Myth, Mysteries, and Monsters at Oregon’s Cursed Crater Lake
There are places tucked away in the remote corners of this world in which sometimes immense natural beauty seems to be hiding something more, just beyond our grasp to understand it. These are the wonders of nature that simultaneously capture our imagination and exude tales of mystery and the unexplained that are very often laced with sinister dread and perhaps the supernatural. In these places we sense that there is something menacing and off, evil even, yet are at a loss as to what exactly might be at the root of it, and our senses are somewhat thrown off by the sheer grandeur and beauty of the location itself. One such mysterious place is certainly Crater Lake, of Oregon’s Mt. Mazama. Cloaked in some of the most gorgeous natural beauty in the country, it is a place which has long been steeped in dark legends, and which exudes a long list of a variety of high strangeness, encompassing everything from mysterious disappearances and deaths, to strange creatures, to ghosts, UFOs, and spooky unexplained phenomena. It is a place that is at once a beauty and perhaps also a beast.
The region of Crater Lake National Park, located in Klamath County, within the majestic Cascade Range of Southwest Oregon, in the United States, is not a place where one might expect to find a location as allegedly seemingly malevolent and evil as Crater Lake itself. Here the land is dominated by sprawling vistas of breathtakingly beautiful forests, fields of wildflowers, tranquil meadows, and soaring cliffs and peaks, all with some of the cleanest air found anywhere in the world. Sitting within all of this natural splendor, nestled among trees and sheer cliffs that reach 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2,100 to 2,400 m) into the sky, and contrasting with the verdant green around it is a striking circle of azure blue, its surface so placid and clear that it is almost as if it is a mirror reflecting clouds which seem to swirl upon the lake itself. This is the stunning Crater Lake, which covers 21 square miles (54 square kilometers) with intensely blue waters that plunge to depths of up to 1,949 feet (594 m), making it the deepest lake in the United States and the 3rd deepest in the world based on average depth, so deep in fact that it was long rumored to be bottomless. Crater Lake is a caldera lake, sitting in the dormant volcano Mt. Mazama, which formed the lake during its last spectacular eruption in 5700 B.C., a beautiful remnant of a violent natural cataclysm.
In June of 1853, John Wesley Hillman became the first white man to ever lay eyes upon the lake, which was so beautiful and mesmerizing with its magnificent blue water that he named it “Deep Blue Lake,” and further awe-inspired expeditions to the area by outsiders would variously call it Blue Lake and Majestic Lake. Yet although this was the first record of Crater Lake by outsiders, the Native Klamath people of the region were well acquainted with it, and the lake is a sacred place to them that has since time unremembered had a prominent place within their folklore and legends. According to one such legend, the creation of Crater Lake is considered to be the result of an epic, fiery battle between two powerful spirits which resided on the volcanoes Mt. Mazama and Mt. Shasta. In the legend, Llao, who was the evil great spirit of the Below-World, lived on Mt. Mazama and was mortal enemies with Skell, who was the benevolent great spirit of the Above-World and lived on California’s Mt. Shasta. The two had had many altercations before, but during one particularly violent confrontation the two great gods caused the earth itself to tremble, shake, and rupture as they hurled fire and rocks at each other in a fury, scorching the land and sky with fiery black ash and smoke. This battle would boom across the land for days before finally it is said that Skell defeated Llao, and banished the malicious spirit down to the Below-World, collapsing Mt. Mazama in the process in order to imprison him there for all eternity. The battle worn Skell then looked upon the gaping crater that had formed and decided to fill it with magnificent blue water so that it may become a symbol of peace throughout the land in the wake of such death, destruction, and darkness.
From then on, pretty blue water or not, the lake was seen by the Native people as a sort of doorway or crossroads between the darkness of the Below-World, which was more or less their version of Hell, and the light of the Above-World. According to the legend, only Llao’s head remains visible as the one of the lake’s islands, Wizard Island, and the vengeful spirit is said to still inhabit this speck of land. In fact, Wizard Island was seen as a place to which wicked souls were banished, and these damned took on the form of winged salamanders that prowled and haunted the island. The Klamath also believed that it was unwise to stare too long at the lake’s surface, as it was thought to mesmerize and trap people, as well as channel great sorrow and dread into those who gazed upon it unable to look away, and lure people towards it to their death. This is perhaps the origin of one of the Native names for the lake, “Lost Lake.” Other local tribes, such as the Modoc, believed the lake to be a cursed place of festering evil and avoided it at all costs, saying it was inhabited by malevolent spirits and the souls of the damned, and that various supernatural entities stalked through the dark surrounding forests.
