DIAMOND LAKE —
It was a tourist brochure sort of day, one of those rare occasions when clear skies, modest temperatures, a whispering wind and great company fall into an almost cosmic alignment.
Accompanied by guide Jack Mattos, photographer Barb Gonzalez and I stood in awe on the north rim of Crater Lake and embraced a view like none other on Earth.
There was not another soul in sight, save a lone raven that clung silently to the upper boughs of a lodgepole pine.
We were surrounded by February snow. Llao Rock and Watchman Peak, the sheer headlands that flanked our position, rose about 1,800 feet above the 6,173-foot surface of the cobalt-blue lake below. Like the rest of the crater rim, they were cloaked in white. Even Wizard Island, the evergreen-covered red cinder cone that rises on the west side of North America's deepest lake (1,943 feet), wore a snowy mantle.
Behind us — north and slightly west, toward Diamond Lake, the winter-sports destination where we began our excursion — we beheld an untracked sheet of ivory extending to the forested Umpqua River watershed. I mused on the path we had traveled across the national park's Pumice Desert, a few miles to the north; it had been a wonderland of white, sun glinting off its crystals as if they were diamonds.
Although my Bend home is less than a two-hour drive north of Crater Lake, I had never before visited in winter, when the north entrance is closed to automobile traffic. State Highway 62 from Chiloquin is kept open year-round, but that adds, at minimum, an extra hour of travel time. (Even though Crater Lake Lodge is closed between October and April, park rangers lead short guided snowshoeing tours on weekend afternoons, and hardy nordic skiers undertake the 32-mile lake loop — usually spread over two or three days with overnight snow camps.)
An average annual snowfall of 44 feet (measuring out to 3 inches a day from November through April) is measured at the national park headquarters, making it one of the snowiest inhabited places in North America.
According to park officials, the lake itself is obscured by clouds about 50 percent of the time through winter and early spring. We were remarkably lucky to arrive on the bluebird day that we did.
Diamond Lake Resort
We began our day at the Diamond Lake Resort. Located on the northeastern shore of the lake, 16 miles from the crater rim, this relaxed and rustic property was built in 1922 as a modest Umpqua National Forest fishing lodge.
Over the 90-plus years that have followed, cabins and motel accommodations — totaling 89 units — have allowed the resort to welcome year-round visitors. The main lodge has two restaurants, an upper-floor lounge, meeting facilities and a spacious lobby beside a warm fireplace. An adjacent store sells everything from basic groceries to fishing gear, and a full-service marina operates in summer.
By my memory, I don't think the resort is a whole lot different than it was in the 1960s and '70s, when my family owned a summer-recreation home on the southwest shore of the lake. That's a positive statement. Even though the walls of our far-from-modern motel room were too thin to muffle the voices of noisy neighbors, shortcomings were more than balanced by the warm smiles of the staff. From the front desk to the cafe to the general store, they made it clear that they loved their work and were glad to share the resort with visitors.
The food wasn't out of this world, but it was better than the norm. Prime rib and walleye pike in the Bailey Room and corned-beef hash and eggs in the casual cafe were delicious. There was even a pizza joint three miles down the lakeshore, offering deliveries by snowmobile.
Flanked on the east by craggy, 9,182-foot Mount Thielsen, on the west by gentler, 8,363-foot Mount Bailey, Diamond Lake has been well-known for decades to trout fishermen. Anglers once reeled in giant rainbow trout as a matter of course.
But the fishery began to decline in the 1990s after a non-native species, tui chub, naively introduced by anglers as live bait, was discovered in the lake. The trout population declined along with the insects on which they feed and the once-clear water became murky. In 2006, after much controversy, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife poisoned the lake with rotenone. Ninety-five million tui chub were eliminated.
By the following season, scientists noted dramatic improvements in water clarity, insect populations and the trout catch.
Each subsequent year has been better — to the point that, beginning in 2013, Fish and Wildlife determined that the lake could now be open to fishing year-round. Anglers no longer would have to wait until April to wet their lines.
Of course, winter fishing is not the same thing as summer fishing. The lake's 10 mph speed limit for boats is of no consequence when the water is frozen solid. So on Jan. 1, ice fishing, more often associated with the upper Midwest, became a winter sport at Diamond Lake.
Weekends are especially busy. On one recent Saturday and Sunday, I counted at least a dozen parties, ranging from two to eight people, fishing a few hundred yards offshore.
They told me they came from Roseburg and Springfield, Klamath Falls and La Pine.
The resort store rented augurs, giant screws with which anglers can drill holes in the ice 8 inches in diameter. That takes effort, as the lake freezes to a depth of 14 to 16 inches beneath a layer of several inches of snow.
PowerBait, a moldable, artificial paste that comes in various colors and scents, was the most popular — and apparently, the most successful — bait. Some anglers tried worms, and I watched as one unsuccessfully jigged a hooked lure. Many sat in collapsible chairs. Some constructed canvas shelters to protect them from chilly winds. If there was a common denominator, even at 11 a.m., it was alcohol, by the can or the flask.
There was no booze, however, where Larry Gravelle and his 7-year-old granddaughter, Haley Gravelle, set up their lines — two apiece, as allowed by law. They had made the 85-mile drive north from Klamath Falls in the early-morning hours and were among the first anglers on the lake.
