Dive Into the Eternal Mystery of Old Man of the Lake

Sorcery? An optical illusion? Heatstroke? What's behind Crater Lake National Park's 100-plus-year-old vertically floating log?. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

America’s national parks offer a lot more than bug bites, bear sightings and beautiful sunsets.

Many units of the National Park Service are home to eerie, inexplicable and seemingly otherworldly phenomena. A strange buzzing sound, almost like whispering, originating from the skies about Lake Yellowstone; the enigmatic sailing stones of Death Valley National Park; a lumbering, hirsute humanoid of unknown provenance lurking deep within Olympic National Park.

Established in 1902 as America’s fifth national park (only Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite and Mount Rainer national parks are older), of course Oregon's Crater Lake National Park has long been subject to reports of freaky-deaky goings-on.

Crater Lake is a water-filled volcanic basin formed nearly 8,000 years ago during the eruption and subsequent collapse of Mount Mazama. It's the deepest lake in the United States at a staggering 1,949-feet, and it's steeped in mystery, legend and Native American lore. To the Klamath people, the blindingly blue waters of Crater Lake are sacred — and also home to an ancient evil.

In addition to the requisite Sasquatch and UFO sightings, a smattering of unexplained disappearances, a high number of tragic accidents and suicides and occasional reports of ghostly campfires burning on Wizard Island, Crater Lake is also home to a magical tree stump.

A 1938 sketch of Old Man of the Lake
A 1938 sketch of Old Man of the Lake. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dubbed Old Man of the Lake, the hemlock stump in question — more of a log, really, at over 30-feet-long — has left park-goers scratching their heads for decades.

A stump that stumps

You see, unlike an ordinary log that might placidly drift along the surface of the lake on its side, Old Man of the Lake floats completely upright. That’s right, a log that bobs along in a vertical fashion, its splintered and sun-bleached head, roughly 4.5 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter, poking up above the surface of the ultra-crystalline lake. You’d think that Old Man of the Lake was actually the tip-top of a still-standing tree — until you remember that the lake is thousands of feet deep and that rooted trees don’t change locations based on the direction of the wind.

A ranger stands atop Old Man of the Lake to prove its exceptional buoyancy.
A ranger stands atop Old Man of the Lake to prove its exceptional buoyancy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

And Old Man of the Lake doesn’t just float — it hustles. Capable of traveling nearly 4 miles in a day and buoyant enough to support the weight of a man standing atop it, you’d think that there’s a motor down there propelling it. And in the decades that the Old Man of the Lake has been observed, it’s never once drifted completely ashore.

As reported by former park naturalist John E. Doerr Jr. in a September 1938 dispatch titled “Wind Currents in Crater Lake as Revealed by the Old Man of the Lake,” the “earliest accurate date of [the stump’s] existence” was in 1929. It was around this time that the nomadic hemlock stump was bestowed with a proper moniker and became something of a must-see curiosity for park visitors.

However, government-employed geologist Joseph S. Diller became infatuated/perplexed by the log some years prior to its official "discovery." He mentions the mysteriously floating object in his landmark geological survey on the lake published in 1902, the same year Crater Lake National Park was established. The 1902 observations of Diller, who was sent to Crater Lake in the late 19th century to study rock formations (not weird logs), are widely considered to be first written account of the then-nameless stump.

Old Man of the Lake, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake's mildly famous vertically floating tree stump has proven to be a boating obstacle. (Photo: Greg Willis /flickr)

You can't keep a good log down

From July 1 through Oct. 1, 1938, Old Man of the Lake’s whereabouts were tracked by Doerr and park ranger Wayne Kartchner on an almost daily basis as requested by a federal inquiry. Eighty-four different location records around the lake were documented during the three-month period.

Noting that Old Man of the Lake — sometimes "mistaken for a boat, and occasionally for a white pelican" — traveled "extensively, and at times with surprising rapidity" during the observation period, Doerr estimated the log's total travels to be a minimum of 62.1 miles around and about the lake.

Observed Doerr:

The outstanding feature of the travels of ‘The Old Man,’ as shown by the accompanying sketches, is that during July and August and the first half of September it traveled almost entirely within the north half of the lake. This certainly indicates that during that time there was a prevailing southerly wind which was deflected locally by the crater walls to the extent that numerous eddys and cross currents were created, thus accounting for the continuous back and forth movement of the floating stump. It is interesting to note that long the northern shore of Crater Lake there are noticeable wave terraces of gravel and debris. The terraces, not present on the southern shore, are additional evidence of prevailing southerly winds.

Obviously, Old Man of the Lake gets around. But this still doesn’t solve the mystery of how it manages to defy the laws of physics — park-goers unaware of its reputation may be lead to believe that they're hallucinating and/or have gotten way too much sun — by floating in an upright position.

As theorized by Doerr, Old Man of the Lake initially entered the water hundreds of years ago during a massive landslide. At the time, the stump possessed a complex root system embedded with numerous heavy rocks. The weight of these rocks stabilized the base of the log and caused it to float vertically.

Getting up close and personal with the Old Man of the Lake.
The submerged portion of Old Man of the Lake is covered with thick layers of lake moss. (Photo: NPS)

Will this Old Man ever retire?

Mystery solved?

Not quite. While Doerr's assessment might have been dead-on in the late 1930s, Old Man of the Lake's buoying rocks have long since fallen to the bottom of the lake and the root system has decayed. Under normal circumstances, this would cause the log to eventually sink as well. Yet somehow, this Old Man keeps on bobbin’ upright.

Explains John Salinas in a 1996 volume of “Nature Notes from Crater Lake:”

Some have suggested that when the Old Man slipped into the lake, he had rocks bound within his roots. This might naturally make him float vertically, though no rocks appear to still be there. At any rate, the submerged end could become heavier over time through being waterlogged. Acting like the wick on a candle, the shorter upper portion of the Old Man remains dry and light. This apparent equilibrium allows the log to be very stable in the water.

So there we have it. Despite no longer being weighed down by rocks, the base of Old Man of the Lake is waterlogged just so that the stump remains oriented upright with its top remaining exceptionally well-preserved thanks to the pure, unpolluted waters of Crater Lake.

Root structure and rocks aside, it’s still fun to imagine that something else is at play — an unseen force or supernatural entity. Perhaps the nefarious chief spirit of the lake, Llao, is responsible.

Old Man of the Lake, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Don't underestimate the power of Crater Lake National Park's famed vertically floating log. (Photo: NPS)

And, in fact, an apocryphal incident that occurred in the late 1980s does suggest the Old Man of the Lake might be capable of much more than just floating upright.

During a 1988 submarine expedition of Crater Lake, scientists opted to restrain Old Man of the Lake and moor it near the eastern shore of Wizard Island as the stump could have proven to be a navigational hazard. Coincidentally, Wizard Island is the part of the lake most strongly associated with Llao, god of the Below-World.

Once Old Man of the Lake was bound in place, the weather immediately took a turn for the worse as a large and menacing storm rolled in. This obviously made the scientists skittish, so they untethered the log and allowed it to float freely. And just like that, the winds subsided, the clouds parted and skies above America's most strikingly beautiful lake were clear once again.

1938 sketch of Old Man of the Lake: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Photo of ranger standing atop Old Man of the Lake: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Photo of Old Man of the Lake at sunset: NPS