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Diving into a time capsule

Searching for the one place at Lost Lake that is still truly hidden might be easier than you think

August 27, 2005

Years ago, trail builders beat the path around Lost Lake into a five-foot wide, wheel chair-accessible cordon that gets trampled every summer by tens of thousands of curious critters and visitors.

A small campground grew into what is now crowded, paved chaos during peak summer months; a host to nearly 70,000 visitors annually.

Day use barbecues, fire pits, restrooms, fish-cleaning stations, boat launches, about 70 paddle and row boats, pavilions, parking lots, R.V. availability, 125 campsites, six rental cabins and a grand old log lodge.

It’s all there, screaming into the serenity of this beautiful lake.

But much of Lost Lake is still lost.

Better said, much of Lost Lake may never be found.

Today my buddy and I set out to explore some of the lake’s last untouched terrain.

Having not accounted for the extra buoyancy of a second wetsuit and neoprene hood – pulled tightly over an already constricting first layer that is cutting off the blood supply to my extremities — I am forced to stuff the pockets of my buoyancy control device with lake rocks so I can scuba dive, not snorkel.

My dive buddy, with a considerably larger midsection than mine, has the same problems. With a borrowed wetsuit two sizes too small and bursting at the seams, it seems he can not bend down far enough to grab rocks for his pockets. Cradling a stone the size of his head, we double check our PSI gauges and walk backwards into the cool waters of Lost Lake.

Scuba diving in the Hood River Valley is an uncommon activity. The closest place to get certified or rent equipment is Gresham.

Waters around here are cold, rivers are swift and visibility is often clouded by silt and runoff. Although not ideal in the world of scuba diving, Lost Lake is by far the clearest, safest and most accessible underwater world in the valley. It holds crayfish, salamanders, Kokenee salmon and rainbow, brook, cutthroat and brown trout.

At 3,500 feet, Lost Lake is snow melt, creek and spring fed. It’s cold, and has an average visibility of about 40 feet.

For non-divers, snorkeling the shallow edges of the lake is strikingly rewarding, as visibility is consistently about 40 feet and most of the action and scenery lies at about 10 feet deep.

Good diving conditions in tropical waters, by contrast, offer more than 100 feet in visibility. The water is 80 degrees. The presence of bright aquatic life swarms around you.

Skimming the floor and raising silt clouds that rise, expand and drift like the desert sand storm, we pass over items lost overboard; items like a rusty old knife, sunglasses, antique fishing lures and collectible-old Coke bottles. The silt – dirt and dust that sank and settled over thousands of years—swallows anything heavy.

Crawdads conspire under rocks and logs. Trekking between them like nomads across the Sahara, they wave their pinchers at us as we pass overhead.

At 28 feet deep the water temperature drops from cool to a bone-chilling 40 degrees in a matter of only inches. Suddenly my second wetsuit doesn’t seem so excessive. The inversion layer is visible. It’s distinct.

It is warm and light floating on cold and dark on a perfect plane across the lake.

It is water that won’t mix.

According to local history, the first Europeans saw the lake in 1880, from a vantage point on the north face of Mount Hood. Brothers Jon and Joe Diver led an expedition from Hood River to find the lake. Due to smoke from a wildfire, their search lasted three days before they located the 290-acre body of water.

A second theory on the origin of the name Lost Lake lies deeper than the Diver brothers. According to legend, local Native Americans called it the “Lake of Lost Souls.”

At 30 feet I spot a crawdad the size of a ferret tracking footprints up the silt toward warmer water. Those tracks are everywhere, emerging from the deep and headed toward shore. I grab the beast behind its pinchers so as not to draw blood from my numb fingers—at this depth blood comes out blue. With it flailing frantically in my hand, I turn to my partner intending to play a little practical joke.

Laughing underwater is difficult. One look at his florescent blue lips shivering around his regulator, his wide eyes, and his clenched white knuckles nearly frozen to his primitive buoyancy stone makes me smile wide enough to break the seal around my mask and fill it with ice water.

With ice cream headaches and frozen digits, we’re forced to turn back at 39 feet, leaving the dark and desolate majority of the lake behind us, sinking to a depth of 167 feet, lost still and frozen in time.

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