Eight thousand years ago, if you stood on the shores of Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon, the horizon would have looked strikingly different than it does today.
A snowcapped volcano would have towered over the forested hills, nearly a thousand feet taller than Mt. Hood. To geologists, this was Mt. Mazama. But the Native Americans who lived around Klamath Lake called the peak by other names such as Moyaina, which translates to “big mountain.”
The cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Mazama created what we now call Crater Lake — and accounts of the dramatic event live on in both the geologic record and in Native American legends.
A Sacred Place
In one legend, recounted by Klamath tribal elder Barbara Alatorre, Gmo’Kam’c (the Creator) emerged from a hole in the sky to make Moyaina and then everything else in the world. In another telling, Gmo’Kam’c pushed his way out of the shadowy underworld and through the mountain itself to create the rivers and trees, animals, and eventually people; this is the version of the story Perry Chocktoot, director of the Culture and Heritage Department at the Klamath Tribal Administration, heard as a child.
One day, Chocktoot says, another spirit named Llao peeked out of the hole Gmo’Kam’c had made in the mountain and spied a beautiful woman. He sent an emissary to ask her for her hand. But the woman didn’t want to marry Llao and live in the underworld, so her father, a chief, refused. When Llao heard the news, he “got all upset, and his temper built up and built up, and he just blew through the hole,” Chocktoot says. Llao flew through the air, hurling fireballs and torching the forests, forcing the people to wade into Klamath Lake to escape the flames.
Hoping to appease Llao, several medicine men, or kyoks, went to sacrifice themselves on the mountain, but this was too much for Gmo’Kam’c to bear. He said, “You have been a good people; you haven’t taken all the eggs from a single nest, or all the berries from a single bush,” Chocktoot recalls. So Gmo’Kam’c fought Llao and, after days of battle, finally pushed him back into the hole as the mountain closed up around him. (In other stories, it was Skell — the spirit of the sky who lived in nearby Mt. Shasta — who defeated Llao, either out of pity for humans or because he too loved the woman.)
After Llao fell, blue water came gushing out of the hole, Chocktoot says. Klamath Indians called the lake Giiwas, and the entire area became a sacred place where members of many tribes went to pray, to mourn, to hunt and forage, to seek understanding and power.
“The reason that story is so relevant to us is because it’s a firsthand eyewitness [account] of the creation of Crater Lake,” Chocktoot says. In addition to this legend, the people who lived in the area at the time left behind sandals and other objects that got buried by debris from the eruption, which occurred roughly 7,700 years ago.
Mt. Mazama was more than 400,000 years old by the time of its eruption, and like other Cascade volcanoes, it was made of layer upon layer of lava flows that bubbled up from deep in the earth, where the Pacific tectonic plate ducks beneath North America. Geologists think the eruption began with pumice and ash shooting out of a vent northeast of the summit. And as the magma chamber beneath the volcano emptied out, the mountain began to collapse.
“You get these big fractures or cracks opening up in a circle around the summit of the volcano,” says Heather Wright, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory. Eventually, the upper half of the mountain fell into the hollowed out chamber, squeezing out even more magma.
The eruption was one of the largest of any in the Cascade Mountains, Wright says, releasing 75 times more material than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Ash made it as far as England and can still be found across much of North America. “When you go out to Bend, you can just dig under the surface, and you find this kind of pink layer,” Wright says. The ash provides a useful time marker for archaeologists and scientists who want to date buried fossils and artifacts.
Today visitors to Crater Lake National Park have the rare opportunity to explore the inside of a blown-apart volcano. Along the walls, Wright says, you can spot vertical columns of rock, the plumbing through which magma traveled to the surface. At Cleetwood Cove, you can see where an older lava flow — which had still been hot from a recent eruption — began to ooze back into the crater after the top of the mountain collapsed. And at the Pinnacles and Annie Creek, there are strange towers that formed as hot gas bubbled up through eruption debris, fusing the walls of the tubes through which it traveled. “As the deposit starts to erode, all that’s left are these hardened pipes,” Wright says.
And of course there’s the lake itself. It has some of the clearest water in the world, and the bottom lies nearly 2,000 feet below the surface, making it the deepest lake in the United States. You can gaze down on it from lookouts along the Rim Drive, part of the 500-mile-long Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. Or you can peer into its depths during a boat tour to Wizard Island (formed by a more recent eruption) and Phantom Ship (a remnant of the mountain’s ancient skeleton that was exposed by the collapse).
When Europeans first arrived in Oregon in the mid-1800s, the Klamath Indians tried to keep the lake a secret, Chocktoot says. But prospectors eventually found it and gave Giiwas their own names, eventually leading to the creation of the national park. But that did not sever the connection people of the Klamath tribes and others feel with the lake, Chocktoot says. “It’s very, very spiritually significant to us, still to this day,” he adds.
Chocktoot says everyone has a right to enjoy Giiwas now. He just asks that visitors treat the lake with the respect that his people have given it for millennia. “Go there with a clean mind and a good heart so you can have straight eyes,” he says. “You’ve got to open your heart and your soul and feel it.”