Creepy Crater Lake, Oregon: Exploring the Legends, Lost Gold, and a History of Mystery

Creepy Crater Lake, Oregon: Exploring the Legends, Lost Gold, and a History of Mystery


Oregon is famous for few things—namely rain and being north of California.  It hasn’t really caught the eye of the world at large, perhaps because the things man builds here are no match for its natural beauty.  There are no pyramids or skyscrapers that surpass the mountains and forests for their renown.


One wonder of the wild is Crater Lake, located in the Cascade Range of Southwest Oregon.  It is a bright blue cistern of pure rainwater lying in the crater of a long-dormant volcano named Mount Mazama.  After violent eruptions exhausted the mountain’s central spine of magma, Mazama’s peak collapsed in on itself, leaving a giant bowl of ash and stone—known in geology talk as a caldera—which now holds the majestic Crater Lake.  In true Oregon fashion it’s more or less a famous puddle, but it’s a beautiful puddle, attracting half a million visitors each year who come to admire its twelve square miles of heavenly blue.  At one time the lake was thought to be bottomless, but now it’s measured at 1,943 feet, making it the deepest in the US.


More things than its depth have made Crater Lake a mystery, though.  It’s a hotbed for strange disappearances, ghostly encounters, and legendary beasts.  Bigfoot himself is known to show up here from time to time.  Rangers once reported following a large, dark, putrid-smelling creature through the woods until it started throwing pinecones at them.  The area is also home to at least two claimed slayings of the Sasquatch.  One was by car (the body was reportedly whisked away by the government), and one was by train.  The train conductors didn’t report slamming into something that looked like the legendary beast—for fear they’d be accused of drinking on the job.

UFOs are no strangers to the area, either.  In February 1997 a jet pilot reported military aircraft pursuing UFOs above the Lake.  That night a loud sonic boom was heard all across Western Oregon.  Strange lights make periodic appearances in the area.

Everyone’s heard of Bigfoot and UFOs, but even more rare and sinister entities are fabled to haunt the wilds of Mazama and its crown jewel, Crater Lake.  The Klamath Indians say that to gaze upon its splendid blues is to invite, “Death and lasting sorrow.”  The Modoc tribe, who lived on its borders for millennia, knew the mountain since before eruptions rendered its tall peak to a dusty bowl.  They retain a strict taboo against the place.  It’s evil, they say, the home of dark spirits.  People disappear there…

The Klamath hold the Lake sacred, believing it to be the crossroads of the Spirit of Above (Skell)—a spirit of peace and goodness—and the Spirit of Below (Llao)—a spirit of fire, darkness and terror.  The Klamath believe that a battle between these two created the Lake when after defeating the evil Llao, Skell collapsed the mountain on his portal to this world and covered it with clear water as a sign of everlasting peace.  Skell cast Llao’s limbs into the Lake and tricked the water animals, which were faithful to Llao, into devouring them.  But when the animals reached Llao’s head they recognized it as their master and would not touch it.  It can still be seen today as a lone, steep cinder cone rising from the Lake’s waters.  It’s known as Wizard Island, and Llao’s spirit is still said to make its home there.

In other words, the Klamath’s version of the Devil lives in Crater Lake.

Vintage crater lake

Another Klamath legend says the caldera was created when the Great Spirit collapsed the peak of the volcano onto a band of rebelling braves, burying them all in the act.  Afterwards, “the Great Spirit converted the ghosts of the victims into huge, long-armed dragons which could reach up to the crater’s rim and drag down any venturesome warrior.”  These kidnapping “dragons” have also been described as “giant crayfish” in Klamath lore.  Similar ghouls have been spotted even in modern times.   Georgian Mattie Hatcher was rowing merrily about the lake with her family when something “a block long” swam beneath their boat.  “I have never been so scared in my life,” she recalled.  “What we saw that day was a monster.  To me, it looked like a dragon [emphasis mine].  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.”

Another legend has it that fire spirits in the form of winged salamanders once haunted Wizard Island, these being, “the spirits of evil men doomed to suffer an eternal penalty of torture for their earthly wrongdoings.”  This last bit may be chalked up to post-colonial Christianization rather than real old-school Klamath lore, but rangers at the park often observe campfires on Wizard Island only to boat out and find not a trace of flame, a whiff of smoke, or a singed blade of grass.

Whether the culprit is water monsters, Sasquatch, restless souls, or something else, an abnormal amount of people have disappeared in and around Crater Lake.  The first settlers to find the Lake were themselves investigating a mysterious disappearance—or, more likely, the treasure that went along with it.

