Reservoir

Lars Chinburg

(USA)

There are spaces that hold magic, spaces that can create their own stories and lore, spaces where the veil is a little thinner. Crater Lake/Gii-was is one of these. Reservoir is an essay exploring how experiences with family and place can remake who we are and the choices we make. “Places like Crater Lake are our community wells, and we must do whatever we can to keep them healthy, so we can continue to drink.”

Most things that you think of as blue are really just shades. Blue is Crater Lake on a clear, calm day. Not a shade of blue, but its essence. Where all other blue goes down to drink. Crater Lake Blue is prime blue, basic blue, blue with a capital “B”. According to the Universities Space Research Association, Crater Lake’s blue is due to its depth. At its deepest point it is over 1900 feet, making it the deepest lake in the United States. When light hits water, red wavelengths are absorbed first, followed by orange, yellow, green, and finally blue. At Crater Lake’s depths, only the richest, bluest wavelengths of light are left to be perceived back at the surface. 

Now, it’s easy to drive up to “Rim Village”, the Crater Lake National Park headquarters perched on the edge of the crater overlooking the lake. From the parking lot you can climb the short but steep path to Garfield Peak, which grants a spectacular view of the lake below and the surrounding country. The Cascade mountains stretch from Mount Shasta far to the southwest, just visible on a clear cool day, up north to the Sisters. To the east, low sagebrush and juniper hills roll into the horizon. My mother Lisa was beaming and flushed from our climb, turning circles to take in the expansive vistas in every direction. I have a beloved photo of her, looking very sporty in her green puffy and hiking boots, striking an explorer’s pose – surveying the lake below and mountains in the background. 

 

*****

 

Crater Lake was added to the Anglo-European map in 1853 by prospectors looking for a lost gold mine, who named it Deep Blue Lake and did a poor job of publicizing their “discovery”. Nine years later, in 1862, another group of prospectors stumbled on the lake and “discovered” it again, this time naming it simply Blue Lake. Both “discoveries” are well worthy of their quotation marks, however, as local indigenous tribes were aware of the lake since its creation with the eruption and collapse of Mount Mazama, around 7700 years ago. The Klamath people’s name for the lake was Gii-was, translated as “sacred place”. 

 

*****

 

In early November of 2019, my mother flew from my childhood home in New Hampshire to visit me in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where my partner Anna and I had recently moved. I was working remotely, doing Customer Success for General Electric Digital’s “tech touch” customer program, whatever that means. Every day I woke up at 6 to start my day at 8:30am Central Time, and spent eight, or six, or four, or sometimes just two hours staring at my computer before giving up and going outside. I’d hike up into the hills just behind our neighbourhood, or take my fishing rod to the Wood River and stand in the shallows, feeling the cool tug of the stream on my calves and looking out over the high grass and swooping riverbends to the mountains across the valley, wondering what I was doing with myself. 

 

*****

 

Anna had to work for much of the long weekend, so my mom and I were going to have a lot of one on one time. Alone time with my mom has been a rarity since 1996, when my sister was born and I became an older brother, with another younger brother following shortly after. I was excited for her visit, and had spent the previous week planning and preparing; making itineraries of my favourite trails near Klamath Falls, simmering wild duck and goose bones to make stock for a “Southern Oregon gumbo”, and obsessively checking the Crater Lake weather station in hopes of a clear day. At the time, I had no way of knowing that this would be our last weekend together before her life would be dramatically changed. 

When I picked her up from the airport, my mom was fizzy with excitement and resplendent in her bright green L.L. Bean down coat, and pink walking cap. She is a tiny woman with a huge heart and a huger sense of propriety, and after I swaddled her in a hug, her hiking boots dangling as she laughed and yelled at me to “Put me down this instant”, her first questions were about whether Anna minded that I borrowed her Subaru to pick her up from the airport. 

The Medford airport was just under two hours from our home in Klamath Falls, almost a straight shot on Highway 140 through the Rogue River National Forest. We sped through the ranches in the bottomlands outside of Medford, and I pointed out the pyramidal silhouette of Mt. Mcloughlin in the distance, the one landmark easily visible from both Medford and Klamath Falls. 

“It’s beautiful but you’re going way too fast, you need to SLOW DOWN”. I glanced over at my mom and she was bunched up in the passenger seat, hand over her eyes, pink cap askew. 

