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Getting along swimming-Lee at Crater Lake

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — What a day. Brilliantly crisp blue skies, calm and clear enough that from the rim Crater Lake and its caldera walls twinkled like facing mirrors.

Warm enough for shorts and T-shirts. And because the summer crush is over, only occasional hikers making their way uphill as we descended the Cleetwood Cove Trail to the lake.

A week earlier our trip to Crater Lake for my annual swim, something I’ve done for more than 40 years, had been frustrated by a storm that created bone-chilling temperatures, blew in smoke from regional forest fires, and created whitecapped waves better for surfing than swimming.

But this day was magical, with sunlight and shadows visually caressing Crater Lake’s legendary azure waters. It’s 1.1 downhill miles from the trailhead parking lot to the lake, but the hike took longer than usual to stop and gawk from viewpoints and appreciate the translucent merging of lake and sky.

Once at Cleetwood Cove, Liane Venzke and I carefully worked our way down an impromptu path to a place to unload our daypacks near the lake’s shore.

It was time to swim.

Liane went first, slowwwwwwly easing into Crater Lake’s notoriously chilly waters — during the summer surface water temperatures reportedly peak at 65 degrees. I prefer submerging quickly, whether diving or jumping off a popular rock facade, or plunging immediately underwater off the shore.

Underwater in Crater Lake is a world to itself. On this day, especially, the lake bottom seemed transparent. As I’ve learned from prior swims, rocks that appear to be just barely below the surface are actually much deeper because of the water’s clarity.

But this lazy lake day were enriched by other surprises — crayfish, butterflies and golden mantle ground squirrels.

Lunch was enlivened by a persistent ground squirrel. Minutes earlier, we watched and laughed as it relentlessly hounded two others lounging nearby. Bold scootering just a few feet away from the couple, it disappeared briefly into one of their daypacks. Bored or frustrated, it suddenly and abruptly scampered over the rocks to us. Suddenly, while being fascinated by monarch butterflies that flew around and on us, pausing to enjoy whatever attractions my knee held, we spotted the relentless squirrel eagerly nibbling on the unfinished wrap I’d set on a rock. Oh well, I had eaten most of it.

As we lounged, more monarchs appeared, doing dips and dashes while flying in random patterns and landing on Liane’s rear end. A true butt-erfly.

Liane spotted the first crayfish flittering among the submerged rocks. Crayfish are fascinating to look at, but they’ve become the focus of Crater Lake National Park aquatic biologists because they threaten the Crater Lake newt, a thousands-of-years-old subspecies of rough-skinned newts that are found only in Crater Lake. Like the newts, crayfish feast on insects and snails. Crayfish also intimidate and sometimes eat newts. Biologists estimate crayfish have taken over 80 percent of the lake’s shoreline. Aquatic biologists fear the growing crayfish populations could eventually threaten the lake’s water quality. Ironically, crayfish were planted in the lake in 1915 to provide food for fish, which were planted until the 1940s as part of a decades-long effort to lure fishermen to the lake.

Luring visitors to the park hasn’t been a problem in recent years, especially during summer months when waits of a half-hour or longer are common at the park’s only two entrance stations, something that doesn’t happen in the fall.

Many attractions lure me and others to Crater Lake, from its network of varied trails to the 30-plus lake overlooks along Rim Drive to, my favorite, being at the lake or, even better, in the lake.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Liane Venzke takes a swim in Crater Lake. Photo by Lee Juillerat