07-15-2020 A Day at Crane Prairie Reservoir

Crane Prairie Reservoir is a large, shallow reservoir  created in 1922

We woke slowly after such a dark and quiet night.  There are so many different lakes in the chains of Cascade Lakes that we had to make a decision whether we wanted to explore or to stay home on our firs day.  After spending yesterday driving, we decided that we would stay home and enjoy our local campground and lake for a day before attempting to explore any more of the beautiful Cascade Lakes that were scattered along the Cascade Lakes Highway
Kayaking in the early part of the day always seems best.  Usually the winds aren’t strong and the sun is still not high overhead.  It can get really hot out on the water in a kayak without much protection.  We launched right after morning coffee with a plan to stay out on the water for a reasonable amount of time and then return home for a more substantial breakfast.

It was a personal test for me.  Could I still manage to get in and out of the kayak?  On the previous day, when we loaded up the boats at home, I was relieved to find out that lifting the boat and strapping it down didn’t cause me any problems.  My arms are still strong enough and my legs can still hold me up ok for that job, especially early in the morning when I am strongest.  The test yet to come was getting back out of the boat, and that thought was in the back of my mind as we slid out onto the water.  Getting into the boat wasn’t a problem at all with the shallow, sandy beach. 

Notice the underwater fire pit

South Sister on the left, Broken top in the middle, and Mt Bachelor (famous ski mountain) on the right

Before the dam was built in 1922, the area was covered by prairie and served as a habitat for cranes, which was the inspiration for the name of the lake. The construction of the original rock-filled dam flooded most of Crane Prairie and parts of the nearby forest, killing many trees. In order to recover timber, the reservoir was drained on a regular basis. Because of leakage through the original rock-filled dam, in 1940 the Bureau of Reclamation rebuilt the dam as an earthfill structure 36 feet in height and 285 feet in length. When full, the reservoir has a capacity of 55,300 acre feet.

Crane Prairie Reservoir is part of the larger Deschutes Project by the Bureau of Reclamation, which also includes Wickiup Reservoir, Haystack Reservoir, the Crooked River Pumping Plant, and North Unit Main Canal. The project was created to supply irrigation water for a total of 97,000 acres of land in the vicinity of the town of Madras which is north of Bend, Oregon.

In late summer, the reservoir is lowered as water for irrigation is withdrawn from it, leaving large areas of the lakebed exposed. We were especially lucky on this trip because our timing was just right.  The lake was very full, and yet as we drove past Wickiup on our way south, that reservoir was so low there was no water at the west end. Both lakes have moderately alkaline water with a high mineral content, slightly higher than the waters of other lakes in the region. Sometimes during the summer the water’s pH level is exceptionally high, caused by the algae that often reach bloom proportions. Much like Klamath Lake, phosphorus concentration in the lake is high and the lake will sometimes turn green as pea soup.  Our camp host told us that about two week previous to our visit the lake was completely green. One of the issues with having to make reservations to camp at any of the local campgrounds is that there is no way of knowing when you make the reservation whether the lake will be low and the water might be green. 

We discovered that Crane Prairie Reservoir is one of the most important wildlife viewing areas in central Oregon. The lake is dotted with tall stumps of the flooded trees which now provide nesting places for osprey and the reservoir is home to the largest nesting colony in the Pacific Northwest. Other species of birds include bald eagles, cormorants, blue herons, kingfishers, sandhill cranes, and Canada geese. In 1970, the Crane Prairie Osprey Management Area was established here to protect this special haven.

On our first morning kayaking the lake, we paddled south toward the outlet of the Deschutes River.  Our plan was to stay out only an hour before turning back, making sure that all my parts were working properly and that I wouldn’t get worn out so much I couldn’t get out of the boat.

It was a lovely paddle, with mostly calm winds and clear water until we approached the southern end of the lake where algae was accumulating in the water and the bugs found us.  As the sun rose higher, it was time to turn around.  We didn’t make it all the way to the river, but there is always next time.  We did see an eagle, cormorants, ospreys, and several types of ducks. 

Once we got back to our little beach, I made a small attempt to rise from my boat, and realized that my original plan for getting out of the kayak was needed.  I simply slid my legs over the side and rolled into the water on my knees.  It worked perfectly.  Looks like I will be able to continue kayaking for a bit longer without having to worry about getting in and out as long as we find nice smooth launch sites with no current to take the boat away while exiting.  I was thrilled to say the least, and all that underlying worry was gone.

We settled in after our late breakfast in our chairs, opening our awning for some nice shade and read our kindles to while away the hours until we decided it was time to do a bit of exploring in the car.  Cultus Lake wasn’t too far from where we were camped and it looked like an inviting place.  Within a few miles, we were driving up the graveled road to the resort and were shocked to find a completely different atmosphere from our laid back family campground.  Cultus Lake Resort was busy and crowded, and the beach was full of people with all sorts of water craft and kids.  It was noisy. 

The lake itself was quite lovely, deep and dark blue and I would imagine with it being a lake rather than a reservoir it might not turn green or lose water to an irrigation project.  We checked out the nearby campground, which was incredibly tight and crowded, and completely full.  I think it might be a nice place at a different time of year, but in spite of the beautiful lake, we weren’t particular entranced and made no plans to return.  Our favorite kind of kayaking includes inlets and side streams and waterways that we can explore and this pretty blue lake seemed to have every shoreline completely visible from where we stood at the parking area.

Back to camp after our foray we had another easy supper of great food brought from home.  As evening approached the afternoon winds died down a bit and we again launched at our little beach.  This time we paddled in the opposite direction, around the small peninsula at the other end of the campground toward the Crane Prairie Resort and a full hookup RV campground.  The camp looked quite extensive through the trees, and the little store was small and tidy.  We had visited the resort the previous afternoon so had no need to get out of the boats.  When we checked it out we saw that on the door was a sign saying only 4 people at a time were allowed inside and only if they were masked. 

It was a perfect sunny warm day in a quiet campground with a great view and a sweet little beach.  Perfect kayak weather, dark night skies, and a roaring campfire and roasted marshmallows to complete the evening. We needed a good night’s rest because our adventure for the next day included an early departure with plans to kayak the beautiful Elk Lake as early in the morning as we could manage.


Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

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