Every state has at least one Lost Cabin Mine in the annals of its fabled treasures.  Oregon is no exception with at least four on the books.  A quest for one led to the first sighting of Crater Lake by Europeans.

In 1853, a party set out from Yreka, California to look for their lost friend Set-‘em-up.  He had mysteriously vanished from his mining cabin nestled at the base of Mount Mazama.  Set-‘em-up always came into Yreka with more than enough gold to buy the whole saloon a round.  He would throw a little satchel of gold at the barkeep and holler, “Set ‘em up!” which earned him his nickname.  His real name has been lost to history.  His generosity also earned him the rabble of friends who fretted so much about their missing buddy’s safety (and the safety of his vacant claim).  They had a rough idea of where Set-‘em-up’s mine was, and after no one had heard from him for a couple years they figured he wouldn’t be needing it any more.  They decided that they—being his loyal friends—might as well be the ones to find it.

After stocking up on supplies in Jacksonville, Oregon, they headed off to the little-explored forests skirting Mount Mazama.  While following the rough directions they had to Set-‘em-up’s abode they hit a fork in the trail.  One party split to the left and one to the right, vowing to meet back at that spot before nightfall.  When the two parties split the teams broke apart further to cover more ground.

Isaac Skeeters

Isaac Skeeters

Isaac Skeeters, who had gone on the right fork, suddenly came to a point where his horse refused to budge.  Feeling curious, he dismounted to see what blocked their way.  Much to his dread he found himself perched on the sheer rim of Crater Lake.  Disappointed (he’d obviously chosen the wrong path), he took note of his grand discovery and hurried back to the rendezvous point to see if anyone else had had better luck.

When he reached the trail fork, a man named Hillman who had taken the left hand path rode up waving his arms.  He’d spotted a small, decrepit cabin beside a stream coming from a shallow canyon.  The two were galloping through the forest to claim their fortune when Hillman’s horse lost its footing on a rock and tumbled over the edge of a canyon.  Both the clumsy horse and its rider died on impact, taking the location of the lost cabin with them.  (I was tempted to file this one under Cursed Gold, but then again there’s nothing supernatural about a clumsy horse.)

Despite their best efforts, Skeeters and the team couldn’t find any trace of the little cabin by the creek.  They soon ran low on provisions and had to head home.  All they had found was a stupid lake.  Although many have tried, no one’s relocated the lost cabin to this day.

Old Set-‘em-up wasn’t the last person to mysteriously disappear around Crater Lake, though.  The next case comes from February, 1911.  B. B. Bakowski was a photographer who traveled from Oregon City to take the very first winter photographs of the Lake.  He got there just fine.  He set up camp, built a snow cave for emergencies, and stocked it with food.  Then, after successfully photographing the Lake, he “seemed to just drop out of sight.”

Massive blizzards hit Crater Lake at that time.  Bakowski’s sled and shovel were recovered a mile and a half from the Rim, but no trace of his body was ever found.  Why he would leave the safety of his camp during a blizzard—and how he managed to get outside the range of a search radius during such a horrific storm—remains unexplained.

Later that year an indignant visitor reported, “Indian guides will take you near the Rim and await your return with their backs toward the mountains…”  Maybe they knew something that old Bakowski didn’t.

Some sixty-four years later another photographer, Charles McCullar, also disappeared during harsh February storms.  Searches turned up no trace of the young man despite the help of the FBI and Charles’ distraught father, who poured his heart and soul into the search.

A year later, in 1976, two hikers saw what they thought was a skeleton down a box canyon in a remote area of the park—more than 12 miles from where Charles had been taking pictures along the Rim.  Twelve-foot drifts of snow were reported during the time of McCullar’s disappearance, with 102 inches of fresh snowfall covering the ground all over the park.  For an ill-equipped person to make it twelve miles in these conditions is unfathomable.  Keep that in mind, because this gets weird.

The hikers brought a tattered backpack and a few other items they found into the park’s ranger station.  Rummaging through the pack, rangers immediately identified a distinctive Volkswagen key they knew belonged to McCullar.  They mounted horses and rode to the obscure canyon, hardly suspecting the eerie scene that awaited them.

