Sunday, August 4, 2013

Going Commando at Crater Lake

August 4, 2013 – Going Commando at Crater Lake

I pack my swimsuit in anticipation of swimming at Crater Lake. I'd never heard of it until my friend told me that we were going there to celebrate her birthday, that there was no way out of it, and that I was to be the designated driver. When I mentioned my impending trip to a new acquaintance named Ty he said he’d been there in the spring to go hiking and that he'd even swum in the lake. “Well,” he said, “I got in long enough so that I could say I had been swimming but it was really too cold for much else. Though there was this fat guy who stayed in there for a long time.”

Always the masochist (don't “they” say that swimming or bathing in cold water extends your life?) and with a not-so-latent athletic desire to outdo myself and others (how fast? How long? With what stroke did you swim?) I set my intention. Above all else, I want to swim in Crater Lake. I even convince my friend to pack her swimsuit although she hadn’t planned to. 

“What are your expectations for this trip?” I ask her the day before we leave.

“To do some hiking and maybe take the boat ride tour if we can get tickets for it.” To enjoy life, to see the National Park, to celebrate her birthday, to eat good food, to take a road trip, to revel in the summer. All these things are easy enough to achieve.

We pick up the rental car on Friday and I drive us one hundred and fifty miles up the gently sloping mountains to Union Creek Resort. We arrive in time to settle in, check out the little gift shop, get dinner from Beckie’s Café (“Nearly everyone knows about Beckie’s Café, celebrated across the country for delicious homemade pies, home-style cooking, and friendly, down-home service,” the website proclaims, and I wonder how I've gone my whole life without having heard of it ever at all. I never celebrated it once before this moment) and then go in search of the Rogue River and some waterfalls. Part of which we find.

Time has no need to rush. Neither do we. We spend a pleasant evening together, chit chatting the hours away. The sun retreats. The air chills. The river babbles on and on and then we call it a night.

The next morning we drive down a long and magical tree-lined road to Crater Lake and discover that the boat tours are already booked for the day but there are some slots available for the next day which my friend books just in the nick of time. These tickets cannot be purchased online, there are a limited number of seats per tour, a limited amount of tours per day, and lots of people who want to go for the ride. We're some of the lucky ones. We don’t even have to arm wrestle anyone for them.

It's here, on the veranda of the historic Crater Lake Lodge that I get my first glimpse of Crater Lake, of Wizard Island, of the brilliant blue of both the water and sky. There’s a part in the (unfortunately) short-lived TV show Life about a girl who has scored a speaking role in a movie. Her one line is, “I’ve never seen a sky that blue.” That’s how I feel about this water. I’ve never seen a lake that blue. And like the girl in that show I go around practicing my line (though in my head) to balance it against the truth of what I’m seeing. I’ve never seen water so richly that blue.

 So blue it seems like I’d be able to scoop it up like paint in my hand and smear it bluely on my skin, in the air, across my memory.

With our boat tour tickets set for the next day and the afternoon free before us we decide to drive around the crater rim. The rim is approximately 33 miles around with lookout points strategically placed for picture taking and viewing, and trailheads branching out at various parts. The Crater Lake guide suggests allowing between one and three hours for the drive, and as we get started I wonder what we'll do after we’re finished. Mill about? Twiddle our thumbs? Eat up all our snacks? Make awkward small talk to pass the time? Politely go insane while asking each other “what would you like to do now?” Go back to Union Creek? But I needn’t worry. We're comfortable in each other's company. There's no pressure to the day. The sun is shining. The air is fresh. My friend suggests that we stop at each and every lookout and so we do. Seven hours, 700 pictures, plenty of walked paths, and a myriad of conversations later we arrive back to our starting point.

I'm exhausted. It's the kind of exhaustion that comes from a day in the sun, the concentration of driving, and just plain fun. A good kind of exhaustion. A little dusty and a tad bit sun-scorched we end up in the rocking chairs on the veranda of Crater Lake Lodge and order appetizers and cocktails for our dinner. It's one of those moments when as I'm looking out over the mirror-like purity of the water and watching the sun’s setting turn the sky into the soft pastels evocative of a southwestern landscape painting that I wonder to myself how I got so lucky to have so many perfect moments like these in my life.

