CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Crater Lake, one of the world’s cleanest and clearest large water bodies, is facing a new threat of contamination this summer as hordes of park visitors bring prohibited items into the lake and defecate along its shores.
The threat to Crater Lake’s water quality tops the list of concerns created by unique stressors currently in place at the park: unexpectedly large numbers of visitors, severe cutbacks in seasonal park staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread disregard for social distancing and a number of people hiking illegally into the caldera.
Crater Lake Superintendent Craig Ackerman is concerned that visitors are bringing prohibited gear such as wet suits, inflatable kayaks, innertubes, snorkeling and scuba gear and other banned items into the lake itself. That equipment could result in invasive species and non-native organisms being introduced into the pristine environment. Park rangers are attempting to turn back people with illegal items but, Ackerman said, “we can’t have someone there 24 hours a day.”
Ackerman said park staffing levels are 60 to 70 percent below normal this summer because of housing and employment shortages stemming from the pandemic. Far fewer people are currently able to live in the seasonal, dormitory-style units for National Park Service and Aramark concession employees.
Because of staffing shortages, Ackerman said full-time park personnel are being moved from their usual tasks to help with emergent concerns. That includes checking for illegal water-related items at the Cleetwood Cove trailhead, the only trail that leads down to the lake, and cleaning the park’s few open bathrooms.
The bathroom at the Cleetwood Cove parking lot is open, but the bathroom at the bottom of the trail along the lake shore is closed because the park lacks the staff to clean and operate it. Ackerman said some visitors have defecated along the trail and the lake, have not carried out their solid waste and have used conventional toilet paper. In addition, the bathroom at the lake was broken into and vandalized. Park staff have found cigarette butts flicked into the lake and lots of litter, including coffee cups and underwear.
Ackerman said the situation is complicated because boat tours normally offered during summer months have been canceled because of the pandemic. As a result, staff from Aramark, the park concessionaire, are no longer stationed at the rim parking area or at the lake’s boat docks. Likewise, park rangers who normally lead the boat tours are not at the lake to enforce park rules.
Several incidents of illegal climbing in the caldera have also been reported, with rangers and outside crews dispatched in time-consuming, costly and dangerous rescues. The slopes of the Crater Lake caldera are very unstable, and visitors have been seriously injured or even killed trying to navigate them.
On Friday afternoon, park staff received a report of multiple visitors in the caldera somewhere between Rim Village and Discovery Point. Park rescue staff rappelled over the edge to locate and provide assistance if needed. Hikers were soon spotted near the shoreline below Rim Village. Eventually, seven visitors climbed out of the caldera on their own and were cited for illegal entry and creating a hazardous condition. No one was injured.
Friday’s problems have been common not just in Crater Lake, but at recreation areas across the region.
“We’re hearing the same story from the state parks, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, any place there’s outdoor recreation,” Ackerman said of undisciplined, illegal activities. “We’re really not sure what’s causing that.”
After being closed from March until June because of the coronavirus, Ackerman said the number of park visitors has reached record levels. He said some staff are calling the surge “spring break on steroids.”
Visitation figures aren’t yet available for July, but Ackerman said that rooms at Crater Lake Lodge and Mazama Village cabins are booked through the rest of the summer and that Aramark reported last week that it had its single highest revenue day at the park.
“We didn’t anticipate the number of visitors we’re seeing now. It’s just overwhelming, especially at Cleetwood Cove,” Ackerman said.
Lines at the park’s two entrance stations, including the South Entrance that draws visitors from the Klamath Basin and Rogue Valley, have required waits of more than an hour.
There’s also a pandemic.
Last week at the Cleetwood Cove parking lot, Ackerman said he found more than 100 people in the parking lot but noted only four were wearing masks. He said no one was following the state-required mandate of six feet of social distance. Of the 100-plus vehicles in the lot, Ackerman said he counted 25 different license plates, including several from states experiencing serious pandemic outbreaks.
At the Mazama Campground, which is now open, he said groups of 50 to 75 people have been flouting social guidelines by gathering for potlucks and other activities.
“It’s pretty clear people are out and about and the majority are acting like there’s no pandemic at all,” Ackerman said.
He expressed concern that some park or concession employees might contract COVID-19 from visitors and unknowingly spread the disease to coworkers and tourists.
“We just keep hoping there’s not a confirmed case because we’d have to close the park,” he said. A closure could be necessary if too many Park Service or Aramark employees were forced to quarantine.
Ackerman said the challenges to the park are always endless, but he is hopeful the current conditions and tourist season come to an end as soon as possible.
“This will be another year I’ll be glad to see in the rear view mirror,” he said.