“Mom this isn’t like New Hampshire, don’t worry. This road goes basically straight for the next hundred miles,” I said, trying to stifle my laughter. My mom was a notoriously cautious driver–adding 30% to any Google Maps driving time estimate, and much more with even a hint of inclement weather. It was a joke among my siblings that while we had our learner’s permits, none of Mom’s “observation” hours should have counted, since her eyes were screwed shut the entire time we drove with her in the car. 

As we continued our drive east, she became more accustomed to the speed and was even able to open her eyes for brief stretches. We gained elevation from the Medford valley, into the massive stands of ponderosa pines that make up much of the Rogue River forest, and she relaxed further, settling into the green smell of the trees that rushed in through the open windows. 

I was lucky to grow up in a family that loved the outdoors. My father taught me to seek after adventure; long, remote canoe trips, sharing a meal over a campfire, the pride in well-functioning and maintained gear, quiet yet heart-pounding mornings waiting for deer. My mother taught me to love stories by Jack London and later, Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner, early morning trail walks, socks steaming in front of the fireplace after a day of skiing, and the joy in a simple, productive garden. She sees beauty in places and people where few even look for it, and every time I wonder at birdsong, or let a hidden creek take my breath away, I owe the moment to her. 

 

*****

 

Crater Lake formed when Mount Mazama, made up of a series of interconnected and overlapping shield and stratovolcanoes, erupted in one of the Holocene’s largest known volcanic events. The massive eruption imploded the mountain, creating a caldera six miles wide and distributing pyroclastic flows over twenty miles away. The Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, which I’ve paraphrased here, does a fantastic job describing this event in a scientific, prosaic tone. Language more fitting the description of a particularly dull suburban tea party, rather than a cataclysmic, earth-shattering, supremely destructive eruption that collapsed the mountain in on itself and bathed the surrounding valleys in flame. The local indigenous people have much more compelling narratives of the event. There are several different versions that I’ve found, but they all tell the story of a powerful spirit enraged by jealousy. 

The Klamath tribe believes that Crater Lake came about due to a furious battle between gods. As the legend goes, Monadalkni, the Spirit Chief of the underworld, desired the marriage of Loha, the beautiful daughter of the Klamath tribal chieftain. Monadalkni sent emissaries from his home in the caverns and tunnels beneath Mount Mazama to propose marriage. Loha was afraid and didn’t want to live in the mountain with Monadalkni, so she refused. Upon hearing of the denial, Monadalkni’s rage was terrible, and he caused the mountain to explode, raining fire down on the tribal villages below. The people prayed to Gmok’am’c, the Good Spirit Chief, who lived in Mount Shasta in what is now northern California. Gmok’am’c heard their prayers just as two brave medicine men from the villages decided to sacrifice themselves to Monadalkni, hoping it would assuage his anger. Gmok’am’c, touched by the bravery of his people, flew to Mount Mazama and engaged Monadalkni in a terrible, volcanic battle. He drove the evil Monadalkni underground and collapsed the mountain over the underworld, sealing the entrance and creating a massive crater. Rain and spring runoff eventually filled the crater, creating the lake that came to be known as Gii-was. 

 

*****

 

After settling in, some pizza from our favourite (the only) spot in town, and a day of showing her around the local trails right in Klamath Falls, on our last day together we woke up early, packed snacks and water, and drove to Crater Lake to hike the Garfield trail. At the time, we didn’t know the fiery story of Gmok’am’c and Monadalkni, but standing on Garfield Peak overlooking Gii-was/Deep Blue Lake/Crater Lake, my mom and I could feel at least a little of the magic and ferocity of emotion that had a hand in its creation. 

After a short but steep climb, we ate some trail mix while sitting and chatting on top of all of southern Oregon, entranced by the cliffs sweeping straight down to the perfect blue of the lake. The lake’s colour and its obvious depth draws the eye like an optical illusion, at first you can’t look away, and when you finally tear yourself away you can’t help but wonder what’s down there beneath all that water. 

