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Snowshoe hike rule No. 1: Have fun

Every Saturday and Sunday from Thanksgiving until April, Crater Lake National Park offers ranger-guided snowshoe hikes in the park. They even provide the snowshoes if you don't have them, and it's all free.

My wife, Barb, and I had gone the past two years, and it is so boss and so much fun we decided to go again. So on the first Saturday in February, we went with our friends, Art and Carolee.

There was organized chaos in the parking lot as hikers strapped on their snowshoes, some for the first time. It is a simple procedure like slipping on overboots.

Our guide was Ranger Dave Grimes, and he gave us an introduction to the hike, saying it would last about two hours and cover a couple of miles. He insisted that one of the rules of the hike was that we all have fun, so he had everyone do a penguin slide down a slope before we got started.

We started at the lodge and went east toward Garfield Peak. Following directions to stay in line and not stray off the trail, we marched single-file and crossed a vast meadow heading for the trees in the distance.

Ranger Dave led us on a circuitous route through the forest, including some steep downhill sections, but the snowshoes provided good traction. These hikes are so popular that there were three of them that day, and each group had about 30 people. Each group went to a different area, so we never saw the other hikers.

The hikes are very educational, as the ranger gives short talks about the flora, fauna and ecology of the park. After every 20 minutes of hiking, we would circle up and Ranger Dave would tell us something interesting. We learned that 80 percent of the trees in park are mountain hemlock and the nuts in their cones supply the main food source for the gray squirrels in the park.

He also explained that lichens are really a symbiotic combination of 80 percent fungi and 20 percent algae. The fungi provides the necessary insulation and warmth for the algae to withstand winter's cold temperatures, and the algae provides photosynthesis so the lichen can grow.

In some places, the trail wound through calf-deep snow amid old-growth mountain hemlocks. It was so quiet it was eerie. Without the ranger leading us, we could have easily gotten lost.

The trail was up and down over rolling terrain, and near the end of the hike, when we finally emerged from the forest, we climbed up to the crater rim.

No matter how many times you have seen it, the view of the lake is always breathtaking. There was a thin layer of ice across 70 percent of the lake, which is quite unusual. We could see a small area of open water around the perimeter of Wizard Island. The lake rarely freezes over completely because it is so deep. Ranger Dave said the last time it completely froze was 1949.

Crater Lake's mean depth is 1,148 feet and its maximum is 1,949 feet, which makes it the deepest lake in the U.S. and seventh deepest in the world. The lake has no inflow and is dependent on snowfall for its water source. Average snowfall is an astounding 44 feet, but the lake maintains a relatively constant level because evaporation and seepage equal the annual precipitation.

It was absolutely still at the rim — not even a hint of a breeze — and everyone took turns posing and taking photos. Barb and I took our turn posing beside The Wizard.

It was a fabulous day for a walk in the park, and we were exhilarated. If you haven't done the snowshoe hike yet, put it on your list this winter. You will come back, year after year.

Carlyle Stout lives in Ashland.

A bit of clear water shows around Wizard Island on Feb. 2, a day when Crater Lake was mostly frozen. - Photos courtesy of Carlyle Stout