Crater Lake National Park: Puzzling Myths and Missing Persons
Deep in the old-growth forests of Northwestern America lives a glorious gem of natural beauty. Crater Lake is renowned for its extreme depth, vibrant color, and crystal clarity. The towering cinders of the crater rim are contrasted by the lush, ancient forest that surrounds it. Heavy snows and rain keep the dormant caldera perpetually filled with pristine blue water, fit for human consumption. This geological wonder was originally called “Deep Blue Lake” and “Witch’s Cauldron,” the Native America language Klamath, refers to the lake as giiwas, which is loosely translated as “sacred place.” Crater Lake National Park is not only a splendor of the natural world. It is a sacred place to the Native Americans. But even to this day many strange events have occurred in the immediate area around the lake, which include disappearances, suicide, and murder.
Crater Lake: Eruptions, Geology, and Deepest Lake In the USA
Crater Lake is believed by geologists to have been created upon the destruction and collapse of Mount Mazama back when it was volcanically active. It is the deepest lake in the United States and one of the deepest on planet Earth.
Its average depth of a 1000 feet (304 meters), ranks third worldwide and its maximum depth (2000 feet/610 meters), ranks ninth of all lakes on the planet.
Hot springs and fumaroles (geothermic cavities that vent natural gases) bejewel the crater rim, and volcanological studies indicate there is still some lingering hydrothermal activity in the depths of the abyss. The cataclysmic eruption that is believed to have collapsed the volcanic mountain summit, is thought to have occurred very recently, around 4600 BC.
Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park in the Oregon Cascade Range. ( Rex Wholster / Adobe Stock)
Wizard Island: Strange Sightings of People and Fires
Wizard Island is one of only two small islands in Crater Lake. This little island is in the form of an almost perfect cylindrical cone and was named wizard in reference to pointy hats. Combined with the fog swirling around the rocky cylinder, the island resembles a wizard’s hat and his white flowing beard. In the warmer seasons park rangers will ferry visitors out to the island to explore.
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Wizard Island has developed lore of its own over the years because many different rangers have claimed repeatedly to have seen human looking figures and fire burning on the island at night when the park is utterly desolate. The stories are consistent. And when rangers swiftly motored out to the island to investigate, they found nobody present and no fire at all.
Phantom Ship Island: Looks Like the Masts of a Ship
Phantom Ship Island is the other of the two islands. This island is a series of jagged points rising up about 160 feet (49 meters) from the lakes surface.
The steep points, with their sharp, angular rise and fall, and alone on the liquid surface, vaguely resembles the masts of a ship, and when the fogs swoop in and climb out of the caldera, the ship seems to eerily disappear and reappear.
A photo of the Old Man of the Lake: the strange tree stump that floats upright and seems to be connected to other-worldly forces. (NPS / Public domain )
Old Man of the Lake
The Old Man of the Lake is the nickname given to a famous geological oddity at the lake. The oddity is a 30-foot-tall tree sump, which has been bleached by the sun to a bright white and has apparently “floated upright” all over the lake for over a century, and perhaps even much longer than that.
A species of unique moss grows on the Old Man, a moss that is only otherwise present very deep within the lake. It has been theorized that the moss is what keeps the Old Man buoyant.
Various experiments have been done on the Old Man, they have determined the tree to be about 450 years old and that it travels quite extensively through the lake, sometimes with unusual speed.
In 1988, ecologists were conducting submarine explorations at the lake. They decided to secure the Old Man to the far side of Wizard Island to mitigate any that the tree could interfere with the submarine.
But when they tied the Old Man to the island, the weather suddenly took a drastic turn for the worse, and it continued to worsen, until there was heavy snowfall in August. The moment they released the Old Man from his bonds, the weather cleared, adding yet another layer of mystery to this place.
Crater Lake National Park: Sacred Place of the Klamath
The Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin, and other Native American tribes have called the Klamath Basin home for over ten thousand years. It was only in 1853 that Europeans first “discovered” the lake, and this was of course, by accident as they were prospectors searching for gold.
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According to the tribal history of the Klamath, their people signed a treaty with Uncle Sam in 1864 which designated giiwas, or Crater Lake, as within their sovereign territory. However, Uncle Sam it seems, had another interpretation, and made it into Crater Lake National Park in 1902.