It did not take long for the area to gather its share of lore and mysteries among early settlers as well, and in fact Crater Lake’s first accidental discovery by non-Natives was directly connected to one such legend. In 1853, three white explorers by the names of John Wesley Hillman, Henry Klippel, and Isaac Skeeters, set out into the wilderness in order to search for a miner who had gone missing, a man who went by the nickname Set-‘em-up, and who had a penchant for always coming into town loaded with gold from a secret source. It was thought that the man had hit upon a literal goldmine out in the wilds, and the three explorers thought they could maybe find the missing man and at the same time locate the secret mine if only they could reach Set-‘em-up’s cabin. Unfortunately, they had only the vaguest ideas of where the cabin might be, so as they pushed into the uncharted forests of Mt. Mazama they became a bit lost. The group separated to cover more ground and it was during this time that Crater Lake would be discovered. After scouring the area for any sign of the lost cabin, the part of the group led by Isaac Skeeters came across an excited Hillman, who claimed that he had found the cabin and that it held a stash of gold and a map to the mines. As the group headed towards the cabin, it is said that Hillman’s horse lost its footing, and both it and its rider fell over the edge of a cliff, plunging to their deaths along with the secret location of the cabin. According to the story, the rest of the group could never locate this mysterious cabin, and it is said that it and the lost mine are still out there somewhere, and remain elusive despite many expeditions over the years that have searched for them.
Lost gold is certainly not the only mystery attached to the area, and indeed Crater Lake has become known as somewhat of a wellspring of the strange and unexplained. Perhaps one of the most striking phenomena associated with the lake is the large number of unexplained disappearances and strange deaths that have occurred in its immediate vicinity since the time when early settlers first arrived. One of the first such modern vanishings happened in 1911, when one of the first people to photograph the lake, a B. B. Bakowski, went to the area in order to take pictures of it in winter. Although he was well-provisioned and prepared for the winter weather, even having gone as far as to set up a snow cave as a secure camp against the biting cold and foul weather, a huge blizzard pummeled the area at the time. When the blizzard had passed, Bakowski was nowhere to be found. A search of the area managed to turn up the photographer’s sled and a snow shovel about half a mile from the crater rim, far from the secure snow camp he had equipped for the express purpose of protecting him from blizzards, but his body was never found and his disappearance has never been solved.
Photographers don’t seem to have much luck at Crater Lake, because probably one of the most bizarre and baffling unexplained disappearances of the lake is that of a Virginia based photographer by the name of Charles McCullar in 1975. In 1974, Charles embarked on an adventurous hitchhiking and bus tour of the country, which he hoped to take a photographic journal of. January of 1975 found Charles staying at the home of a friend in Oregon for a few weeks, during which time he decided to take the opportunity to go take some winter time photos of Crater Lake. It seemed like a normal thing for the intrepid adventurer and photographer to do, so his friend thought nothing of it when Charles said he would be back in a few days before heading into the wilderness. It would be the last time anyone would see him alive.
When over a week passed and there was still no sign of Charles, a search was launched of the wilderness where he was known to have set up camp, which rapidly grew to involve the FBI, yet efforts were hampered by immense drifts of snow which were at times over 12 feet deep. The search included Charles’ own father, who flew out to spend throughout the summer aiding in search efforts and camping out on the shore of the lake. Even after the snows melted, not a single trace of the missing man was turned up during this time, despite exhaustive efforts on the part of authorities and Charles’ father, and it seemed as if the forest had just swallowed him up. It was not until the following year, in October of 1976, that a pair of hikers found a battered, torn up backpack down in a remote canyon located a full 12 miles from where Charles had been camped out, which they brought to a ranger’s office. Within a side pocket of the backpack was found a set of keys belonging to a Volkswagen, which had been the type of car that Charles had owned. Sensing that a break in the cold case had been found, Rangers Larry Smith and Marion Jack ran a comparison with a photocopy of Charles McCullar’s actual car key and found it was a perfect match. A patrol was immediately sent out on horseback to the area where the backpack had been found and it was not long before human remains were found near Bybee Creek, and although it seemed like the final piece of the puzzling disappearance, things would only get stranger when the body was examined.
