Day 127: Sunrise Over Crater Lake

Our alarm went off at 3:00 AM this morning, insanely early even by hiker standards. It was painful getting out of bed, but we had a mission: we were headed up to the rim of Crater Lake to see two things — the Perseid meteor shower, and sunrise over the lake. As bad as you know you’ll feel on only five hours of sleep, sometimes it’s more than worth it to have an experience out here that you probably could never have any other time of your life. So…up we went, and headed up the trail.

It turns out that, so early in the morning, you sometimes see things you probably never would’ve seen any other time. For us, this meant seeing a giant frog, almost as big as Bucket’s foot, crawling around on the trail this morning. I have no idea where it was going, but it was fascinating to watch, and I’m sure thoroughly confused by the sudden glare from our headlamps. I may have only been one-quarter-awake (“half-awake” would be overstating the situation), but still watched for a while as it crawled around on the trail.

It was still pitch-black when we reached the rim of Crater Lake, climbed up a hill, and found good spots to sit / lie down. There were stars everywhere, and we could see so many of them because the moon hadn’t risen yet. As it turns out, we didn’t actually see very many meteors, although the ones we did see were just as cool as you’d imagine — streaks of light flashing across the sky, coming down towards the earth. My understanding is that it’s pretty hard to know how spectacular or less-than-spectacular a meteor shower will be, so perhaps this was just a low year. Still, I’m glad we got to see a few of them.

The next event we saw was something we didn’t think would be nearly so cool: moonrise! Part of what made it startling is that, in the pitch black, the faint, faint outline of the lake that we could see tricked our sense of direction and made us think that the lake’s rim was actually much higher in the sky than it was — what we thought was the lake’s rim was actually just a layer of clouds. So it suddenly looked as if the moon had appeared in the lake…and bright orange, to boot. It was beautiful, spectacular, and odd all at the same time. We were entranced, and feeling our brains correct our earlier illusion about where the horizon was ended up being a pretty unusual experience in and of itself.

Sunrise was every bit as beautiful as you’d imagine. There we were, lying in our sleeping bags, heads propped up on our packs, watching the sky so slowly fade from black to dark blue, to deep, deep orange, onwards to red and yellow…and seeing the clouds above the sun turn neon pink before it rose. Our position on the crater’s rim was almost directly opposite the path of the rising sun, so we got to see all of it unfold before us pretty much perfectly. I won’t lie — I dozed for a little bit during the sunrise, just because I was so sleepy from getting up so early, but I still got to see basically the entire thing. Amazing.

Around 7:00, we decided it was finally time to get hiking, and so we finally got moving. For the next five miles or so, we were hiking directly on the rim of Crater Lake, circling around it, which provides basically unlimited incredible views of the lake. For those who don’t know, Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago by the explosion of a volcano that was so huge that it took a 12,000-foot mountain and cut it off at 7,000 feet, then formed a huge crater that eventually filled with water. Twelve cubic miles of mountain vanished in the explosion — try wrapping your head around that. The resulting crater and lake is dramatic, and really unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on the planet.

Clearly visible from this trail the entire time, too, was a giant plume of smoke from a forest fire that’s been burning for a number of days in the northwest corner of the national park. It’s far enough away that it doesn’t threaten us or the buildings in the park at all, but it generates a tremendous amount of smoke — we heard tonight from some people we met on the trail that they tried to hike the rim later than us last night, and had to stop and turn around because they had trouble breathing. For us, today, the smoke has mostly been an omnipresent huge visual reminder of the fire, and, even though it doesn’t threaten us at all, it’s a little eerie to constantly be able to look and see this huge cloud of smoke rising in the distance.

We stopped early, early this evening for two reasons. First, we’re incredibly tired from getting up so early in the morning. But, second, we discovered that we get ten free miles on this segment of our trip! No, this isn’t a Cracker Jack promotion; rather, there’s an alternate that we were only vaguely aware of that’s ten miles shorter than the PCT, goes exactly where we want to go anyway, stays lower, and has more water. Sounds like a no-brainer to me. This cuts the distance we need to go before our next resupply, letting us take it just a little easier and catch up on sleep. So, even though it may be 7:30 PM…I’m headed to bed!

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