 

*****

 

For the majority of the 7700 years after its creation, Crater Lake was rarely visited by humans. It was regarded by the local people as a sacred, even eerie place. There is little to no evidence of permanent habitation, but there is evidence of hunting, gathering, and travel in the lower areas surrounding the lake. The higher elevations and the lake itself were apparently reserved for traditional spiritual activities such as spirit quests. As white settlers moved into the area in increasing numbers over the course of the 19th century, conflicts sprung up between the encroaching settlers and the native people in the Klamath valley. These skirmishes led to the Klamath Treaty of 1864, in which the Klamath people ceded 20 million acres of land and created a reservation of less than 2 million acres, including a section in what is now Crater Lake National Park. Almost fifty years later, in 1902, Teddy Roosevelt and Congress established the park, essentially ignoring the fact that, as surveyed, the southeast quadrant lay within the Klamath Tribal reservation. Today, some consultation efforts are made by the National Park Service to open the park to the traditional cultural practices of the local tribes. Notably, the NPS in conjunction with author Douglas Deur interviewed over seventy local indigenous people and synthesized their learnings in In the Footprints of Gmukamps, a three-hundred-page traditional use study designed to inform the park’s future policies and administration. Undoubtedly, more must be done to reconcile with the park’s past, but projects like Footprints are a good start to understanding the traditional cultural perspectives and tribal expectations of special places like Crater Lake. In 2021, over six hundred thousand people visited the park, all hoping to experience a little piece of the magic that my mom and I felt up on Garfield Peak. 

 

*****

 

After a while sitting together up above the lake, we asked another hiker to take a photo of us, and then descended to the park headquarters and the car. Klamath Falls is about an hour south of the park, and we negotiated the winding switchbacks of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway before turning onto 62 East, and then finally south on 97 towards home. As we sped south past Upper Klamath Lake, the sky was pink in the beginnings of sunset over the mountains to the west across the water. Mt. McLoughlin, snowcapped peak glowing, was silhouetted against the sun and my mom was delighted in the beauty of my new home. I drove and she all but pressed her face against the glass to best take in the mountains, Klamath lake, and the expansive valley ranches; all in that peculiarly thick, golden light that previews evening. She asked me about Anna, work, and whether I was coming back to New Hampshire. I looked straight ahead with both hands on the wheel and told her how it felt like I was getting paid to do nothing, how I didn’t care about my customers–how it didn’t matter to me at all whether Kellogg didn’t find and correct subtle inefficiencies in their Cheez-It production line. As she always does, she asked what I cared about, and I told her, “this,” nodding to the lake and the sun just visible as a glowing golden strip above the mountains, and her, bundled in the passenger seat. It was cool outside and we were cosy in the heat of the car, looking forward to gumbo and maybe a few board games by the fire before bed and her flight the next morning. 

My mom has always been the mentally strongest person in my life; a natural leader who lifts other people up and lives by her mantra “Be brave, be smart, be kind, be true.”  When I was in middle school, she met a local artist at the farmer’s market and commissioned a set of four paintings; one to commemorate each of the components of this motto. The paintings hung over our kitchen and the words adorned each lunchbox note and birthday card, reminding me daily of her expectation of how I would live my life. 

In college, as I struggled with who I was supposed to be amid the investment banking and corporate law dreams of my classmates, she encouraged me to follow my interests to a liberal arts degree in environmental studies or literature. With 18-year-old-away-from-home-for-the-first-time bravado and defiance, I chose business. I remember the conversation where I told her well, because it was one of a rare few times in my life where she expressed disappointment in me, not because of the choice itself, but because she knew it wasn’t something driven by my own interests, instead by extrinsic pressure to be financially successful and not “waste” my degree. 

To her, it must have felt that she had given me all the tools to follow my interests; shown me the beauty and power in the outdoors; taught me to love reading and learning; trained me to be a good leader and older sibling; and I was choosing to ignore her lessons to chase a six-figure salary and business-casual happy hours. 

 

*****

 

After my parent’s divorce when I was in 3rd grade, my siblings and I spent about two-thirds of our time with her, and during that time she was essentially a single mother to three children. By the time she had found her longtime partner Daniel, when I was in high school, she had already done most of the work in raising three headstrong children through the trials of puberty, an accomplishment I will always consider to be Herculean. Having recently ascended into true post-college adulthood, I now know how difficult it is to feed myself creatively and nutritiously, get up early mornings to hike or ski, and find time to be a part of a community. It boggles my mind to imagine the strength, patience, and organizational skills required to shepherd three children along, mostly alone. And yet, expertly shepherded we were. 

On weekends we were bundled into my mom’s minivan, screeching and complaining about “another stupid hike”. My mom somehow endured our brattiness and abuse; quieting us with books on tape, knowing that if she could just get us on the trail we’d be reminded of how much we actually liked hiking and being in the woods. The frequent post-hike ice cream cones didn’t hurt either. She walked us to the small farmer’s market in downtown Exeter, NH along the river on Thursdays after school, and we sprinted up and down among the stalls, free-sampling and climbing trees behind the market. During summer break, my siblings and I spent all day outside, biking to the woods behind our neighbourhood and playing capture the flag until we heard our dinner bell. It wasn’t much of a bell, and so often we didn’t hear the bell itself, rather we heard of the bell through the neighbourhood grapevine. But always when we arrived home, scraped and sweaty and starving, my mom would have whipped up something healthy and delicious, with herbs or vegetables from the garden, that we’d eat on the screened porch together as insects buzzed and summer-fun yells faded along with the heat and light of the day. 

