Friday, September 7, 2018

Not Just Another Clear Lake

Beginning high in the Cascade Mountains, the sparkling, energetic McKenzie River flows 90 miles to meet up with the Willamette. Unlike most rivers, however, the McKenzie doesn't begin as a series of small tributaries; it is born wild and whole from a beautiful and unique body of water: Clear Lake.

Admittedly, Oregon boasts more than one "Clear Lake;" in fact, you will find lakes claiming to be "clear" in many states. It seems that the people who name lakes are startled to discover that it is possible to see through water. This lake, however, is not your ordinary transparent body of water.

Created by a lava flow about 3000 years ago, it is not a large lake; in fact, it covers less than 150 acres. What it lacks in width, however, it makes up for in depth. At 175 feet at its deepest, this mountain lake maintains a year-round temperature of about 35 degrees. And it is clear. Unsettlingly clear. Paddling or rowing on this lake finds you passing the tops of trees submerged for 30 centuries, preserved by the nearly-freezing water. Look down below the tree tops and you will see, far beneath you, the tiny shadow of your boat on the lake bottom. You will float over schools of fish and underwater lava formations as you navigate this stunningly turquoise-blue mountain lake. No motors are allowed on this pristine body of water, making for a peaceful paddle. Miles from cell service, Clear Lake is the perfect place to reconnect with nature.

Clear Lake is relatively long and narrow, with a slight "bottle neck" between the large southern part and the smaller northern pool. The smaller pool, north of the boat docks, is somewhat shallower but intensely blue and clear. There are some scattered trees underneath the water, as well as rumors of a sunken boat which we have yet to locate. The large southern pool holds most of the sunken forest, and there aren't many places you can paddle alongside a massive lava field! At the southern tip, you will find an outlet with a warning sign posted; this is the upper McKenzie River, famous for whitewater and waterfalls, so heed the sign and continue to explore the peaceful lake.

Easy to locate, the lake resides alongside Highway 126 four miles south of its intersection with Highway 20 in the Santiam Pass. You may not see the lake from the road, so watch for signs to the two access sites: Clear Lake Resort and Cold Water Cove Campground. The first is a rustic resort with a seasonal cafe and tiny store, with a few tent campsites in the forest above the lake. There are cabins for rent, as well; some are quite rustic, but during chilly mountain nights they can be pleasantly cozy. A simple boat ramp gives access to the lake and mooring docks. If you don't have a boat of your own, stop in and rent a sturdy, stable rowboat for an unforgettable outing on this exquisite lake (click here for a short video on how to row if you've never tried it before). The day use area features a picnic shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

Cold Water Cove at the south end of the lake is a Forest Service campground with the usual fire rings and vault toilets. Most of the sites are scattered among the trees on the slopes above the lake, with plentiful undergrowth providing privacy. A wide, paved boat ramp gives easy access to the water. A day use fee is charged for non-campers.

No matter which site you choose, you will want to explore this dazzling mountain lake. The forested west bank gives some idea of how the area looked prior to the lava flow, which sprawls out from the east side. If you should tire of soaking up the views, fishing for stocked trout is a popular pastime (trout are sturdy creatures, indeed, to live so happily in these frigid waters). The Clear Lake Trail follows the shore, through forest and lava field, all around the lake for four and a half miles; a footbridge passes over the newly-freed water of the McKenzie River (for a longer hike or mountain bike ride, take the McKenzie River Trail, which follows the river for nearly 25 miles). The lava fields are particularly pretty in September, when the vine maples which dot the terrain turn bright scarlet and yellow. Be aware that the ground here is rough in places, and the trail through the lava field can be challenging to navigate on a bicycle; most hikers find it quite passable, though.

Divers are especially fond of this lake; in spite of the near-freezing water, the lure of swimming through an ancient forest must be hard to resist!

Staying for at least one night at either site is highly recommend, but if the campgrounds are full try Olallie Campground, just a little way south of the lake on Highway 126. This simple Forest Service campground often has sites available, and its proximity to the McKenzie River more than makes up for the roadside location.

Be aware that all camping in this area is seasonal; at around 3000 feet of elevation, winter weather can be a factor for much of the year. That being said, the resort rents cabins year-round, offering a different view of the lake and a base camp for skiing at Hoodoo.

Sahalie Falls
For more hiking in the area, check out nearby Sahalie and Koosah Falls. What this hike lacks in length, it more than makes up for in photo opportunities. At 100 and 70 feet, respectively, these lava-formed falls on the McKenzie plunge headlong into foaming pools. Sahalie falls, just 100 feet from the parking lot, has a fully accessible viewpoint. Parking is available at either falls, and the two are connected by a loop trail beside the rushing McKenzie.

As fall creeps in, take a drive from Eugene or Corvallis and find a truly Clear Lake. Take warm clothes and a camera, rent a boat, and discover the small, peaceful flooded valley where the McKenzie begins its rush toward the sea.

The crystal waters of Clear Lake can sometimes be deceiving. The mossy treetop near the
surface is most likely 50-100 feet tall, and the sandy lake bottom just as deep.

Koosah Falls
Jaime, an honorary member of the Case family

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