera—a completely mechanical camera and one that has been proven to work reliably time and time again in very cold locations.
The snow cornices build up fast on the rim. I was working on the rim dressed from head to toe in super slippery Gortex mountaineering wear—it was an invitation for an accident. One slip and I would have taken a 300-meter (1,000-foot) or more ride to the lake and my death.
This fact was clearly illustrated to me by the Park Historian when he recited the history of B.B. Bakowski. Bakowski was a commercial photographer from Oregon City, Oregon, who packed into the lake during the winter of 1910-11 to photograph the lake's majesty in the dead of winter. It is believed that he fell to his death when photographing on the caldera rim. While the Park Superintendent found his equipment and encampment in the spring, no sign was ever found of Bakowski. This was a tragedy compounded by the fact that he was a gifted photographer and would have likely produced some lasting visions of Crater Lake that we would still celebrate today.
So in remembrance of B.B. Bakowski, I roped up with a rock-climbing harness, anchoring to trees while shooting on the snow-covered slopes of the caldera. The first time I tripped over a tree branch on the rim, I realized it had been a wise decision.
My work has taken me all over the western part of the United States, deep into remote wilderness. I have seen and photographed many extraordinary views of our wilderness—the West—and what makes those of us who live here “Westerners.” But few of my travels have touched me personally as much as my residency at Crater Lake. In its early days of discovery by white men, the lake was described or named at times as "Lake Mystery.” Perhaps that is the most befitting name of all.
All of the natural forces have created a jewel that somehow makes a person part of it all when you stand upon her rim. The sky, the clouds, and the warmth of the sun somehow seem to extend from this lake in mystery—as though it is the center of the world from which all goodness wells. And for one brief moment in this modern age, a person feels deeply connected to the natural world and our insignificance as its witness.
Meltback © 2001, Peter H. Myers
Crater Lake National Park actively encourages people to come visit the Park during the "other" nine months of the year. A visitor will be rewarded with some of the most peaceful and beautiful experiences one can imagine. But plan ahead! Contact the Park's Visitor Center well in advance of your trip, and again when you arrive. You need to know the weather conditions at all times. You will need the Park Service staff’s knowledge on how to get around the Park in winter and do so safely. They want you to be there. Take advantage of the staff's in-depth knowledge of the Park.
“Winter is an extraordinary time to visit us here at Crater Lake National Park,” says Park Superintendent Chuck Lundy. “We welcome visitors wholeheartedly during the other nine months when the Park is much quieter. The snows of winter transform Crater Lake into majestic scenery. Our dedicated staff keeps the Park roads open despite the great challenges of winter. We even provide guided snowshoe walks to visitors on weekends in the month of March. Come on up to see us in winter; you will not be disappointed.”
The six images presented in my Crater Lake Portfolio were created for the celebration of the Centennial of the Park. A print of the image, A Moment of Clarity is located in the lobby of the Administration Building at the Park Headquarters. You are cordially invited to stop in and see the print when visiting the Park.