There upon a log was a pair of jeans that seemed to be in remarkably good condition for how long they had been out there in the elements, but there was no shirt, coat, or boots anywhere too be seen. Within the socks that poked out from the jean legs were found to be broken off toe bones and the jeans themselves contained nothing but some pieces of snapped off shin bones. Adding to the weirdness was the fact that the belt on the jeans had been undone and the buttons opened, as if he at some point had decided to take them off in the frigid cold. Besides the toe and shin bones, the rest of the body was simply gone, and one ranger described it as if the man had simply melted away. Lying a full 12 feet away from this bizarre sight was the crown of a skull and some tiny fragments of bone. A meticulous, thorough search of the surroundings turned up no further trace of Charles’ remains, and the majority of his body remained missing, as did all of his clothing except those jeans. Additionally, none of Charles’ other personal belongings such as his wallet and camera were ever found either. It remains a mystery as to how he could have walked out 12 miles from his camp in deep snowdrifts, what happened to the rest of him, and how his body came to be in such a weird state. Despite all of this, authorities would deem it a case of death by natural causes, with the body having been ravaged by wildlife after death.
There have been numerous other disappearances reported from the Crater Lake area. In 1971, Nick Carlino of Grants Pass, Oregon, went out snowshoeing along with his pet German shepherd dog just west of Rim Village. When the dog later returned without its master, a search was launched which followed the man’s snowshoe prints to the edge of the rim of the crater, where they abruptly stopped. No trace of the man was ever found. This case is eerily similar to another, more recent case from 2009, when a man whose identity has been withheld rented snowshoes, hiked out to the edge of the caldera rim, and stepped off the face of the earth. Again, prints led to the edge and disappeared. Authorities believed that he had fallen over the precipitous ledge and then plummeted 1,000 feet down the yawning chasm below to his death, yet when a search team scoured the area where he was expected to have fallen there was no trace of him or his belongings. Searchers on boats dredged the bottom of the lake and divers scoured the lake as well, but no sign of the man, his belongings, or even his snowshoes was ever found.
In October of 1991, Glenn Allen Mackie, 33, of Brea, California, went missing in the area and authorities would later find his abandoned car in a parking lot. The car contained his driver’s license, keys, passport, and cash but no sign of Mackie himself. A 3-week intensive search would turn up nothing. In yet another disappearance from 2014, a man spoke to a ranger and then was seen scrambling down the caldera wall. The concerned ranger went to go stop the man for his own safety, but after turning a bend could find no sign of him. After a search of the area, the only trace of the man that could be found was a pair of sunglasses. Adding to the strangeness was that it was later found that the man had given the ranger a false name. No trace of the person has ever been turned up, despite a full description of the individual and plea for further information being posted on the park’s trail Facebook page.
Adding to the mysterious disappearances and deaths are the many odd suicides that have occurred at Crater Lake. In July of 1947, a park visitor by the name of Mr. Cornelius was out for a day of hiking with his wife. By all accounts the two were perfectly happy and nothing had seemed out of the ordinary, but at one point during their hike, Mr. Cornelius suddenly stopped hiking, calmly handed his wife his billfold, and without saying a word proceeded to emotionlessly sit down and slide over the edge of a steep snow bank leading down to the lake. The man survived the fall with only a broken leg, but then staggered to his feet, hobbled to the lake’s edge, and drowned himself as his horrified wife looked on. The wife would later claim that he had been in a sort of daze or trance during the incident. Other suicides have involved people hiking out into the woods to shoot themselves, or others hurling themselves over the edge of the rim, and in many of these cases the victims have been found to have been content, well-adjusted people who did not fit in with the profile of someone in danger of killing themselves.
Not all of the people who have fallen over the rim have committed suicide, but the lake seems to almost drag people over the edge to it. Among the dozens of deaths caused by falling down the caldera are some which almost seem to have been impossible, happening in areas where rangers are unsure of how someone could have physically leaned out far enough to fall over, or where it seems they almost had to have been thrown out over the edge. One such case involved a man who fell from a rocky balcony overlooking the lake, despite a rather high, difficult to climb railing designed to prevent such accidents. Some cases of falling over are truly weird, like when a couple parked their car near the edge of the caldera only to have its parking brake inexplicably fail and send them rolling off the edge along with the car and their dog. Although the couple’s dog escaped through the sunroof, the car and its two occupants fatally smashed into the jagged bottom of the caldera. In another mysterious case from the summer of 1956, a photographer fell to his death while trying to photograph an alleged phantom ship on the lake’s waters. Despite numerous warning signs and fences, the caldera still claims several lives a year from people falling to their deaths. This could all just simply be accidents and cases of people trying to get a better view or a photograph, but the unsettling number of these incidents certainly seems to be sinister, and it brings to mind the Native legends of the lake’s purported habit of inexorably drawing people towards it to their doom.