“I like celebrating your birthday,” I tell my friend.

We sit and rock until the sun is gone and the lake is blanketed in darkness. We’re waiting for the stars to come out. But they remain hidden behind a veil of smoke that’s blown in from the fires burning several counties away. Eventually we get to our feet, walk back to the car, and I drive us through the night (watchful of the deer that stare white-eyed at us as we pass them on the road) back to our lodge, to our waiting beds, to our dreams.

Not quite as early as the crack of dawn, but close enough, we are up, breakfasted, and ready to go. We stop off in a town 11 miles from Union Creek to fill the car up with gas and then I drive us as quickly as I can without breaking too many speed limit laws, careening us off the side of a mountain, or crashing us into a copse of evergreens back to Crater Lake National Park. We've got to be at the Cleetwood Trailhead (about half way around the rim) forty-five minutes before our scheduled boat departure in order to collect our tickets and make it down the 1.1 mile trail from the rim to the lake. We've given ourselves a buffer time and it's a good thing. We have about five minutes of it left when I park. My friend collects the tickets then we make our way to the mouth of the trail. I’ve remembered my snacks, water, sensible shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, a cap, my camera, my sense of adventure, and as always my sense of humor.

It's not until we reached the bottom of the trail (the trail that the Crater Lake guidebook marks as arduous) and see small pockets of people frolicking in the water and along the shoreline that I realize I've forgotten my swimsuit.

“Oh no!” I exclaim. “I forgot my swimsuit!” Which is strangely reminiscent of the story my grandmother tells of when I was four or five years old and at a dance recital. My ballet group wore red sequined outfits with frilly sequined tutus and we had headbands with dyed red feathers in our hair. We danced to the song “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along” as sung by Bing Crosby. We’d gotten our cue to come on stage and as I traipsed in behind my fellow dancers I stopped midstride and exclaimed for the whole auditorium to hear, “Oh no! I forgot my tutu!” and then darted offstage to go find it. Once properly attired and back onstage the show went on.

Here. Now. At the bottom of that 1.1 mile trail I'm crestfallen. It’d be no fun task to run uphill to the car to retrieve my suit and then run back down. Not as easy as finding a red sequined tutu. It’s not that I’m entirely lazy, only somewhat. It’s not like I haven’t done arduous hikes before. I just can’t believe I didn’t even think to remember my suit. I sigh. “I really wanted to swim,” I say.

My friend, always one to find a solution, says, “Well, what underwear are you wearing?”

I take stock. Clean, decent, sporty, more modest than a lot of girls’ bikinis. Check it out, kids, I’m going swimming after all! I think triumphantly to myself.

Joy of mind restored (mine at least), we line up with the other visitors and then board the motorboat that will take us around the lake.

The boat tour is informative, entertaining, two hours long, and entirely enjoyable. Even with sunscreen and my baseball cap on I can tell I’m getting sunburned. As we make our way around the inside of the rim with the sun beating relentlessly down on us the idea of the cold, cold water of the lake begins to sound more and more appealing.

Back at the dock we disembark and my friend and I head over to the rocks. We clamber down to the water’s edge. I think back to yesterday when another tourist had stopped us at one of the lookouts to ask, “How far have you come? Do you think it's worth it to drive all the way around?” She was worried about time, she still had to drive on another two hours to get to Bend before nightfall. “After all,” she went on, “it's just a lake.”

Just a lake.

Here at our shore side spot, I'm chattering. Excited. Listening to a group of guys and girls next to us as the girls are trying to talk one of the guys into getting into the water. I probably join the conversation without even realizing what I'm doing. We’re all adventurers here together. In this moment we’re all one group. In this moment we're all here.

I’m talking to them, to myself, to my friend.

I'm halfway out of my clothes when I think a little about modesty. What would my grandmother say? What would my mother think? My dad might not appreciate me swimming in my skivvies, but he would advocate for going with the adventure.

Modesty. And these people, when will I ever see them again, when will they ever see me again? To heck with it all.

