A real tragedy begets a myth and a legend in this fictional story.
THE WOLF BOY OF CRATER LAKE
There is a legend that grows even as we tell it. So strange and puzzling that no one knows where the truth leaves off and the imaginary part begins. Talked about in awe and wonder all around southern Oregon: Crater Lake and Diamond Lake, Roseburg. In the deep, quiet woods of Chiloquin, Chemult – places like that. But also Klamath Falls and Eugene, and Ashland, and Redding, California, and even places as far away as Boston and New York, Beijing and Johannesburg. The legend of the wolf boy of Crater Lake National Park. Crater Lake – the magnificent, dark lake ringed by steep mountains. Land of the Klamath. Site of the ancient volcano, Mount Mazama, and the two brooding, mysterious Gods of the Indian legend who fought on this sacred ground.
The strangest part is: there are no wolves recorded in our time from Crater Lake. The National Park Service lists fifty-one kinds of mammals in the park, including black bear, long-tailed weasel, fisher, marten, coyote, mountain lion, and four kinds of bats. But no wolves. The nearest recorded populations of gray wolves are in the North Cascades of Washington State, over four-hundred miles to the north.
But there are those – the growing number who swear that they have seen him – the wolf boy being sheltered by a pack of gray wolves. They have seen their camp from binoculars, peering down from the rim toward the deep blue waters of the lake. On a hillside, against the rocks, in the shadow of the mighty firs. Gray shapes and a blond-haired child, clad in jeans and a torn brown coat. Localized to within a few feet with the global positioning system. But every time the search party closes in on them, they find only tracks and prints and maybe the charred remains of a campfire. The wolves and their human companion are gone. They have moved on.
So, we must travel back in time. Back to the beginning. The very beginning of the story of how the legend came to be...
The old Klamath Indian legend told how Skell, the God of the above-world, defeated Llao, the God of the underworld. He collapsed the top of Mount Mazama to imprison Llao forever beneath the world. Skell wanted peace and tranquility to cover up this dark pit, so he filled it with the beautiful blue water.
Many, many years later, Shawn Grothe was born in 1999 to a loving family in Mill Valley, California. He was the middle child of three, with an older sister, Susanna, and a younger sister, Jenna. Shawn’s parents, Dwayne and Julia, loved their son dearly, and he had been a wanted child. But they had known from an early age that their son was unusual. His behavior had been fitful almost since birth. In the first three months they had called it ‘colic’ – that he would not settle down but would shake his tiny limbs in the air, and cry and cry no matter what they did. He refused to be comforted and drove his exhausted family to the edge of distraction.
Shawn had other unusual traits. Some relatives remarked that his light green eyes with yellow flecks reminded them of an animal’s eyes – maybe a cat’s, they weren’t sure. There were times when his family spoke to him when he appeared to be far, far away in his thoughts. His first sentence too was very strange, “I know where it is” was what he said. Why that, of all things, his bewildered parents wondered. By the time he was three they noticed that he had an usually long attention span for certain things. In particular, he would spend hours throwing small colored stones into the pond near their house. Blip, a white stone. Plop. A pink one. It seemed to mesmerize him.
Shawn had one other trait that was worrisome. Whenever there was a loud noise, like an object falling off a shelf, or a backfire, or a thunder clap, the little boy would run and hide, his hands over his ears. Once he had hidden himself behind an old dresser in the attic, cowering in such a small space that it took them three hours of frantic search to find him.
But otherwise, Shawn seemed to be a normal little boy. He liked eating corn dogs and macaroni and cheese with extra cheese, drinking root beer, and playing with Legos, Tinker Toys and his stuffed toys. As he grew to school age he began to enjoy hiking and fishing with his father.
Thus it was not unusual the early autumn day when Dwayne Grothe took his eight-year-old son to visit the beautiful and mysterious Crater Lake, in southern Oregon. Shawn was excited to view the deep, dark blue water in the crater of the old volcano that had collapsed. As they drove along the Rim Road, Dwayne fascinated his young son with the Klamath Indian legend of the great war between two volcanoes, Mount Mazama and Mount Shasta, and the spirit of Llao of the underworld, who had lost the beautiful Loha, and was imprisoned beneath the lake.
Dwayne stopped the car at a spectacular overlook. The turnout was on the opposite side of the road from the lake rim. Shawn opened his door and clambered out.
“Daddy, I want to see where the Indian spirit went,” he said, holding his father’s hand tightly, as if the legend had frightened him some. Far below they could see the shimmering surface of the water. Dwayne suddenly noticed that there was a chill breeze and the feel of an impending snowstorm, even though the sky was as yet cloudless.
“We will, son,” said Dwayne, and approached the road, looking in both directions before they crossed it.
“Oh, forgot the digital camera,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Wait a second, Shawn. I’ll get it.”
Dwayne let go of his son’s hand, and turned back to the car. The boy stood near the road, waiting. His father opened the driver’s door and quickly retrieved what he was looking for. As he did so, a tree branch near them crackled and fell with a thud. Now Dwayne looked up to see his son racing across the traffic lanes.