Larry grumbled good-naturedly that after three hours of fishing, he was still waiting for his first fish. Haley, he pointed out, had already caught six, much to the delight of both her and her pet beagle, Chelsea, who made several rounds of sniffing and licking the catch laid out upon the ice.
As we chatted, one of Haley's poles began to noticeably twitch. The girl had another fish on the line. “It's big, Grandpa!" she exclaimed. “I can hardly pull it in!" Larry encouraged her to keep reeling until he could grasp the line and tug the fish through the hole.
Haley wasn't lying. It was easily the largest of her day's catch, a trout perhaps 18 inches long and a pound and a half in weight.
“She'll have to stop fishing pretty soon," her grandfather joked. “She's almost hit her limit for the day (eight per angler). I haven't caught one yet."
Diamond Lake has become the hub for a very wide range of winter activities. In addition to ice fishing and snowmobiling — more than 300 miles of groomed trails, extending from Crescent Lake to Union Creek, are accessible from the resort — the Northwest's oldest cat-skiing operation, now in its 35th year, takes alpinists to the summit of nearby Mount Bailey.
There's a small tubing hill with a rope tow that also welcomes toboggan riders and novice snowboarders. Dog sledding is gaining a foothold; as the Cascade Sled Dog Club looks ahead to two days of races on the snow-covered lake next weekend.
In addition, cross-country skiers and snowshoers have access to 64-plus miles of dedicated trails, some of them linking in turn to the Pacific Crest Trail system.
Despite the opportunities, nordic skiing doesn't appear to have captured the same degree of interest here as it has in the Bend area. When Gonzalez and I set out upon the Howlock Mountain Trail for a few hours of Saturday exercise, the only tracks we could follow had been made by snowshoes. When they took off in a different direction, we depended upon blue-diamond trail markers posted on trees to keep us on the right trail.
Fortunately, the powder layer was light, and we didn't have to work too hard to blaze our own track up the mountainside through groves of spruce and hemlock. Nevertheless, an hour had passed before we reached the Spruce Ridge Trail junction after a 500-foot ascent in two miles.
The trail ahead kept climbing. Pleased with our short trek, we reversed course and followed our own tracks back to the trailhead. And we were reminded that going downhill can often be more difficult than going up.
With a little more advance planning, we might have spent the day with Cat Ski Mt. Bailey, making turns down the mountain that rises above Diamond Lake on its west side. By snowmobile, we caught up with the group — 12 skiers, three guides and a driver — atop the snowy summit. From this windswept vantage point, we could see all the way from Mount Hood, in the north, to California's Mount Shasta, in the south.
Guide Ross Duncan, who makes his summer home in Bend, told me the company caters “to advanced and expert skiers who want to ski untracked powder — steep open bowls and glades." The day rate of $350, he said, provides an experience “very comparable to heli-skiing."
“We have fantastic expert terrain and the best snow in the Northwest, for sure," Duncan said. “Because we get dry snow from two different weather patterns — we're far enough south to catch the California fronts as well as the Northwest storms — we average 600 inches a year."
Bailey isn't for the timid. Skiers are subjected to a very full day.
They meet at the Diamond Lake Lodge at 6:30 a.m., Duncan said. After a breakfast meeting, they travel by Sno-Cat 10 miles into the backcountry, where a small warming hut at 5,500 feet elevation becomes their headquarters for the day. They don't return to Diamond Lake until about 5:30 p.m.
“On an average day, we'll get 15,000 to 18,000 vertical feet of skiing," Duncan said. “That's six or seven runs. When conditions are perfect, we can ski 360 degrees on the mountain.
“We do a higher percentage of runs on the north side, which are not avalanche-prone like the east slopes. But just in case, we provide everyone with avalanche transceivers. And for those who want them, we offer powder demo skis, free of charge, courtesy of Atomic."
As for Duncan, “I prefer to ski in snowstorms. I love it when the mountain is ice-cold and blanketed with perfect powder."
Lead guide Rick “Oz" Oswald has been skiing Bailey for 30 years. His son, Ryan Oswald, and Steve Burns are also mountain guides. Duncan, a Colorado native, has been on Bailey for eight years; in summer, he is a SunCountry Tours river guide in Bend.
But the Bailey skiers' experience still doesn't match that of Jack Mattos, the man in charge of Diamond Lake snowmobiles.
A Naval engineering veteran of the Vietnam War, where he also served as a Mekong River boat captain, Mattos came to Diamond Lake as a mechanic in 1974 and began offering snowmobile rentals two years later.
“People didn't know how to drive them," he recalled. “That first year, we had $27,000 in damages done to our machines. So I installed a basic training and safety program.
“The next winter," he proudly recalled, “our damages totaled only $950."
Mattos outfitted us in shielded helmets and protective clothing, then carefully walked us through the steps of operating a snow machine. Following his hand signals down serpentine paths and broad straightaways, we made our way into Crater Lake National Park, past the north entrance station that will likely remain closed until June.
We revved our machines up to the 45 mph speed limit posted on park roads as we cruised through the Pumice Desert and climbed to the North Junction lookout — the only place on the crater rim where snowmobiles are allowed.
The winter panorama in itself was worth a modest investment of $199.49 — the cost of a Diamond Lake Resort package which includes the three-hour rental of two snowmobiles and a room with two double beds. Guide service is an additional flat fee of $55.
This could easily become an annual habit.