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Originally published August 8, 2014 at 12:02 PM | Page modified August 8, 2014 at 2:56 PM

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Our deep lakes incite curiosity and conjure legends

People who study mythology and folklore will tell you the bottomless lake fable is old, global and persistent. But it seems to have gotten lodged into an even deeper psychological crevice in the Pacific Northwest.


Special to The Seattle Times

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THE LAKE has its moods. Some mornings, it is so still and smooth that your mind yearns to skate right across. Other afternoons: Crashing waves and blasting wind godawful enough to make Sir Ernest Shackleton pour another cup of coffee, put his feet up by the Lake Crescent Lodge fireplace and just wait it out.

You can’t blame the lake. It has issues. One of them is body image, or put simply, size. Few people seem to know where this blessed body of otherworldly aquamarine water starts and where it ends. The side-to-side dimensions — about 12 miles long and a mile across — are no-brainers. But the up-and-down? Not so simple.

Ask anybody how deep those mythical waters really go.

Park employee standing on a dock: “Um, not sure . . .”

Tara, a checker inside Log Cabin Resort: “It’s officially bottomless.”

Bottomless. She just had to go and say it, didn’t she?

OK: We all know that’s a term of affection, mystery — and calculated vaguery. An “Animal Planet” teaser, if you will. Cue the spooky music, cut to the promo for “River Monsters.”

Except in this case, the term actually still has traction. Those inclined to go to the official fount of all human knowledge (the Internet) will find various entries on Lake Crescent that list its “official” depth at 624 feet. Further exploration will reveal that the measurers of that depth, now more than 50 years ago, were limited to 624 feet by their own sounding gear. And that a crew that came along later to lay a telephone line across the lake took readings of 1,000 feet — or more.

Bottom line: Nobody really knows. It’s a mystery, people.

Of course, it really isn’t. Lake Crescent is in fact 650 feet deep, give or take a few, says Steve Fradkin, an Olympic National Park lake biologist. He sees the numbers all the time, with his own eyes, on sonar, and has run cabled instruments from a boat, all the way to the bottom.

So, bank on this. Lots of other amazing, little-known natural facts about Lake Crescent still await sharing, but its depth should not be counted among them.

Having said that: 650 feet is pretty darn deep. Spectacularly clear, turn-your-fingers-blue cold water, two stories deeper than the Space Needle is tall.

It’s the sort of depth that reaches all the way to the bottom of the human imagination. And has been doing so just about forever.

PEOPLE WHO study mythology and folklore will tell you the bottomless lake fable is old, global and persistent. But it seems to have gotten lodged into an even deeper psychological crevice in the Pacific Northwest, where nature has conspired to create gashes in the earth sufficiently unfathomable to seem truly otherworldly, even to the worldly.

A University of Washington scholar, Henry Person, writing in the journal Western Folklore in 1960, seized the occasion of Crescent’s new “official” depth recording to muse about the phenomenon, which he traces to ancient Northern Europe. He writes about its application to north-central Washington’s Lake Chelan, a leading source of “bottomless” mythology:

“From several widely scattered informants I have heard that ‘everybody has known for a long time that it has no bottom . . . During the war, the Navy was testing sonar outfits over there, and they tried again and again with the latest, most modern equipment to find the depth. But they never got any echo — no bottom ever registered on the machine.’ The same story is told about Lake Crescent . . . I have even heard it about Crater Lake in Oregon.”

Rural legends, all — shared by residents about countless other Northwest waterways, as well. Even when a bottomless lake is finally, mercifully, measured, local lore often persists that a single, hidden hole or fissure plunges to the depths of the earth — swallowing up, in various tall tales, missing persons, lost treasures and whatnot — and often giving rise to fanciful lake-creature legends, a la Loch Ness.

Even at Lake Crescent, a body of water now regularly scientifically studied, a legend persists that a subterranean channel links the lake to the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It’s a fun story, but demonstrably false, says biologist Pradkin, who notes that Crescent’s crystalline water shows nary a trace of salt, even at its deepest point, about 70 feet below sea level.

