As the boat embarked from the dock at Cleetwood Cove, the tour guide offered ponchos to everyone on board.

As the boat embarked from the dock at Cleetwood Cove, the tour guide offered ponchos to everyone on board.

"Raise your hand if you want one," he said. "We're in for a wet ride."

Initially only a few hands shot up. But after the first wave jumped the bow and sprayed us all, demand for the protective gear increased dramatically. The tour guide hadn't distributed the last of the ponchos before a second wave got us, and then a third. The 40 or so passengers whooped and shrieked.

Wearing a hooded sweatshirt under a windbreaker, I had dressed for a wild day on the lake. In fact, I welcomed the wet assault. Close contact with Crater Lake is exactly what I had come for.

Like most Southern Oregonians, I was no stranger to the national park in our own backyard. Since moving here in 1991, I have driven many out-of-town guests to the Rim Village so they could gape at the lake and murmur their "ahs." On other trips, I have hiked to the Watchman Overlook along the rim and made the more arduous trek to the top of Mount Scott.

But one thing I had never done until this time was get below the rim. For those seeking this thrill, the 1.1-mile trail down to Cleetwood Cove, located on the north side of the lake, offers the only access route.

Once you are down at the lake, you might be struck by how the expanse of water in front of you looks so much like, well, a lake. Viewed from the rim, Crater Lake seems somehow unreal, a mirage perhaps.

Some people, I noticed, had hiked down to the cove just to touch the water, as if to confirm its realness. They lingered for a few minutes and then headed back up to the rim.

But most people on this pleasant August afternoon had come for the boat tour.

Our guide for the two-hour excursion was David Harrison, a ranger/naturalist for the National Park Service. He told us the lake water is famous for its purity.

"I drink it all the time," he said.

I appreciated Ranger Dave's laidback personality. He did not chatter incessantly, as some tour guides are wont to do. He remained silent throughout most of the trip, allowing the beauty and grandeur of Crater Lake to speak for itself. Every now and then, he signaled for the captain to cut the engine so that he could say a few words.

He explained that the lake rests where a 12,000-foot mountain once stood. If Mount Mazama hadn't exploded some 8,000 years ago, it would be the highest mountain in Oregon. Pumice and ash from the volcanic eruption have been found in eight states and as far north as Manitoba, Canada. The lake that has formed inside the caldera is the deepest in the United States.

Something like 38 billion gallons of rainfall and snow melt pour into the lake annually. An equal amount is lost each year through evaporation and seepage into the rocks around the rim. A perfect balance of gain and loss, which keeps the water level amazingly consistent. Dave pointed out the spot along the rim where most of the seepage takes place.

"It's like the overflow in a bathtub," he offered.

Our guide couldn't resist telling a few corny jokes, such as this bit of geologist humor: "What did one tectonic plate say to the other after the earthquake?" Punchline: "It wasn't my fault."

I liken the boat tour to making the rounds inside a magnificent art gallery. You drift from one section of the rim to the next, each resembling a piece of sculpture on a grand scale. The rock forms smooth patterns in some areas, giving way to jagged patches, including one that has been dubbed the Devil's Backbone. We passed a golden outcropping that looked like a castle.

Our boat floated by the two islands within the lake, Wizard Island and Phantom Ship, the latter eerily Gothic in aspect.

Crater Lake Lodge, perched almost 2,000 feet above the lake, could be mistaken for the mansion of a god.

About midway through our trip, the lake settled down and took a break from throwing water on us. Lulled by the purr of the boat's motor and the gentle rocking of the vessel, several passengers dozed in their ponchos. I basked in the cool, refreshing mountain air, thinking about the hot summer day I had left behind in the Rogue Valley.

But when we changed directions for our return to Cleetwood Cove, we invited the waves onboard again. As cold water hit me in the face, I licked my lips with delight.

Finally, after all these years, I was tasting Crater Lake.

Note: The private company that conducts the boat tours posts several warnings about the difficulty of the hike back up from Cleetwood Cove. I, a middle-aged nonsmoker in decent shape, took my time making the ascent and had no problem. I did, however, pass some folks older than myself who were struggling, along with some young kids with their parents who were not exactly having fun.

Make reservations for the boat tour by going to www.craterlakelodges.com or by calling 1-888-774-2728. Tours run from mid-July to mid-September, and cost $27 for adults, $17 for children ages 3 to 11, and free for infants.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.