Weekly Getaway–Solo Ski Around Crater Lake

By Ed Lyons

Oregon’s only national park gleams like a prized blue sapphire among the pine forests of the Cascade Mountains.  Like any precious gem Crater Lake must be viewed from all angles to be fully appreciated.  The proper setting of a jewel further enhances its beauty, and the surrounding glistening, white, snowy ridgeline provides the perfect ring for the lake’s deep blue water.  To capture the full luster of this wonder of God’s creation in a unique way, I decided to cross-country ski around Crater Lake in late winter.

Crater Lake is more than a pretty volcanic pond.  Thousands of years ago, Mt. Mazama blew its top forming a crater almost four thousand feet deep surrounded by a contiguous rim.  Rain and snow runoff fill the 1,943-foot deep hole, and depending on whether you measure maximum or average depth, Crater Lake is anywhere from the third to tenth deepest lake in the world.  Indisputably, it is the deepest lake in the United States.

What gives the lake its deep blue color?  Actually nothing; because of its pristine and unadulterated water, the lake consistently logs clarity readings in the range of 80 to 110 feet!  Park rangers work hard to maintain the cleanliness of the water enabling its natural filtering of red light waves to reflect the dominate blue tints.  Combine this phenomena with reflection from a blue sky, and the result is stunningly radiant.

To travel around the roughly six-mile diameter lake requires a walk, ride, or ski of 33 miles.  Starting at Rim Village on the south (6 o’clock) edge, visitors travel in a clockwise direction toward Watchman Overlook at the 9 o’clock position on the route, then to Cleetwood Cove near the 12 o’clock position.  At the cove you can take a boat tour of the lake and Wizard Island or even a frigid swim.  At the 3 o’clock position you can hike up Mt. Scott, the highest point in the park at 8,929 feet in elevation, which affords a wonderful place from which to watch sunsets.  Finally, the circuit is considered complete at the Park Headquarters at the south rim.

To cross-country ski 33 miles around a cold, deep lake on a snow-covered road might not seem like a privilege to many, but every mile in nature with God is an invigorating and rewarding gift.  Over the years I have discovered the formula that works for me is physical exercise mixed with spiritual communion.  Exercise tires and relaxes my body while clearing my mind, which then enables me to be still before my Creator to better hear His voice and see things in a powerful, often life-changing way.

Like any wilderness trip of such magnitude, especially in winter, careful planning is required.  First, I asked God, “Should I go, yes or no?”  Second, I talked with a ranger about snow levels and avalanche conditions.  Finally, I shouldered my backpack, strapped on my skis, and glided westward along the rim in a clockwise direction from Rim Village.

In the middle of that afternoon I found I was a lone skier among all the snowshoers returning to the village.  There was no defined track among the mess of minimoguls, but many cheerful greetings were exchanged among fellow outdoor enthusiasts.  After a couple hours of kicking and gliding, I passed the last snowshoer and found myself in total solitude at the base of Watchman Overlook.  Looking east the azure hue of the lake rested below the towering majesty of Mt. Scott on the east rim.  To the north and west rolled the Cascade mountains as far as I could see.  Alone with God and His wondrous works, I felt tremendous awe and gratitude amid the Holy Spirit’s invigorating presence.  It is for these personal, intimate moments with the Creator that I disappear into the back-country wilderness away from the hectic clutter of civilization.

I continued around behind the massive Llao Rock, and not far from Cleetwood Cove I found a wind-scoured, exposed segment of the road’s asphalt where I set up my tent about eight hundred feet above the lake surface.  The original plan was to camp on the snow, but how often does one get to sleep on the highway?

As evening faded into night, I sat gazing across the crater to the civilized side, but no one could see me or hear me.  Yet, I had perfect peace because my mind was stayed upon God, and Jesus was with me always as promised in Matthew 28:20.  “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (KJV).  Both as the stars came out that night and as the sun came up the next morning, I read from God’s Word and prayed for people and various needs.