“Shawn,” he yelled. “Be careful! Wait for me.” He slammed the door and rushed in his son’s direction. No traffic was coming. Dwayne leaped across the two lanes, reached the other side of the road, but Shawn had already disappeared over the rim. He peered over. The slope was steep, covered with deep gravelly soil, dotted with large boulders and clumps of twisted dense whiteback pine, mountain hemlock and red fir trees. The tree line began perhaps fifty feet below the road, and he thought he saw Shawn disappearing into a dense grove of trees. “Shawn, wait!” he called sharply. He squinted for a glimpse of the boy.
“Shawn,” his father yelled again. “where are you? Answer me. Shawn!” He listened. There was no sound except the sighing of the wind in the tree boughs. Dwayne placed his hands around his eyes to sharpen his vision like a pair of binoculars, and peered hard. No sign of his son’s blue jeans, brown coat – which would blend with the dirt – or his blondish head. No detectable movement of any creature.
Alarm shot through Dwayne, though he had seen this behavior before. Many times in fact. Surely Shawn was hiding and would soon come out. Although, he had never run away in a wilderness setting before. Still calling, Dwayne began to ease himself down the steep slope, trying to keep his balance. He called out, louder than before, “Shawn, Shawn. Come out. Where are you. It’s Daddy.” He waited for a reply, or better, his son to come into view. Neither happened.
Dwayne threaded his way between the trees, looking in every direction, now peering behind a boulder, now stooping to look underneath the clusters of dense branches. He thought he’d caught a glimpse of a brown coat a few hundred feet away, from behind a large red fir. Or was it only his mind playing tricks. He sprinted in that direction, stumbling over roots, pushing limbs aside, all the while screaming for his son. He lost his footing on the gravel, slipped and skidded a hundred feet down the slope, biting his tongue as he fell. He tasted blood in his mouth. He got to his feet, feeling for sprained ankles or knees. He was okay. Nothing but a lot of dirt on the back of his pants. And scraped elbows.
Where could the little bugger have got to? Was he hiding? Was he afraid to come out? Or had he fallen and hurt himself? The slope was steep as it descended hundreds of feet from the rim road to the lake’s surface. How far down could the boy have traveled? But he had been gone only a few minutes. “Shawn,” he pleaded now. “Please come back. I have candy for you. Come to Daddy. Please.”
Dwayne looked skyward, and as he did, a patch of cloud covered the sun, making deep shadows on the landscape. Clouds began to move in rapidly from the west, the temperature dropped noticeably and the wind increased. Dwayne zipped his jacket and pulled the collar up around his ears. Shawn. Shawn must be cold too, he worried. “Oh, Shawn,” he wailed, putting his fists to his eyes in despair. “Where are you? Where the hell are you?” Still he kept hoping Shawn was just taunting him and would pop into view.
After searching fruitlessly for almost an hour, Dwayne was close to panic. He was angry, so angry that his son would dart away like that. They’d taught him to be careful. To hold an adult’s hand when crossing the street, especially a busy highway like the rim road. To always let Mommy and Daddy know where he was going. So angry at himself. For letting his son get out of reach, even for a few seconds. He scrambled his way back to the road, waited ten tense minutes before he flagged down a passing car. He had his cell phone, but the signal there was too weak. The motorists drove to park headquarters to alert the authorities.
Soon there were park rangers, state police, and dozens of volunteers from the public massed at the road to get instructions on how to search for the lost little boy. Time was critical. Flakes of snow were beginning to fall from a darkened sky. Surely they would find him. They had to. The light was failing as it was now four in the afternoon. Gusts of wind roared through the pine branches as the crowd huddled and shivered with their arms around themselves. Then they dispersed, fanning out in every direction, but all downhill from the point where Dwayne said Shawn had disappeared.
They searched until night fell and it was too dark to see anything. The volunteers returned to the road but vowed to continue as soon as it was light. Dwayne sat in his Explorer with his head in his hands. He felt so weary, so helpless. Soon his wife, Julia and his daughters, Susanna and Jenna would be arriving. Park headquarters had contacted them at the lodge where the family had been staying. He looked up and saw the lights of their vehicle pull into the turnout through the cold rain that had replaced the snow. Then his wife’s stricken face streaked with tears. The fear in the eyes of his daughters. He reached out for all three of them and they stood in the wind holding each other for a long moment.
It was the longest night of their lives. Spent in the car because they couldn’t leave the scene in case Shawn should be found. Only a few were out there with search lights, braving the snow and rain. Whenever a light appeared, they looked out, hearts pounding, hoping for good news, any news. Huddled in blankets they sat there in the dark, hardly speaking, occasionally dozing. Julia squeezed her husband’s hand and would not let go. Hours went by. The Park Service brought them hot chocolate and coffee. The girls whimpered softly from the back seat.