Crater Lake and Crater Lake National Park are all sacred lands to the Klamath people and other Native Americans. This photo is an elderly Klamath woman, taken in 1924 by the famous photographer Edward S. Curtis. (Edward S. Curtis / Public domain )
Mt. Mazama Is The Klamath Sacred Mountain of Creation
There are a few different existing variations on the Klamath myths revolving around the lake, but the core elements remain constant in all the versions. Barbara Alatorre, a Klamath Tribal Member and Klamath historian, relays her peoples’ story which sanctifies the crater as a place of creation. “Before time began, giant Spirit Beings came down to earth through a hole in the sky, pushing ice down to build giant mountains.”
The first mountain built by the Klamath Spirit Beings was Moy Yaina (Big Mountain — where Mt. Mazama now stands).The Spirit Beings created the rest of the Klamath terrain by digging tunnel-like caverns beneath the earth, and by pushing up the hills and mountains to create the Cascade Range. They dug the channels for rivers and created the marshes, and hundreds of springs bubbled up from underground. Giant trees, meadows and plants sprung up everywhere.
Upon completion, all the Spirits returned to the after-world (called Nolis-Gaeni), where others may not go until after death. Only the Spirit Chief, Skell (the Sky Creator), remained behind to create human beings (maqlaqs).
Skell made his home inside Mt. Shasta (Mlaiksi) at the southern end of the maqlaqs ‘ country. From his spirit bag, Skell selected two bones as he soared over to what is now Klamath Lake where he laid the bones over one another — (giving birth to the Klamaths). Two bones were crossed near Modockni Lake known today as Tule Lake (home of the Modocs). Finally, near Goose Lake, bones were laid together (to become progenitors of the Yahooskin and Wal-pah-pe people).
According to the legend of the Klamath and Modoc Indians the mystic land around Crater Lake, Oregon was the home of the great and terrible god Llao. Llao was captured by the benevolent creator god. His body was torn into fragments and cast into the lake. Llao’s head will lies in the lake, and white men call it Wizard Island. And the cliff where Llao was torn to pieces is named Llao Rock, as shown here in this photograph. (OSU Special Collections & Archives / Public domain )
The Prison of Llao & Gateway to the Underworld
The Klamath tale goes on to describe Llao, the Chief of the Underworld, who would occasionally come up to the surface and observe the humans living in their splendid realm. Once during one of his spying sessions, he saw Loha who was the daughter of a Klamath Chief. Loha was exceptionally beautiful and refused all suitors which included all the bravest warriors from the surrounding clans.
During an important ceremonial observance, Llao sent his supernatural entourage to entice Loha and apparently they dispatched her suitors in a blast of orange light. The extravagant gifts, suspicious nature of the entourage, and their otherworldly removal of the suitors overwhelmed Loha with fear.
She reported what she had experienced to her father, he and the elders decided to hide her so that Llao could not force to her to live inside the mountain with him as his wife. The tradition then says, that when Llao returned and could not find Loha, and nobody would reveal her whereabouts, he flew into a rage, wreaking havoc beneath the crater in the subterranean realm causing volcanic activity to ravage the people out of revenge.
The Prison of Llao Continued
Two powerful medicine men sought to evoke Skell, their benevolent creator, to rescue the people from the wrath of Llao, so they walked by torchlight up to the rim and sacrificed themselves to the underworld.
This commotion did arouse the attention of the creator deity of the sky, and moved by the sacrifice of the medicine men, Skell descended and waged war against Llao, ultimately defeating him.
So, the Klamath believe to this day that the crater was created, then filled with water, to imprison Llao and the water to restore tranquility to the area after the fierce battle. And although Skell was victorious and Llao imprisoned, it is still a place of somewhat ominous caution, as this is the entryway into the subterranean realm of Llao, and the demons/monsters that serve him.
Crater Lake, Oregon, in an image taken from a satellite in July 2016. (Planet Labs, Inc. / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Genuinely Dark, Modern Incident #1
On the fourth of July in 1947, there was a very bizarre incident which seems to happen frequently near Crater Lake.
According to the Crater Lake Foundation, Mr. Cornelius and his wife were vacationing at Crater Lake, when suddenly, Mr. Cornelius handed his wife his wallet and watch before spontaneously sliding down a rock chute, he endured a horrific fall, injuring himself terribly, only to hobble into the lake where he drowned himself.
This may be a tragedy of a psychological break from reality, but it is still very strange that someone would elect to commit suicide in such a painful way, with no obvious warning signs or motivations.
Modern Incident #2
In October of 2006, Kenneth Boehlke and his eight-year-old boy Sammy were staying at Diamond Lake and decided to visit nearby Crater Lake. According to Kenneth, they stopped in a parking lot near Cleetwood Cove.