 

*****

 

On December 13th, 2019, barely a month after our Oregon weekend together, I landed at the Salt Lake airport on the way home to New Hampshire for Christmas, and turned my phone on to a deluge of texts and calls from my family. 

My mother’s life partner Daniel, my unofficial stepfather, had suffered a terrible ski accident while enjoying a weekend with my mom at a Vermont resort. He was skiing slightly ahead of my mother, and she came around a bend in the trail to find him spread across the run, unconscious, unmoving, bleeding from a number of deep cuts on his face. He was evacuated to the hospital, where they found that he broke his back and was paralyzed from the chest down. 

Since the accident, Daniel has shown incredible fortitude and determination that can’t be overstated. My mother, always an inspiration in her kindness and strength, raised herself up another level and became superhuman. Overnight, she found herself to be a nearly full-time caregiver. Daniel was in the hospital in Boston for weeks, undergoing emergency surgeries and other procedures. He was remarkably cheerful and brave, despite the severity of the injury and the constant discomfort he faced. My mom was like a general; taking constant notes while talking with the doctors and nurses, organizing stopgap measures to make Daniel’s home in rural New Hampshire more accessible, and still finding time to make pizzas and appetizers for my siblings and I as we took solace in each other on New Year’s Eve–my brother lightly strumming his guitar while my mom and sister and I sat closely together on the couch, humming quietly along. 

To make matters worse, the condo to which my mom had recently downsized was a vertically oriented, townhouse-style home – not viable for someone in a wheelchair. She engaged an architect to draw up preliminary plans for a minimally invasive external elevator shaft and proposed her plans to the condo association, only to have them denied. In a stunning lack of compassion, the association president refused my mother’s requests for an appeal meeting, emailing that my mother was creating “a stressful situation” for the other members of the condo board. 

My siblings and I were furious, and began planning a fire-and-brimstone campaign against our neighbours; considering everything from sabotage and vandalism to (more reasonably) the federal Fair Housing Act. My mother refused to enable our rage fantasies, reminding us of our family values again and again; Be Brave, Be Smart, Be Kind, Be True. “How does setting Bill’s car on fire align with our values?” she admonished us.

She took the high road, appealed to the board after they eventually agreed to her meeting, took their second denial with grace, moved her things into storage and found an accessible apartment across town. 

 

*****

 

One of the recent natural mysteries surrounding Crater Lake concerns its water level. Crater Lake is unusual in that water hasn’t filled its basin, rather it lies more than five hundred feet below steep cliffs at even the lowest point of the rim. Since 1896, when scientists began monitoring its water level, the surface level of the lake has varied by less than 1% of the lake’s total depth, with additional evidence that this lack of variance has held true for much of the lake’s history. For a time, scientists believed that it must be a near-perfect balance of precipitation and evaporation. However, measurement proved this to be illogical; the lake receives eighty inches of precipitation annually, while only thirty inches are removed via evaporation, on average. So why hasn’t it overflowed? With fifty inches of excess precipitation per year, it should only take a decade for waves to lap over the edge of the lower cliffs along the rim, sending floods down into the Klamath valley, unlucky tourists in rented Priuses tumbling down the remains of Mount Mazama. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but still – where is the water going?

In 1985, while the lake was covered by a rare skim of ice, preventing evaporation, scientists measured the rate of seepage. They found that water is leaking through the walls of the caldera at an astonishing rate, making up for the heavy snow and rain that falls on the lake each year. As for where that water goes, nobody really knows. Analysis of nearby springs in the 1980’s didn’t find much relation with the unique chemistry of Crater Lake’s volcanic-element enriched waters. Essentially, the lake is taking what the heavens throw at it and secreting the excess away into the inner machinations of the earth – perhaps funnelling water into underground aquifers, or perhaps to some mysterious purpose that science cannot yet identify or even imagine.