A clipping from the the Eugene Register-Guard shows McCullar's picture

A clipping from the the Eugene Register-Guard shows Charles McCullar’s picture

What they found was so surreal that one thirty-year ranger described it as the strangest thing he had ever seen.  It appeared as though Charles had “melted” right into his jeans while sitting on a log.  His pants hadn’t been disturbed by animals or removed before his death.  There were socks in his jeans and there were toe bones in the socks, but these ended with a bit of broken tibia.   The rest of Charles was mysteriously absent from the site of his demise.  A thorough search of the lonesome canyon turned up tiny bone fragments and the crown of his skull about twelve feet away.  That was all they ever found of Charles McCullar.

To add more weirdness to this already ghastly scene, Charles’ jeans were unbuttoned and his belt undone.  No shirt or coat was ever found, and most perplexing of all the rangers couldn’t find his boots.  Rangers say they always find the boots!  They are essential for traveling in the woods, animals don’t take them, and they can last for a century.

So the mystery is this: how did Charles manage to traverse twelve miles in eight and a half feet of fresh snow without clothes or equipment?  Why did he undress himself?  And, most importantly, where were his remains?

These cases alone are bizarre enough, but when taken with a complete history of the Lake they form an eerie puzzle—each missing person or mysterious death another tantalizing piece.  I took the below inventory of unsettling reports from the park’s official website:

October, 1991:  “Searchers spend three weeks slogging through four feet of snow looking for Glenn Allen Mackie, 33, of Brea, California. Snow had begun falling when Mackie’s car was first noticed in the parking lot. It contained his driver’s license, keys, passport, cash and toiletries. No trace of the man was ever found.”

August 24, 1978: “Massive air and ground search conducted by the National Guard and volunteers in search for a Cessna 182 that disappeared in the Crater Lake area with three on board, February, 1975. The search concentrates on a 50 square mile region in the southwestern portion of the park and the Northeast corner of Jackson County. The results were negative.”  The crash site, along with three skeletons, was finally located in 1982.

March 28, 1971: “Nick Carlino of Grants Pass, Oregon disappears while snow shoeing along the Rim, just west of Rim Village. When his German Shepherd returned to the Cafeteria Building alone, Nick’s wife instituted a search. Calino’s snowshoe tracks were traced to the Crater’s edge where they abruptly disappeared.”

Summer, 1956: “Photographer falls to his death while attempting to photograph the Phantom Ship at Sun Notch.”  I include this because it is yet another photographer to meet his end on Mazama.  Maybe the mountain is camera shy.  One website notes, “From 1926 to 1997, at least thirteen people have fallen to their deaths from the steep slopes of the crater. While one case was suicide, most of the others involved someone getting close to the edge to take a photograph.”

December 2, 1945: “A group of seven planes had left Redding, California heading for Washington. As the formation entered clouds near the Park, one of the planes disappeared…  The official investigation of the crash was conducted in 1970, following the discovery of the [the pilot’s] skull.”  Here’s the report of the skull’s discovery: “While sitting on a log wondering which direction to continue exploring, David had a feeling that something or somebody was looking at him. As he glanced about the trees, David discovered the skull ‘staring’ back at him from beneath a nearby log.”

July 4, 1947: “A Park visitor, Mr. Cornelius suddenly hands his startled wife his billfold and watch as he sits down on a snow chute near the old Lake Trail, and slides to the Lake attempting suicide. Since the fall only broke his leg, Cornelius crawls to the water’s edge and drowns himself.”

April or May, 1944: “A Grumman Torpedo plane TBF-VC 88-9=89, was reported crashing into the Lake. Two planes were flying in formation near Mt. Scott, when one partner turned away and when he looked back, the other pilot was gone…  Another plane story says that a SNJ trainer went down late fall of 1944, while heading north and was never found. The pilot and turret gunner were lost.”  One official, “reported that 2 or 3 planes crashed each week near the Army air base in Klamath Falls.”  Apparently a fair number of boats, planes, and helicopters have sunken to their grave in Crater Lake itself.  Some have taken their occupants along with them.

September 26, 1939: “Search for missing person, but never found.”

Summer, 1910: “Two men lost in the forest of the park and are never found.”

What may have transpired (or expired) around the Lake before the last hundred years of recorded history brings us back to the stuff of legend, which, if those old tales had been heeded in the first place, might have avoided some of the misfortune surrounding this forbidden mountain today.


What do you think?  Is Crater Lake cursed?  Is Mount Mazama the abode of some ancient evil?  Or do people just sometimes trip over their shoelaces and fall twelve miles through apocalyptic blizzards—losing their shoes in the process?  Let us know what you think on our official facebook page, on twitter @WhoForted, or in the comments section below!

You decide, but I won’t be sightseeing at Crater Lake anytime soon.


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