Sammy and he got out and proceeded to play a little tag/hide and seek, as they liked to do, and as Sammy went up near a large boulder formation and down the adjacent hill, Kenneth briefly lost sight of him. When Kenneth reached the top of the hill, Sammy was gone.
Kenneth contacted park authorities, they analyzed and accepted Kenneth’s distress and initiated a massive search effort that would eventually involve two hundred searchers, helicopters, K-9 units , and lasted for months…but they never found Sammy.
The FBI also participated in the search for Sammy, which is worth pointing out because the FBI has very specific criteria for deciding if they will investigate or not; a child lost in the woods is not within that criteria.
A panoramic shot of Crater Lake in winter from a different perspective. ( dendron / Adobe Stock)
Modern Incident #3
In 1975, Charles McCuller set out on an epic road trip journey across America, to photograph the country’s gorgeous national parks. He travelled in his Volkswagen from Virginia up to Oregon on a very carefully controlled route and itinerary, keeping in close contact with his parents by systematic phone calls.
Charles rendezvoused with friends in Eugene Oregon, then he told them he was going up to Crater Lake to get photographs of the serene winter beauty, estimating he would be back within a day or two.
Charles did not return, and a major search and rescue effort was launched after some days had passed. Charles’s father, Mr. McCuller, wrote letters to political figures and the FBI expressing frustration with the local search effort.
An escalated search effort found no trace of Charles, but a year later, some backpackers alerted a ranger who discovered his scant remains.
McCuller Incident Continued
This discovery only complicated the issue, because Charles’s remains were discovered fourteen miles from where he had entered the park on foot, and just as he had been arriving at the park, a heavy snowfall occurred, one he was ill prepared for and that presumably facilitated his distress.
Also, most of his bones were missing. Only a few feet bone (still in his socks), a skull, and a jawbone were found. The clothes and the few bones that were there seemed to have collapsed in that spot. But Charles’s belt was undone, and his pants unbuckled. And there was no sign of his boots, camera, or knife.
The cause of death could not be determined. Mr. McCuller believes his son was the victim of a crime.
A dark foggy road at Crater Lake in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon suggests that there is light (the sacred) and darkness (unexplained phenomena) at this ancient and disturbingly mysterious location. ( jdphotopdx / Adobe Stock)
These Native American myths and strange, modern incidents only scratch the surface of the weird things that are connected with Crater Lake and Crater Lake National Park. There are all manner of reported experiences, legends, and legitimately dark incidents that compound the highlight incidents previously mentioned.
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There are many more disappearances , some related to the vast cave system nearby (Oregon Caves National Monument). And there is a whole slew of experiences reported that are too unbelievable to mention.
Ancient myths are easy enough for common people today to dismiss, or at the very least, comfortably interpret these accounts as stylized, metaphorical, or fictional. However, there is a verifiable pattern of strange things happening near this geological marvel.
If the geologists are correct, and the fiery event that formed Crater Lake was very recent, then the Klamath would have a collective, traumatic memory; perhaps this mythological battle is their cultural expression of that ecological nightmare?
But a basin, echoing with nature myths, haunted by death and destruction unleashed by natural disaster, does not explain the rash of modern incidents which include people vanishing, planes crashing, homicides, suicides, and claims of so-called paranormal phenomena, which is only a term for something that falls outside our limited understanding.
Top image: Crater Lake, Oregon, which is sacred to the Klamath people and other Native Americans but also a location known for modern mysteries and tragedies. Source: srongkrod / Adobe Stock
By Mark A. Carpenter
Alatorre, Barbara. “How Giiwas (Crater Lake) Came To Be.” http://www.craterlakeinstitute.com/smith-chronological-history-of-crater-lake/sources-and-articles-of-interest/orgin-stories-of-the-lake/ 2012.
Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. Cold Case Division. Daniel Joseph Hilkey, Celia Barnes. https://jacksoncountyor.org/sheriff/Divisions/Cold-Case-Unit/ID/40/Daniel-Joseph-Hilkeyhttps://jacksoncountyor.org/sheriff/Divisions/Cold-Case-Unit/ID/46/Celia-Darlene-Barnes
“Klamath Tribes Language Project” The Klamath Tribe, 2012. Retrieved 5/30/2021.
National Park Service. Cold Case Roster. Samuel Boehlke October 14, 2006. https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1563/cold-cases.htm
Salinas, J. "The Old Man of the Lake". Nature Notes from Crater Lake National Park, vol. XXVII (1996).
Smith Brothers. “Deaths at Crater Lake National Park.” Crater Lake Institute. http://craterlakefoundation.org/cultural-history/smith-brothers/smiths-chronology-deaths.html