Crescent, by the way, is nowhere near the deepest “bottomless” lake in the Northwest. The grand champion, Oregon’s Crater Lake, (maximum depth: 1,943 feet) is something of a cheat: It’s actually a caldera, a remnant of Mount Mazama, the towering volcano that blew its top about 8,000 years ago.

More typical in the Northwest are lakes which, like Crescent, are glacier-gouged scars from the last ice age: Chelan, at 1,486 feet, and Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, at 1,150 feet deep, are good examples.

In his folklore article, Person spends little time explaining the persistence of bottomless-lakes mythology. (He may or may not be surprised to know it still exists, 54 years later.) But little explanation is necessary to those who break away from urban life long enough to simply stare into Lake Crescent’s soulful depths. The effect on people today, living in a society increasingly inundated by the deafening white noise of known facts, might even be more profound than it was on the first local settlers.

To look into the waters of any lake with no bottom, even if just in the imagination, is to loosen one’s grip on the tyranny of what is known and embrace the mystery of what is not.

A UNIQUE QUALITY of Lake Crescent is that what is known ranks almost as high on the fascination scale as what can be imagined.

The lake formed in a deep valley scar from glaciers that receded about 11,000 years ago, and took its present shape about 1,000 years later, when one or more massive earthquakes — the sort of 9.0-plus temblors we all fear today — prompted a massive landslide that cut today’s Lake Sutherland off from the east end of Lake Crescent.

The oral tradition of ancient residents, the Klallam tribe, backs up this story, mirroring, in the important ways, the geologic theory: Lake Sutherland was split off, according to legend, when nearby, 4,537-foot Mount Storm King, angered by fighting between the Klallam and Quileute peoples, cast a massive boulder between them to stop the fighting, says Jamie Valadez, a Lower Elwha/Klallam tribal member. It separated the big lake tribal members called Tsulh-mut into two pieces, the smaller becoming little Lake Sutherland.

The cataclysmic event was significant in ways not visible today. The lake formerly drained through Indian Creek, on the east end, into the Elwha River system, geologists believe. The landslide made Crescent’s level rise by up to 80 feet, forcing the water to find a new exit. It now drains north to the strait through the Lyre River. This rise in lake level is evidenced by obvious former shorelines and even submerged, standing forests of trees, both observed by modern scuba divers.

This was a defining biological moment, as well. Migratory fish that once traveled through the Elwha system were trapped forever in Lake Crescent (waterfalls on the Lyre River block their passage). These once-anadromous fish, notably the lake’s impressive steelhead, evolved into their own species. Today, their ancestors, Lake Crescent’s “Beardslee” rainbow trout, are unchallenged kings of the deep water.

Fishermen, over the years, have brought home lunker rainbows tipping the scales at up to 23 pounds. Today’s fish aren’t quite as large but remain robust, says Sam Brenkman, chief fisheries biologist for Olympic National Park. They’re also unique — a national, natural treasure swimming quietly, out of sight.

“Compared to 25 other rainbow/steelhead populations, they’re just off-the-chart genetically distinct,” Brenkman says.

Like other wonders of the Olympic Peninsula, this is driven primarily by geographic isolation. Also, the lack of nutrients in the lake make it a tough place for other species to live. Over the years, a number of hatchery trout introduced here have been driven right out of the neighborhood — likely consumed — by the feisty locals.

The lake’s Crescenti, or cutthroat trout, which spawn in Barnes Creek and some portions of the Lyre River, are similarly impressive: Their size, up to 12 pounds, is among the largest for coastal cutthroat in the U.S. Both species were touted by local tourist boosters in the lake’s resort heydays, a century ago, as the hardest-fighting trout in the world.

“I really think they represent a unique evolutionary legacy,” Brenkman says, “one worthy of protection.”

Park watchers in past decades have been critical of the lack of action to study and protect Lake Crescent’s unique, legendary fish. But recent restrictions on fishing appear to be providing the park time to catch up on a century of inadequate science.

Concerns about the survival of Beardslee, or “blueback” trout, nearly fished to extinction at various times, have eased somewhat since the park switched to strict, catch-and-release sport-fishing rules in 2000. Populations are estimated by counting spawning nests, or redds — all of which, for Beardslee trout, are found in the gravel of a single, shallow area at the Lyre River outlet. Beardslee redd counts rebounded from a dangerous low of 37 before the fishing-rule change to more than 350 by 2007, and have dipped only slightly since then, Brenkman says.