Many, many times the wilderness has been God’s great incubator where solutions have percolated into my mind.  Whispering pines, singing birds, and an ever-changing sky influence my selfish, impatient heart to wait upon God and to get in sync with His natural pace amid the things He made.  He is the Giver of “every good gift and every perfect gift,” and with Him is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17, KJV).  This means He is always giving us gifts.  He is like a heavenly transmitter continuously beaming waves of love.  My job is to clear my mind’s antenna of static so that I can hear His message and receive His power.  The quiet soul in the Creator’s quiet Creation is softened, inspired, and connected.

The next day dawned as stunning as the day before.  With sunglasses a must I set off into the brilliant morning light with the kick, glide, and swoosh of my skis.  I still enjoy the step-step rhythm of regular backpacking, but the floaty smoothness of moving across the top of the snow has a soothing rhythm all its own.  Moving across buried bushes with only taller trees protruding from the ten-foot snow pack gave the landscape a cleaner, more open appearance than in summer.

At midday I stopped to eat lunch on the meadow between Cloudcap Overlook and Mount Scott.  The cumulus clouds billowed and towered in giant display, portending possible rain to the east.  I was grateful to be on course to arrive back at my car near the headquarters by late afternoon.  So far this trip around Crater Lake was nothing but an inspiring joy.

An hour after lunch I began to understand the ranger’s caution that the 12 o’clock position was not really halfway around the lake.  In the southeast quadrant the road takes a series of long switchbacks toward and then away from the rim.  As the crow flies the park headquarters stood about five miles away but more than a dozen miles by road.  And those miles are the steepest of the entire circuit, climbing up to the rim then diving down and around ridges only to climb once again.

At Kerr Notch I encountered the first of two avalanche spots the ranger had warned about.  Instead of ascending with the road, I descended into the valley on an alternate trail.  It was a good thing that I had, because I soon encountered a couple hundred yards of snow boulder avalanche debris from a recent slide.  This made for slow going, but like many trials in life it showed I was listening to His guidance and wisdom in following His will rather than my own.  Better to cross over than to be buried under the huge piles of snow!

Having passed the danger zone, the trail was discernible only by a series of arrows on trees.  It was left to snowshoers to kick their own trail of upward steps.  For the few skiers like me there was simply no relief as I carefully trudged upward on the nylon skins I had attached to the bottom of my skis.  Taking them off was worse because of my legs postholing into the warm snow.

At this point another fact about gems began to make sense.  The miner does not simply dig a perfect diamond or sapphire or any other jewel out of the ground. Raw ore is dug, nuggets are separated, then they are cut, ground, and polished to bring out their glory.  On this earth observing simple beauty requires hard work.  Around Crater Lake all the easy miles of the first three-quarters of the journey are offset by the steep miles of the last quarter.  While the lunchtime puffy clouds steadily formed a storm behind me, I worked up a serious sweat during my determined race to the finish before dark and before the storm caught me.

In the midst of my little arduous trudging, God provided two tiny rivulets of water dripping down the rocks.  Taking only a few minutes to fill my bottle from them was much better than spending a lot of time and fuel to melt snow.

On those final curvy climbs and long descents, I learned one more very valuable lesson.  It is important not only to be prepared for problems, but I learned to actually face them, evaluate them, and push through them.  Crater Lake not only provided an inspiring source of beauty, it also presented an opportunity to explore God’s divine wisdom­—to look at and explore objects and issues from every angle before drawing final conclusions.  This may require extra effort, patience, and even pain.  The alternative, however, can be costly and even disastrous as warned in Proverbs 18:13.  “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him.”

I have driven around Crater Lake in summertime, and now I have skied around it in wintertime.  I have viewed the sapphire of Oregon from many angles and varying light.  My Creator has used that place like a huge object lesson to imprint eternal lessons of wisdom in my mind.  I reached my car right at dark, and while fatigued and sore, I am eager to circle Crater Lake again with my Creator and Teacher!

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Ed Lyons writes from Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he enjoys exploring the outdoors of the northwest in order to share his discoveries and the spiritual blessings he receives.