Clear Lake Mistake

There is a lake in Oregon’s high Cascade Lakes region that was created 3,000 years ago by a lava flow that burned and dammed a forested valley. Then it filled with fresh spring water from Mt. Washington snowmelt and the McKenzie River springhead that percolated up through pumice and lava rock. The water is so pure and cold enough throughout the year that algae has no chance of growing, allowing remarkable visibility–up to 100 feet below the water’s surface. Hence, the name Clear Lake.

But even more remarkable is the standing forest of sunken petrified trees that time and alpine freshwater has preserved in pockets of the lake.

We arrived at Coldwater Cove to survey the scene with the option of launching our origami kayaks to explore the depths for its underwater secrets.

But Leah preferred to hike the 5-mile trail around Clear Lake, thinking that the water would be too cold.

So we set about on foot, through the lava fields on the eastern shore, and walked around the south side of the lake, crossing the McKenzie River…

to an inlet where the water was mirror still.

At this point, I was perfectly happy to backtrack to the pickup to reconsider our kayaking option, but Leah wanted to finish the loop and talked me out of it.

The trail hugged the western shoreline, providing amazing views of the water…

until we reached the resort area, where a boat concession reminded me of my missed opportunity

to be paddling on the open water with the others.

We pit-stopped at the resort store and filled our water bottles before pushing on, past the lakeside cabins to complete the second half of the hike…with the light beginning to fade.

Just as I was wondering out loud that we’d lost sight of the lake, we came to a bridge over a creek that directed us to the McKenzie River.

“I really think we should take the bridge and follow the water, because the trail we’re on is taking us away from the water,” I advised.

“But there was never any indication that we ever wandered off-trail,” Leah countered, walking past the bridge, “and besides, if that was the way back, it would be marked that way.”

“Okay, but if this trail is supposed to be a lake loop, then where’s the lake?” I followed up, as I was following her footsteps.

“How should I know? I’ve never hiked this trail before. Besides, you’re just bitter,” she said.

“Fine! Have it your way! But for the record, I think we should have taken the bridge,” I reiterated.

We continued to walk for a mile or so until we noticed changes to the forest. The trees grew thicker and taller, and light was struggling to penetrate a dense canopy of spruce. The mosquitoes must have sensed my uneasiness; they were feasting on the backs of my legs.

According to Leah’s iPhone, we had already exceeded what was to be a 5-mile loop.

“I think we’re lost, and if I only had a spark of phone service, I could prove it!” I said.

This is the map I could have downloaded if only I had a signal.

“Do you want to go back and take the bridge?” Leah offered.

“Are you serious or seriously joking?” I asked, wondering if Leah was really surrendering.

“In fact, we could also walk back to the resort, and bum a ride somehow,” she suggested.

“Who in the world is gonna pick us up and drive us back to our truck?” I sighed.

“You never know,” Leah snapped, “I can lure them with my wily ways.”

That’s when I heard the sound of traffic. There was a whoosh and it was gone. Then another whoosh, and another. The road had to be close by, but now the trail was leading us to the right, away from the road noise, but onto a single-lane gravel road with marker NR-2676. We followed the road north and around the bend, which brought us to a McKenzie Hwy turnout.

“Do you know which direction to go?” Leah asked.

“We have to cross to the other side to go back to the resort,” I advised. “Maybe you’ll have a chance to charm a ride from someone who’s rented a kayak for an hour or two.”

There wasn’t much traffic in either direction, which meant the park at 7PM was past its peak busy period. We walked along the roadside, occasionally stopping to flag down oncoming traffic but no one had any interest in slowing down.

“You realize it will be dark by the time we reach the truck,” I figured.

“What if I fake a limp, and maybe someone will feel sorry for us and stop.” she said, badly imitating someone with a bad knee.

“I’m not sure I want a ride from someone who pretends to feel sorry for us,” I mused.

That’s when a gray Toyota Avalon sedan slowed and pulled off the road, fifty feet ahead of us.

“I told you it would work,” she declared.

Leah didn’t know whether to run, or limp, or limp-run.

A burly middle-aged man with thinning gray hair exited his car, and opened the rear door.

“I’m gonna make some room in the back for you. Don’t mind the dog on the floor. He’s old and harmless,” he assured.

Leah took the middle seat beside his sullen son, and I wedged myself behind the driver’s slouching seat. A mangy terrier sat between our legs while our driver drove us to Clearwater Cove where our truck was parked.

His mother was animated in the front seat during the ride. She explained to us how special it was to “see the sights of nature” with her family.

We were so relieved to get back to the truck, and so was their dog, because It followed Leah out the door and refused to listen to its owner, our driver. Leah and I spent the next 10 minutes chasing, corralling, and eventually luring the dog back to the car while everyone watched from inside the car.

Nevertheless, Leah and I are immensely grateful to you and your family for stopping to help us in our moment of need. You saved us the time and trouble of walking an extra 3.5 miles.

We certainly need more moments like this in our lives, if only to prove to ourselves that humanity is about community, and mistakes make us more human.

P.S. I regret that I never learned your name during our brief exchange, but I remember giving you my card. If by chance, or design you happen to be reading this, I hope you’ll post a comment so I can thank you by name.

2 thoughts on “Clear Lake Mistake

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