The Cascade Range, stretching along the West Coast from northern California into British Columbia, is by far the most volcanic region in North America. Seattle’s Mt. Ranier, Portland’s Mt. Hood, and its Washington neighbor Mt. St. Helens, are its most famous peaks, with St. Helens losing its top in the historic cataclysm of May 18, 1980. All of these are closely monitored for ongoing seismic dangers.
But the mountain that really lost its top some 7,700 years ago is probably the most visited and admired. The ancient Mt. Mazama, as it is called, was a “composite cone” built up over hundreds of thousands of years to a probable height of 12,000 feet. A series of massive explosions released gas, ash, and magma, and evacuated the lake of molten rock inside it, causing some 5,000 feet of its top to sink into its interior, leaving the sheer rock faces you can see today.
Snowfalls and rain began filling the caldera, which constitutes a slight oval about 6 miles across at its widest point. Subsequent eruptions built up cones beneath the surface of the present lake, with one, Wizard Island, rising 800 feet above the lake’s level. The lake itself, with its remarkably stable level, has a maximum depth of 1949 feet, making it the second deepest lake in North America. Some 1500 feet above it looms the rim of the ancient volcano, displaying the whole range of volcanic rocks that geologists have deciphered to unlock its history.
Because the rim is still some 7,000 feet above sea level, it receives over 40 feet of snow each year. While the Park Service keeps the road to the top open all year, the road around the rim was still not completely open when we visited at the end of June.
Fascinating as it is, that is just the geology, the physical history. What attracts so many people is the awe-inspiring blue jewel of the lake itself nestled in the silent rocky testimony to the creative destruction that formed it, still reverberating in the legends of the native peoples of the region. It is this combination of intense beauty amidst the silent testimony to overpowering energy that makes a visit a kind of pilgrimage, one we try to capture in our cameras but can’t quite capture in our minds.
At first it frightens us, because one slip could send us down the steep slope into the freezing water like an unsuspecting ant at the edge of an ant lion’s lair. Then it awes us, as its size reduces our pretensions to a wispy breath in the arguments of cosmic time. But then the blue, amniotic waters connect us to the heavens and the waters of creation. It is this nearly mystical sensation of the “mysterium tremendum” that probably drew me to its rim to gaze across the blue expanse, as it does so many others.
A hundred years ago the land was set aside as a national park, a fitting consonance with Native American veneration of the spirit of the mountain. A lodge was built for visitors. We couldn’t get a room even six months in advance, but we ate in its rustic dining room, sat on its porch overlooking the lake, and chatted with old friends who came up for the day from nearby Medford.
We had been there for a few hours 33 years ago. We found the silvery skeleton of a tree where we had stood before and got a photograph. The sky mirrored the intense blue of the lake as shadows began to pull the covers of the night across the surface far below. The boat that takes intrepid visitors around the lake was carving its last V into the waters as we turned to go to our cabin on the flank below.
We had driven up the western slope of the range from Eugene. The next day we leveled out on the high desert to its east, a mile above sea level, to head to Lakeview, the ranching and logging town where Sylvia had grown up.