 

*****

 

The last few years have been challenging. In December of 2020, in her annual Christmas letter my mom wrote “This year I’ve been schooled.  I thought, by this time in life, I’d learned and appreciated the value of relationships and community.  But there was more to learn.” Daniel’s accident was followed by the advent of Covid-19, which only further complicated things. Rehab clinics shut down or worked lighter hours, it was risky to widen the covid “bubble” by hiring in-home help, and Daniel’s decreased lung capacity made him more vulnerable to respiratory diseases. 

She spent the weeks and months after the accident organizing outdoor get-togethers around the firepit in the cold New Hampshire spring, aided by a newly purchased restaurant heat lamp. She cooked meals for Daniel’s children when they came to stay, wearing a mask in her kitchen while fretting over recipes cut out from the New York Times. She continued to teach an undergraduate class every week at the University of New Hampshire. Every morning, before she helped Daniel get ready for the day, she woke up early to get outside; walking or jogging around the small pond behind Daniel’s home or the same dewy trails that she took us out on when we were kids in Exeter. Despite her turtle-like driving, she is a famously fast walker, and when my siblings and I are home she gets us out of bed to join her on the trails, leaving us gasping in her wake. 

I spent the weeks and months after the accident wondering at her leadership, trying to figure out what I was doing to help those around me, why I was spending precious time working for organizations I didn’t care about, whether I was making decisions driven by fear and comfort rather than bravery, smarts, kindness, or truth. 

 

*****

 

In the early spring after Daniel’s fall, some friends came through Klamath Falls to visit Anna and me. We drove up to Crater Lake for a snowshoe hike around the rim. Despite the park receiving an average of 42 feet (yes, feet!) of snow each winter, the park service keeps the access road to the Rim Village plowed so people can drive up to explore. We shared the lot with only a few other intrepid groups of skiers and snowshoers. Although the road to the rim is plowed, the scenic road encircling the caldera is left unplowed and open to human-powered exploration. We strapped on our snowshoes and clambered up the ten-foot snowbank that walled in the parking lot. We were lucky with the weather, and it was cold but perfectly clear as we began our trek along the snow-covered rim road. The trail wound between mammoth snow drifts and stands of ice-blasted hemlocks, the squeak of our snowshoes in the cold, dry snow mingling with occasional whispers of wind-blown ice sifting through the tree branches. The lake lay far below corniced, jagged cliffs, the water an even more startling and elemental blue in contrast with the white snow. 

At one point, I walked ahead of the group and scrambled up a steep, wooded knoll with a commanding view of the lake. The others were delayering and unpacking snacks below, and so I had a few minutes to myself among the trees. I was breathing heavily after my climb, and discovered a newfound gratitude in the health and function of my body, something I took for granted until Daniel’s accident. Finding comfort in the lake amidst the trees, with the voices of my friends floating up to me from far below, I thought of my mom, with whom I shared a similar view only a few months before. There is something elemental in her too, something powerful and basic and beautiful that brings comfort and warmth and love to anyone she touches.  

Looking out at the water below, I marvelled again at its colour and the fact that even with the cold, high-elevation winter it was still unfrozen. Earlier, at the park headquarters, we had asked a ranger how this was possible. Turns out, it’s due to the same phenomenon that explains its colour; depth. Under the summer sun, the lake acts as a giant heat reservoir, soaking up energy and retaining it incredibly well due to its gargantuan volume of water. Despite park temperatures in the teens all winter, the last time the lake froze was in 1949. 

It’s impossible not to draw another comparison to my mother, who taught me to see the beauty in places like Crater Lake in the first place. No matter the challenges that arise, no matter how cold it becomes, there is a reservoir of strength within her that not only keeps her functioning and effective, but allows her to reach beyond herself to enrich the lives of others. Shortly after this moment over the lake, I resolved that I would start applying to environmental studies graduate programs. I have my mom’s love, her unbridled joy at the blue of Crater Lake, and a lifetime of her lessons reverberating through my head to thank for the decision. 

She spent years dragging me up trails to experience the pride of a summit, taught me the power of an adventure story well told, and that the strength we take from our passions is best used supporting those we care about. It’s because of her that I believe that places like Crater Lake are our community wells, and we must do whatever we can to keep them healthy, so we can continue to drink. What I had to figure out for myself is that these places of natural beauty and power, whether national parks or backyard gardens or misty morning town trails, create people like my mom. This is their true value and magic.

Lars Chinburg

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Lars Chinburg is a writer from New Hampshire currently working towards a Master’s in Environmental Writing at the University of Montana, working with Mark Sundeen. His family and connections within and to the outdoors have been frequently featured in the most important moments of his life, and so much of his writing explores these topics.

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