Even more frightening and spectacular are the deaths that the lake seems to almost feed off of that come not from the land around it, but from the sky above, and there have been many strange cases of aircraft mysteriously going down and even vanishing in the area. Such bizarre aircraft fatalities and disappearances have been recorded here since at least the 1940s, in the wake of the construction of an airbase at Klamath Falls. In the spring of 1944, two Grumman Torpedo planes were flying in formation when one of the pilots turned and found the other plane was simply gone, and it was later determined to have inexplicably crashed into the lake and sunk to the bottom despite clear conditions and no sign of trouble. Later that same year, in fall, a flight trainer along with his gunner flew off to the north of the lake and were never seen again, with no sign of the men, the plane, or even a scrap of wreckage ever found. In another odd case from 1945, seven Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter planes were on their way to Washington from Redding, California when they entered a bank of clouds near Crater Lake. When the planes emerged from the clouds, they found one of the planes had completely vanished. In an eerie turn of events, in 1970 a seasonal park ranger by the name of Dave Panebaker reported spotting through the trees the wreckage of a blue Grumman F6 Hellcat fighter scattered about a steep embankment. Dave decided to go investigate, but got lost on his way to the crash. He then reported that that he had sat on a log and felt a profound sense of being watched. When the ranger turned to look, he was met with the macabre sight of a human skull peering out from shadows under a mossy log. Dave brought the skull to the ranger’s office, and a naval investigation showed through dental records that it was the skull of 22-year-old Ensign Frank Lupo, the very pilot who had mysteriously gone missing in the cloud cover in 1945, a full 25 years earlier. Plane crashes at Crater Lake were apparently quite common in the 1940s, and at the time, officials at the nearby Army air base in Klamath Falls estimated that around 2 or 3 planes a week crashed in or around the lake.
Such bizarre cases would continue into later years as well. In August of 1978, a Dave Nunn boarded his Cessna 182 along with his daughter and grandchild in order to fly them back home to Salem, and they were also joined by two teenage student pilots named Jim Pryor and Matt Perkins. The flight to Salem went smoothly, and after dropping off the kids Dave and the two student pilots boarded the plane once again to head back to Klamath Falls. That evening, Dave’s wife, Jean, would claim to have an odd experience when she was awoken at 9:30 at night by the sensation of a hand on her leg, even though no one was there. Eerily, she would then learn that her husband’s plane had disappeared off of radar and gone down at precisely 9:30 at night. An intensive search for the missing Cessna at the time involving the National Guard and hundreds of volunteers turned up no trace of wreckage or the three people on board, but on July 5, 1982, a full 7 years after the disappearance, a hiker came across a crashed Cessna with three skeletal bodies inside. The bodies were identified as the missing men, and things would get even weirder when a cryptic handwritten note scrawled on a piece of paper was found with the remains that read “Lose not thine airspeed, lest the ground rise up and smite thee.”
In September of 1994, the lake snatched yet another aircraft from the sky, when an Aerospatiale AS 350 helicopter piloted by a George W. Causey, 52, was on its way from Seattle to Las Vegas when it suddenly went down over Crater Lake, skimmed and skidded across the surface in full view of several horrified rangers, and proceeded to plunge into 1,500 feet of clear, frigid water near Wizard Island. Oddly, the weather was calm and clear, Causey was a very experienced pilot, the helicopter had had no engine problems, and a thorough inspection before the flight had turned up nothing unusual. Baffled, authorities would later speculate that the pilot must have been confused by the clear blue reflective water of the lake, and misjudged it as the sky rather than the surface of the lake. No clear, definitive answer for what caused the helicopter to inexplicably crash has ever been found.
