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Savor Crater Lake cautiously, especially on weekends

Seeing Crater Lake’s crystalline waters never gets old.

But the need for going prepared and exercising caution, especially on weekends, has never been higher.

No, the problem isn’t the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, although it is a factor. In recent years the increasing numbers of people flocking to Crater Lake National Park, even in winter, is providing ever-increasing challenges, most notably on weekends and holidays, for park staff. And, with Thanksgiving just a day in the rearview mirror and Christmas and New Year’s ahead, the influx isn’t expected to slow.

“Winter is no longer an off season or slow season,” Superintendent Craig Ackerman said of challenges facing park staff. “Law enforcement has the same number of permanent staff as we did in 1962, but we’re dealing with about 250,000 more people, and especially more in the winter, so staffing continues to be a problem. There is no easy solution to dealing with this issue of high visitations and inadequate staffing, and it is a problem that is occurring at parks across the country. COVID-19 has only exacerbated it and the inevitable came to pass sooner.”

Challenges include extremely limited parking at the Rim Village area, the only place where visitors can drive to see the lake during the extended winter season when all or parts of Rim Drive are closed because of snow. The result, as evidenced last Saturday, often results in battles for parking spaces and free-for-all driving. The section of road between the parking area behind the Rim Village Cafeteria-Gift Shop — which are closed for the winter — even when plowed and blown out to the snow poles is congested when parking spaces along both sides of the road are filled and motorists are driving toward or back from the Crater Lake Lodge area.

The crush of visitors includes many people unfamiliar with winter driving conditions. Along with tourists from California and Washington, out-of-state license plates in the rim area parking lot last Saturday included Tennessee, Texas, Idaho, New York and several other states. As is happening at other national and state parks, people frustrated by the pandemic are taking to the road.

But many aren’t prepared for driving on snow and ice. Last Saturday, for example, I called 911 to report a pickup truck pulling a trailer that had slid across Highway 62 north of Fort Klamath, leaving the pickup off the road in the snow and the trailer blocking a lane of the highway. No one was injured.

Earlier that morning the limited staff of on-duty park rangers were focused on a three-vehicle injury accident blocking Highway 62 inside the park’s west entrance, where visitors from the Rogue Valley and the Roseburg area enter the park.

“We were fortunate to have a person in the backcountry office who helped with EMS, and we called in another ranger on her day off. One of the plow operators was working and helped on the (accident) with sanding, and another helped with traffic control,” Ackerman said.

The staff shortages, which also result from vacancies, scheduled days off and sick leave, impact the congestion at Rim Village. Although dogs are allowed on leashes, many roam free, leaving deposits of yellow snow. Although a rope line with “stay back from edge” signs are in place, it’s common for visitors to go along the rim to unroped areas for unfettered close-to-the-edge lake views.

In past years the park posted signs near the junction with West Rim Drive requesting snowshoers to not walk in tracks made by cross-country skiers. For skiers, including me, that’s a major consideration because walked-in ski tracks can make skiing haphazard and cause skiers to fall on the uneven surface. Because requiring snowshoers to not walk in ski tracks is not regulated, placing the signs is not regarded by park staff as a priority. With the increase of snowshoers — many going the mile-plus to Discovery Point and some toward The Watchman — many skiers have disappointedly chosen to unfortunately pass up the alluring lake views and ski elsewhere.

In my experience, snowshoers are simply not aware of the damage caused by walking in ski tracks and, when informed, are polite and often apologetic.

While there are no immediate remedies to the park’s staff shortages or the increasing convergence of visitors, Ackerman said signs explaining the skier-snowshoer conflict could be posted in coming days.

Here’s hoping, not only for the signs but for the overstressed Crater Lake staff.

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

A cross-country skier navigates snowshoe tracks at Crater Lake National Park last Saturday. Photo by Lee Juillerat