Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Mystic Power of Crater Lake or A White Man's Vision Quest

 Ranger Ross atop Garfield Peak

I have never been comfortable in churches. For me, a box with a steeple is not the best place to connect with a higher power. My temples are forests and mountains, valleys and lakes. Here I see the masterworks of the forces that made our universe, be they God or gods or quantum superstrings or the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am so fascinated by Native American stories and religious traditions. They describe spirit power that is omnipresent in nature, found in people and animals and trees and plants, and even mountains. In my reverential moments, I am of a similar persuasion.
The Native Americans describe certain locales where the spirit-power is especially concentrated, “power points.” To the Klamath tribes, Crater Lake (or Giwas) is a central power point, a most sacred place. It is a place where people connect to the spirit world, and have life-transforming experiences, through the vision quest. Motivations for the vision quest vary, but can include tranformation from boy to man, and recovery from emotional trauma, such as the death of a loved one. Many shamans—healers and spiritual leaders—gained their powers at Crater Lake.

Although I am no shaman, I do have a special connection to Crater Lake and its surrounding environs. And I have had some experiences which seem nearly mystical. Oregon is a wild state, and Crater Lake National Park is nestled amidst thousands of acres of national forests. It is a blessing to be here, if only for a short while, and to have the opportunity to romp through the forests where the Klamath chiefs tread before. And it is a blessing to have friends to accompany me. My friend Lesley has been at my side for multiple adventures, and other comrades, including Lauren, Grimes, Emily, and Mike have been along for some.

Ross and Lesley about to canoe in Klamath marsh

Lesley dreams of rivers every night. And she is drawn to rivers by day, especially if a canoe is involved. On one of our first adventures, we paddled the Wood River, upriver to Kimball State Park and then downriver back to Fort Klamath. As we paddled through the serpentine river, surrounded by fields and pastures, with osprey in the trees at riverside, and the sillouhetted forms of the rim of Crater Lake in the distance, I imagined life for the Native Americans on that fateful day 7,700 years ago, when a tall mountain stood where Crater Lake is now. And a great tower of volcanic ash—the ominous form of the spirit Llao—arose from the mountain and unleashed his fury upon the landscape.  Probably, many people were vaporized by the volcano's glowing avalanches of ash and rock (Llao's fiery breath, in the Klamath interpretation).  Someday in the future, Llao will awaken, and the volcano will erupt again.  I hope not to be here when that happens.

The Wood River is crystal clear and very cold. At its beginning in Kimball State Park, there is a shiny green pool, inhabited by frogs and insect larvae and a menagerie of fascinating creatures. Drawn to the aquatic alien world, Lesley set to work on an underwater film in the emerald water.

 Lesley explores underwater at Kimball.

As we paddled with the current to our destination, the winding river was fraught with dead logs and branches. We had to steer the boat with skill and focus, as the current brought us from one strainer and around one sharp bend and on to the next strainer and bend. Lesley, who is a former whitewater canoe guide, had the helm for this stretch.

We reached Fort Klamath, pulled the boat out of the water, and waited outside the country store, for our ride back. We lay on the grass and watched red-tailed hawks circle overhead. The sun was warm and the grass smelled sweet. It is rare for me to simply relax, for I normally keep a heavy and constant list of things to do. It is good that I could forget about my list for a little while. Perhaps benevolent spirits from the river helped me to feel a sense of peace.

On their vision quests, the Klamath people face fear and conquer it. I have always feared cold water. I haven't exactly conquered my fear, but perhaps I have made progress towards pushing it back. Our comrade Lauren accompanied Lesley and I on a trip to the Modoc Lava Beds. In the orange light of a setting sun, we swam in Medicine Lake. Entering the cold water was a great challenge for me; it always is. I stand in water up to my knees, then waist for long periods before I immerse myself. Sometimes I resort to a chanted count to ten in Japanese—which I associate with drills from karate—to psych myself for the plunge. This time, I got in quietly, if slowly. Tiny frogs swam over the water's surface and below; they frog-kicked with as much authority as their half-inch legs could muster. They clung to reeds between swims. I imitated the frogs, and swam with the breast stroke, out to a thicket of reeds and back. Between swims, my submerged feet sank ankle-deep in the sandy mud.

After the swim, I welcomed the campfire. I read aloud Native American stories about the Pleiades, the big dipper, and Mount Shasta. Sleep was nourishing, but short—I had work the next day. I awoke at 4:30 AM to make the drive back to Crater Lake. As I drove, the red sunrise cast the desert in shades of orange. Jackrabbits bounded across the rode in front of my car.

