When Crater Lake National Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman says, “We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” he isn’t just speaking figuratively. With 12-feet — or 144 inches — of snow on the ground outside his office window at park headquarters, his view is a sea of frozen white.
Times have been challenging for Crater Lake staff in recent months because of record snow. February’s snowfall total of 154 inches was the seventh highest for the month since weather records have been kept, with all six other higher amounts set before 1960. As of Thursday, the snowpack was 126 percent of average for March 7, but overall the snowfall total for the winter was at 96 percent because of exceptionally light snow October through January.
The road from park headquarters to Rim Village has mostly been closed since the 35-day federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22. Since the reopening the park has been hammered by days of heavy snow. The 3-mile road to the rim was closed Feb. 5 and has only been briefly open since then.
The road ahead
Plowing those massive amounts of February snow — and snow totals are always greater at higher elevations up to and at Rim Village than at park headquarters in Munson Valley — has been challenging. Ackerman said plowing has been limited because of frequent breakdowns to the park’s fleet of rotary and regular snow plows and graders. For a time, only one of the park’s snow removal vehicles, a grader, was operating.
“That’s just a symptom of them being too old,” Ackerman said, noting the park’s two large rotary snowplows have logged more than 10,000 hours, more than double their expected life span. Repairing snow removal equipment is difficult because they require special parts, including specialty items built specifically for park equipment while others are manufactured overseas.
“We’re doing a lot of FedEx overnight shipping for parts,” he said, noting park staff are making frequent trips to the Medford Airport to retrieve items to speed up repairs.
Frequent, heavy snow has posed other problems. For most days the priority has been keeping the 4-mile long road from the junction of Highway 62 to park headquarters, which is also the location of residences for some park staff and their families. Some days, Ackerman said the operating plows were used to keep Highway 62, which connects the park to Fort Klamath to the south and Union Creek/Prospect to the west, open. Some days Highway 62 was closed and other days, when only a single lane was open, park staff escorted vehicles through the closure.
“That’s been restored,” Ackerman said of access from Highway 62.
In addition, he said accumulations of heavy snow have increased avalanche danger along the road between headquarters and the rim, noting, “With the way the snow has been falling and consolidating there has been a serious avalanche danger.”
Ackerman said replacing the park’s aging fleet of snow removal equipment is unlikely to happen soon, noting there are no prospects of emergency funding in part because other high elevation national parks, such as Mount Rainier and Yosemite, are also facing similar problems stemming from above average snowfall.
Although Crater Lake’s budget has not been cut, he said inflation and other higher operating costs effectively “means you’re trying to do the same amount of work with fewer dollars.”
Ongoing closures at Rim Village have limited operations for Crater Lake Hospitality, which is in its first year as the park’s concessionaire. Road closures to the rim mean the usual winter food and other services at the Rim Village Cafe and Gift Shop have extremely limited operations, which have resulted in staff resignations. If the road to Rim Village is open, the facility is currently open only Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Although the road to the rim has mostly been closed for more than two months, Ackerman said park staff have seen an increase in “adventure skiers” making the 3-mile, uphill ski to and along the rim. Skiing is allowed throughout the park, except in the caldera. Signs warning about avalanches and cornices are posted.
He said there have been reports of snowmobiles, which are only allowed along the North Entrance Road to the North Junction, traveling on closed areas, including the Pumice Desert. Enforcement, however, has been limited. “All of that is absolutely prohibited,” Ackerman said of snowmobiles leaving the North Entrance Road.
Spring opening, when plowing begins from Rim Village along West Rim Drive toward the North Entrance, normally starts in April. “No idea,” Ackerman said of when snow removal efforts might begin. “That will totally depend on what the weather is like in April and May.”
In recent years, he said above freezing nights from March onward have resulted in a quickly melting snowpack. Along with reducing water for downstream rivers and lakes, a disappearing snowpack could also increase the likelihood of forest fires. In recent years devastating wildfires have burned areas in and adjacent to the park and created heavy smoke through summer months, which has discouraged tourism.
“We just don’t know what to expect,” Ackerman said.
Another variable is the impact from the government shutdown. Other parks have found sites destroyed and discovered volumes of human waste. Because Crater Lake remains under heavy snow, Ackerman said it’s not known if waste and debris will be a problem. “We probably won’t know that until June or July.”