I fold my jeans and my shirt and put them next to my dusty shoes. Then I scamper carefully down, stick my feet in the water, lower myself in, and slide across a smooth, wet rock all the way in to the lake. It's gloriously, skin-chillingly, beautifully cold. I shiver my way out away from the shore.

“How is it?” my friend asks.

“Amazing!” I called back through chattering teeth.

“Are you over the ledge yet?” one of the girls from the other group asks.

The ledge? I look down and there it is. The ledge separating the shallow from the deep.
The shallow portion of the lake is a shimmering green like blown glass or dragonfly wings. The ledge is this same green, spotted dark here and there with the smoothed over shapes of rocks, and then just past that there is deep blue. Deep, deep blue.

I’ve never seen a blue that blue.

“I’m just over it,” I call back.

“Amazing, right?” the girl yells back.

“Yeah!” I hover there for a moment over that “safe” greenness. Then I swim out over the blue. 

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States going down 1,943 feet deep. It's the ninth deepest lake in the world. In this moment I'm not thinking about the depth in numbers, in fact I'm trying not to think about it too much at all. There’s something frightening about depth. Something alarming about things that appear bottomless, infinite, fathomless. I could be sucked down into the abyss. I could vanish forever into this blue. At least there are no sharks, I think. Okay, there may not be sharks (and this is a plus in my book) but there are crawdads. I have a childhood story about crawdads too. My mom's youngest brother, my uncle, used to catch crawdads from the creek and keep them in the giant metal tub he used for his dog Hannah Banana’s water bowl before he boiled them up in a crawdad stew. They weren't grand, these crawdads, but they had pinchers and I always had this fear of being pinched; we’d been warned to keep our hands and feet out of the tub. One day I was sitting up on the rock wall in my grandparents’ backyard when I slipped and fell over backwards into Hannah Banana’s water bowl. I don't know that I've ever moved as fast as I moved that day. I was up and out of that tub faster than you could say fried frog legs with nothing more than a scrape on my back and the surging adrenaline from my near death experience to etch that moment into my mind forever. I cried more from fear of the crawdads than I did from the fall. You see, I've always been plagued with an over-active imagination. 

But the crawdads here are not my imagination. They’re real, and the park staff encourages anyone to catch as many of them as possible along with the fish (which are not native to the lake but were brought in to increase the appeal of the park to as many possible outdoorspeople). Crawdads are apparently native to this area because the Klamath Indians have a legend about a giant crawdad that would occasionally leap up out of the depths of Crater Lake to grab a tasty human morsel from off of the crater’s rim. I learned about this from a placard on yesterday's rim drive.

“This is amazing!” I shout back to my friend (giant crawdads or no giant crawdads). “You should come in!”

And then, to my surprise and joy, she also strips down to her most modest make-shift swim apparel and joins me in the lake. We tread the fifty degree water shifting warm and cold patches to and from each other while trying to catch our breathes from the high altitude and the cold.

“I’ll swim back in and take your picture,” I say, breathlessly, “so you can prove you got in too.” I swim to shore and scramble back up the rocks. They’re warm against my skin. Delightfully hot. I root around in our bags to find the cameras and then get to work taking some pictures.

“Was it worth it?” the guy in the group next to me asks, the guy they’d tried to talk into going in the water.

“Absolutely!” I say, teeth chattering. Absolutely! And I’m going right back in, I think. With the photos taken and the cameras returned to their spots I slip back in the water and swim through the cold, back over the ledge, near my friend. We tread. Talk. Tread. Then with no discussion, no visible sign, we both begin to head back to shore.  

The rocks are just as warm, just as delightfully hot as before but a breeze has started up. I wrap my arms around myself and think lizard thoughts. My friend and I get dressed as soon as our skin is dry enough. I tuck my wet underwear into a plastic bag and store it in my satchel. It’s a day of firsts. And here’s another with me going commando under my clothes. So shocking! What would people say?!

I laugh because I just don’t care.

I’ve been swimming in a crater. I’ve just swum in a lake pooled up entirely of rain water and snow melt. I swam in Crater Lake.

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