Lauren, Lesley, and Ross camped at Lava Beds, near Medicine Lake

I returned to face the cold water again—at Rocky Point Resort, at the Williamson River, and at Union Creek. At the Williamson, we paddled right over Ska’mdi, the eddy where monsters dwell (according to Klamath legend). We stayed in the boat for that part, and luckily the “big animals” did not disturb us. We passed a dead beaver, and a living muskrat swam alongside us for as stretch. Repeatedly, we paddled over rocks which jutted from the river's bottom to a few inches below us. We limited our hang-ups on rock as best we could. Near the end of this venture, past Chemult and just before highway 97, Lesley and I shot through rapids. Our boat rocked and jostled and spun from side to side; we paddled with gusto in an effort to keep it stable. We struck the next rock and Lesley, who was in back, lost her paddle. From the front, I was still able to steer the boat through the white water to shore. I hastily pulled the boat onto the bank, a little too close to a fisherman, who gave me a look of disgust. Lesley and I ran through the water and on the bank, barefooted, after the paddle. The river's rocky bottom was unforgiving to the feet, and the water felt cold as snow. We ran through several few hundred yards of territory and back again, and feared the paddle was lost. (And being tired, hungry, and cold, even my outdoor optimism was challenged.) Then Lesley spotted the paddle in a cove. When we returned to our boat, the fisherman had left us a present, consisting of dead earthworms in the boat's bottom. If any devotees of canoeing or kayaking read this blog, they may remind me that one should always carry a spare paddle, in which case this whole obstacle course could have been avoided.

At Union Creek, the water was even colder. Lesley submerged herself completely and lay down. Hesitantly, I followed suit. She said that the cold felt good, that is it was invigorating, empowering. I mainly felt relieved when I had the opportunity to warm myself by the campfire. The next day we, alongside our comrade Lauren, had a rollicking raft ride on the Rogue River. The inflatable raft's bumpers cushioned the impacts from rocks; what was an earthquake to the canoe was the rocking of a baby-cradle to the raft. We took some of the rapids lying on our bellies on the boat, and took in the refreshing blasts of fresh water face-first. And we had splash fights with other rafts. During a break on shore, we watched a pileated woodpecker explore the trees. 

Woodpecker photo by © Lesley McClintock
 From Dutton Ridge, in the night, I gained new understanding of the mysticism of Crater Lake. Vision quests happen in high places, where the spirits of earth and sky meet. Atop the ridge, in the fading gray and purple light of dusk, we had a view of broad expanses of the Cascade mountains, Mount McLaughlin and Union Peak and the Klamath Basin, and (almost), Mount Shasta, 100 miles distant. Our feet sunk into the layers of volcanic ash and pumice as we walked. At this high altitude, no trees could survive, save the hardy whitebark pine. A stand of the whitebark pines (which look more like shrubs) grew along the ridge, all bent to one side, sculpted by the merciless wind and the snow which engulfs them, all winter long.

The windswept rim

As we trudged through the ash towards the top of the ridge, it grew darker and colder still. Our forms turned to silhouettes, against a sunset backdrop of crimson red. And, betwixt us and the sun, the expansive Crater Lake. In grey and black and purple shades, the caldera looked like a lunar landscape. I half-expected to see the towering form of Llao rise from the water. We each snapped away with our cameras, with the hope of immortalizing this holy moment at Giwas. We walked back amidst the twisted silhouettes of whitebark pines—the survivors.  Like Hephaestus, the trees were deformed, overburdened—but persistent to the end.

The sun sets behind Crater Lake, with Lauren in the foreground.

I have faced trauma in the past year. I faced a man who typecast me as a basket case, who downplayed my accomplishments as farce, and we who wove false narratives to soil my reputation. And he took a great deal away from me. I would not call myself recovered, yet. I am still scarred by his insults, and paranoid of forces that lurk in shadow, waiting to strike again, to burn the bridge out from under me when my next goal is in sight.

However, after my sequence of mystical experiences, I am closer to recovery. The Buddhists call it the path to enlightenment; the Christians call it coming to know God; and some Native Americans call it finding one's manitou. I call it developing heightened appreciation of Earth's beauty and magic, and connecting with a purpose higher than oneself. The touch of the Earth Mother can heal. She mends some of the wounds in my soul.

For more information on the Klamath vision quests, I reccomend In the Footprints of Gmukamps by Douglas Deur. For Klamath legends of Crater Lake, consult Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella Clark.

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