In addition to mysterious disappearances, deaths, and air disasters, Crater Lake is home to a variety of other weirdness as well. Strange lights are said to flit about Wizard Island at night, and park rangers have often told of seeing what appear to be campfires burning on the island yet which produce no smoke and which leave no evidence that anyone had been there burning a fire at all. Natives maintain that these are the spirits of the island, and also claim that the waters around the island are the realm of spirits that take the form of dragon-like beasts. Some people have indeed reported seeing large, dark shapes swimming under the mirror-like surface of the water, as well as mysterious ripples or large splashes on the placid surface, and one woman by the name of Mattie Hatcher allegedly had a very close encounter with one of these huge mystery beasts when a massive black shape swam right under her boat as she was out on the lake with her family. The woman would later say of the encounter:
I have never been so scared in my life. What we saw that day was a monster. To me, it looked like a dragon. I know why the Indians call that place Lost Lake. They say monsters live in it. I believe them. I know, because I saw one there.
It must be noted that the presence of some sort of lake monster in Crater Lake would be very odd indeed, as there are no inflowing or outflowing rivers here, and no indigenous fish, with the only fish found here being the descendants of attempts to stock the lake from 1888 to 1941. Monsters either flesh and blood or from the spirit world apparently roam the thick surrounding wilderness of the lake as well its water, with shadowy shapes, specters, and apparitions occasionally reported from here. Whatever they are, these mysterious entities seem to be sharing their domain with Bigfoot as well, because there have been numerous sightings of Sasquatch in the area. One popular case is that of some rangers who allegedly followed what they described as a huge dark, shaggy, and foul smelling bipedal creature into the forest here and were forced to turn back when the powerful beast began violently hurling pinecones at them. If that isn’t dramatic enough, there have been two accounts of actual dead Bigfoot from Crater Lake. In one instance, a Sasquatch was allegedly hit and killed by a car, only for what appeared to be secretive government agents to come in and take away the body. In another case, a train reportedly smashed into a Sasquatch, and the conductors were supposedly afraid to report the incident at first for fear of being ridiculed and accused of drinking on the job. It is not clear what happened to the body of the creature in this account. As intriguing as these cases of Bigfoot deaths may be, the lack of any body retrieved, nor trace of any of the expected physical evidence left behind, such as hair or blood, make them somewhat questionable at best, and one wonders if they are merely tall tales.
To top off all of this high strangeness are the many cases of UFOs spotted in the skies over Crater Lake. In one particularly dramatic account, in February of 1997 a private pilot claimed that he witnessed military jets pursuing a UFO over the lake, and later that night there was a massive boom that was so loud it could be heard across western Oregon and it was widely reported in the local news at the time. Other UFOs have been witnessed flying in formation in the skies over the lake, doing impossible maneuvers, buzzing over the tree line, and even entering and exiting the water. Some UFOs have even been reported to have seemingly gone into Mt. Mazama itself, which has of course led to far out theories of mountain UFO bases or secret advanced underground civilizations.
It is interesting when considering these various strange phenomena that Mt. Mazama and its Crater Lake lay within the same mountain range as California’s Mt. Shasta, which itself is home to all manner of weirdness, which I have covered in depth here at Mysterious Universe before, and also the equally mysterious Mt. Adams of Washington. It is curious that these three mountains just happen to all be part of the Cascade Range and all of them are associated with numerous, often strikingly similar, unexplained phenomena, mysterious deaths, and vanishings. Is there any connection between all of this, or are these mountains just particularly infused with a high concentration of Native lore, spooky stories, and superstition?
Endowed with a long history of Native myth and legend, as well as stunning natural beauty, Crater Lake has managed to capture the imagination of people in the region for thousands of years. Is it the legacy of such majestic places to draw to themselves stories of the paranormal and the bizarre, perhaps pulling fragments of thoughts from our subconscious and melding them together to produce these stories and propel these locations into something more? Is this all the product of mankind’s fascination and awe projecting itself onto these places in the form of mysterious tales? Or is there something truly strange going on here, with forces beyond our comprehension swirling beneath the serene veneer? Be it mere legend or reality, there can be no denying that Crater Lake makes for a breathtaking sight, and looking upon its remote location and unbelievable, almost preternaturally blue water, one can certainly see that there is some mysterious, perhaps even ominous, quality here under the surface that sets this place apart. The blue waters become not a lake, but rather like an eye gazing back at us, what it sees a mystery. Perhaps hundreds of years from now, just as hundreds of years before, there will still be those who look upon Crater Lake and see a magical yet spooky place, existing here within its own realm, perhaps with its own rules, its undercurrent of dread still intact, and no closer to being fully comprehended by us.