At around midnight, Dwayne became restless. “Julia,” he said. “I should be out there too. I can’t just sit here while Shawn might be freezing too...” He shoved open the car door.
“No,” his wife said sternly. “Close it. Don’t let more cold air in here. There’s nothing you can do. You’d probably get lost. And freeze to death yourself. It’s pitch dark out there. Leave it to them. For now.” Hours of interminable darkness. Then a cold dawn of more wind and clouds. At midday, streaks of sunshine gave them hope. Sunshine was good. It meant they would find him. But they didn’t.
The second night they were still in the car. Someone brought them food. No one was hungry but they ate a little. Sometime around midnight Julia remembered a story. When Shawn was five or six they had brought him to see the department store Santa. Shawn wanted to tell him he wanted a real horse for Christmas, to ride on, not just a stuffed horse he kept on his bed. He waited patiently in the line, but when Santa saw his strange green eyes, he looked uncomfortable. He refused to let the boy sit on his lap, and excused himself to “go check on the reindeer”. But they waited and waited and Santa didn’t return. How Shawn had cried because now Santa couldn’t bring him a horse ‘cause he didn’t get to ask him. He was inconsolable.
So it went on. And on. For days and what seemed unending days, though it was only five in all. Armies of volunteers dressed in warm clothes and boots, carrying backpacks, space blankets, water, food, first aid supplies. Arriving rested and refreshed, and leaving exhausted and discouraged, being replaced by fresh troops. Dwayne searched too but Julia and the girls stayed behind for fear that they too, would get lost or hurt in the unforgiving mountains.
The third day, someone arrived with a camper so they could use the facilities and get some sleep. They did sleep, fitfully, but their sleep was filled with visions of Shawn. Shawn back with his family where he belonged. At home, playing in the yard. The laughing, playful son they knew so well. Sleeping in his own bed. The nightmare over. But then they jolted into wakefulness again. The cold camper, the rim of Crater Lake. No word. No sign.
They caucused, strategized, shook their heads when every plan failed to find any trace of Shawn. Could he have made it all the way to the lake and fallen in? That was so improbable. It was half a mile straight downhill, and much farther on foot. Every crevice had been combed, every log investigated. The clouds hung darkly over the lake, echoing their feelings. For a while it was so still that nothing seemed to be moving or breathing. Then the wind picked up again, appeared to be mocking them. Mere insignificant humans hoping to conquer the forces of nature. How foolish they all were.
“Why can’t’ they find him?” they all asked over and over, sounding more and more desperate. The head ranger told them sometimes this happens people just disappear in the wilderness and are never found. With each passing hour, each day, the chances their son would be found alive diminished, and they knew it. Exposure, thirst, cold. One or the other would get him. Little Jenna asked, “Daddy, when is Shawn coming home?”
“We don’t know, sweetheart,” he told her, his heart breaking.
At last the searchers, bone weary, went home for good and Julia cried bitterly, “My poor son. I hope he is not suffering. I just don’t want him to suffer. That’s all I want.” She prayed, “tell me he’s all right. He’s going to be all right. Please. Tell me.” Dwayne held her, and felt her sobs surge through his own body. Nothing they could do. Nothing anyone could do. Why would God do this to them?
Then finally the Grothe family went home, empty-handed, to California, and the legend began...
The Klamath Indians began to see visions, to talk among themselves. Llao of the underworld was lonely and seeking a companion. Llao was angry because when he looked over the surface of the water he could not see the beautiful Loha. So Llao had chosen the white boy who he saw quite near the edge of the lake. He lured Shawn closer to the shore of the lake and as soon as he touched the water he would belong to Llao forever and fall to the depths.
But the God Skell, the God of the Above-World intervened in time and sent his guardian animals, the wolves, to rescue Shawn. The wolves were both fierce as well as nurturing, gentle creatures when they needed to be, and Skell tended them well and they came to his aid when summoned. They called the boy with the promise of warmth and protection. His fear evaporated, and he went to the center of their circle, and gave himself into their care.
Unfortunately, by touching the water, Shawn had already received the sting of Llao and could not be returned to the world he had come from, the world of his family. But as long as he remained with the wolves he could stay in the land of the living. Skell had sent the wolves as a signal the world was out of balance and wolves should return to their ancestral homeland. Shawn was picked to be both cared for by the wolves and the messenger of their plight, because he had been so destined from his birth.
So told the Klamath Indians, and they believed the legend. There began to be sightings. Movement in the woods. The warm remains of a campfire here and there. Sparks of light in the darkness. Small animal bones. Gray fur plastered against a log. Ripples in the lake not made by any boats.
Some asked why the park rangers did not take up the search for the missing boy again, but the rangers just shook their heads. There is no boy, they said. He died long ago. It is all a myth, a part of the Indian legend of Mount Mazama. But there were few who knew the story of Shawn’s disappearance, who peered over the plunging rim of Crater Lake, or into the immense depths of its dark blue water who did not wonder if the legend were true .
Copyright 2006 Karen G. Reid