Some anglers still pursue the trout, but the new rules forbid the use of downriggers and other deep-fishing gear. Many fishers still give it a go, however, trolling flies and lures. Not for a fish on the table, but for a bucket-list fishing experience in a place that time literally seems to have forgotten.

THESE DAYS, even in the magical summer months, Lake Crescent’s waters, amazingly, might be occupied by fewer people than on a typical day a century ago.

It’s true that thousands of people “visit” the lake today via a modern highway, U.S. 101. But few of them ever step out of their cars to stroll in the old-growth forests or breathe the mist of fragile waterfalls, let alone test the bone-chilling waters.

That wasn’t always the case. Lake Crescent was valued as a vacation retreat from reality from not long after the time it was “discovered” by white settlers around 1860, notes Clallam County writer Alice Alexander in a recent book, “Lake Crescent — Gem of the Olympics.”

The first white homesteaders, John Everett and John Sutherland, named the two lakes after themselves. “Sutherland” stuck, “Everett” did not. Trails connected the lakes to communities such as Port Crescent (the likely source of the lake’s current name), to the north, and south to the Forks/Sappho area.

Settlers wound up clumping into four small communities: Fairholme, Piedmont, Barnes Point and East Beach. Linking them, eventually, was a series of steam-powered water taxis and, later, ferries. Through the 1950s, Crescent’s lakeshore resorts prospered, bearing names that linger in local landmarks and legends: the Hotel Crescent and Log Cabin Hotel on the northwest shore; the Marymere Hotel and Singer’s Lake Crescent Tavern (now Lake Crescent Lodge) and the Rosemary Inn at Barnes Point; Qui Si Sana sanatorium and Ovington’s Resort on the north shore.

The road around the south shore, now U.S. Highway 101, was completed in 1922. After Olympic National Park sprang into being in 1937, the lake’s resorts, along with private homes around the lake, were grandfathered into the new federal property. The park service over the years has acquired some of the larger parcels, but about 100 private “inholdings” remain along the lakeshore.

LAKE CRESCENT, it seems, makes headlines these days only when it gives up an old secret, such as the 2002 discovery of the wreck of a 1927 Chevrolet that carried a missing couple, Blanch and Russell Warren, to a watery grave in July 1929.

Mostly, it just lies quietly as an oft-seen, but little-appreciated, treasure; not because of what happens here, but what doesn’t. Creeping aerial pollution — such as mercury contamination found in nearby Olympic alpine lakes — is a concern. But to a large degree, Lake Crescent seems almost as pure today as when we found it, says Fradkin, the lake biologist.

The watershed around the lake lies almost completely within the park; most is designated wilderness. Tests show trace amounts of pollutants from the highway, but the limited number of septic systems at the lake’s two remaining resorts, and remaining inholder homes, don’t appear to be degrading water quality.

Official prognosis: “Lake Crescent is very healthy,” Fradkin says.

It looks the part. Water clarity, measured by dropping a “Secchi disk” into the water and recording how far down it remains visible, is on average a remarkable 72 feet.

Crescent’s crystal clarity comes from a lack of nitrogen and nutrients in the water: It’s a straight shot for rain and snow melt from steep surrounding mountains into the lake, providing little chance for organic matter to hitchhike a ride and sully the lake.

Fradkin and other scientists, being scientists, fret over the possible introduction of invasive species. But the clearest thing of all about this clear lake today is that it remains mostly unspoiled.

The lake has its moods, hides its secrets and continues to spawn legends alongside its spectacular trout. That’s one reason that the myth of the bottomless lake, here and elsewhere, might qualify as one piece of science-denial that actually serves a purpose. No obvious signage along the lake rats out its true depth. Here’s one vote for keeping it that way.

People who stare, even for a moment, into Lake Crescent’s crystal depths will get it: When it comes to passion for the natural world, mystery has value. Precision fights magic. Measurements are exact, but also confining. Bottomless goes on forever.

Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.



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