In Native American lore, a colossal confrontation transpired one evening in southern Oregon around 7,700 years past. From the peak of Mount Mazama, rejected by a tribal leader’s daughter, Llao, the underworld deity, unleashed molten rock and sent hot steam soaring for miles.
In defense, Skell, the sky’s god, hurled blazing pyroclastic balls from California’s Mount Shasta, demolishing the towering apex of Mount Mazama. By sunrise, Llao retreated beneath the earth; to commemorate the triumph, Skell filled the vast depression with water, birthing Oregon’s Crater Lake.
From that time, mysterious tales have enveloped the region like a cold Northwest mist. Specters of campfires have been seen on the desolate Wizard Island, and guests at Crater Lake Lodge recount nocturnal paranormal events.
Yet, the park’s most renowned wonder is visible by day: A venerable hemlock tree, dubbed “the Old Man of the Lake,” has uprightly floated for over a century. The earliest documented mention of the Old Man dates back to 1902, when Crater Lake was declared a national park.
While chronicling the region’s transformative events, geologist Joseph S. Diller recalled observing this extraordinary stump half a dozen years prior close to Wizard Island at Crater Lake’s western edge. The sun-paled and fractured top and middle of the Old Man floated almost four feet over the waterline.
His base plunged 30 feet beneath, with a mid-section width of two feet on the surface. Despite appearing anchored yet mobile, the Old Man baffled basic physics principles.
In 1929, William Gladstone Steel, often referred to as “Crater Lake’s patriarch” for advocating its park status, described spotting “the immense tree, cleanly snapped and bobbing vertically.”
In 1938, park specialist John Doerr invested a quarter year charting its mobility, observing “the Old Man journeys far and occasionally at astonishing speeds.” From July to September, the Old Man covered over 62 miles and, during an especially gusty day, moved 3.8 miles.
As years passed, the Old Man’s fame grew, accompanied by tales of his meteorological influence. Scientists who airlifted a mini-submarine in 1988 to probe the lake’s geothermal dynamics brushed aside such claims.
Viewing the Old Man as a potential obstruction, they anchored him near Wizard Island. Immediately, ominous clouds gathered, ushering in a tempest. Recognizing their folly, they untied the Old Man, and the weather miraculously stabilized.
The prevailing theory proposed that a crater wall avalanche deposited the Old Man into the lake, with stones lodged in a vast root network keeping it anchored.
This theory aligned with observations at Spirit Lake near Mount St. Helens, where many trees have floated upright since the 1980 eruption. However, these trees follow a predictable lifecycle: They possess a hefty root base, float for several years, and then descend to the lakebed.
Why remains the Old Man afloat? Why hasn’t decomposition set in? And how does he maintain equilibrium without a prominent root system? During Ranger Dave Grimes’ Crater Lake boat expeditions, he refrains from mounting the immense tree, as prior rangers did, but frequently sails close for a better look.
Observing the Old Man up-close reveals an equilibrium between motion and tranquility, shadow and illumination, terrestrial and celestial, Llao and Skell.
And regarding its profound setting, the combined heights of the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Washington Monument would still fall short of the lake’s deepest mark at 1,943 feet.
“People need a moment to grasp the sight,” Grimes comments, “but the realization that this timber has been buoyant for a century leaves them in awe.” Grimes attributes the pristine, frigid waters of Crater Lake to the tree’s preservation and the greater mass of its submerged section for its stability.
Initial carbon dating analyses by Scott Girdner, the park’s aquatic biologist, suggest the Old Man is approximately 450 years of age, though the duration of its lake floatation remains uncertain.