Shortly after the Harley-Davidson Sportster rumbled to a halt my sister’s son — one of the main reasons I ventured to Oregon from my summer assignment in California — came out of her house and greeted me. He had flown from New York with his family to visit his mother, and I hadn’t seen him since he was in high school.
After I removed the layers of clothing I went in the house and met his wife and toddler son for the first time. I met his wife’s parents, too, who also came along on the trip to see Oregon. After some visiting we discussed what folks would like to do while in the southern Oregon region. We decided to visit Oregon Caves National Monument.
A friend of my sister Mary’s arrived so she could see Robbie again and meet his family. Four of them clambered into a rented van and drove the 20 crooked miles up the mountain to the caves and I followed on the motorcycle. The aroma of wood smoke could be detected in the air.
On the 900-foot walk from the parking lot to the Visitor Center, I plucked the lime green new growth off the branch tip of a Douglas fir tree and popped in my mouth and chewed it. Robbie and his wife tried it and, to my surprise, did not spit it out. Robbie said is tasted citrusy, which it does.
At the ticket counter all five of us were asked if we had been in any other caves in recent years. Robbie’s wife translated for her father, because he is Chinese and did not speak English. He and I answered affirmative.
“Are you wearing any of the clothing today that you wore in those caves?” asked the National Park Service ticket clerk. Both of us said we were not. “You have probably heard of the white nose syndrome bats are dying from in the U.S. We don’t have it in this cave yet and we want to keep it out.”
We got our tickets and waited for the guide.
“Hi, my name is Brent Arnold and I will be your cave guide today.” Brent went over some rules to follow in the cave and demonstrated how to move in low-ceiling areas. Brent then had everyone introduce themselves to the group, one at a time, by name and where we were from. Then we walked to the entrance where Brent began a story.
“In 1874 Elijah Davidson was hunting with his dog Bruno. Bruno disappeared but Elijah could hear the dog barking at something. Elijah followed the sound and found the cave entrance of which he entered. Elijah lit a match to see his way in the dark cave.”
As we stood at the entrance we could see and hear the Stick River coming out of the cave. A very cold breeze came from the entrance and I knew the UWSP Fire Crew polar fleece I brought with me was not going to be enough to keep me warm. But it would have to do.
Brent led us into the Cave and continued the story about Elijah and Bruno. Elijah had only three matches and when he burnt those up he decided to exit the cave. He got on his hands and knees and crawled out in the pitch-black darkness, even through the icy cold water of the creek. Bruno exited shortly after.
The story got around and others came to explore. They found many rooms in the caverns and gave them names like the Wedding Chapel and the Big Room. Brent told us how the caves were carved by flowing water and how the stalactites and stalagmites formed with water moving calcium deposits around.
Brent told us how a skeleton of a prehistoric black panther was found in the river running through the cve. He also showed us the bones of a black bear cub in a glassed in case. Both, he speculated, got lost in the cave and could not find their way out.
He showed us where a geology professor and his students wrote their names on some of the formations with pencil. In 10,000 years, he said, the signatures will be covered up with calcium deposits. Early visitors of the cave broke some stalactites off for souvenirs.
The cave guide told us how a number of species of bats hibernate in the cave during the winter. We did see two bats hanging from the ceiling. Brent guided us out through a tunnel that had been blasted through the rock by the CCC during the 1930s. Brent thanked us for touring the Caves and pointed toward a trail that would take people up and over the slab of marble that the caves were carved in.
Gregg Jennings is a reader, biologist, artist and writer from Washburn. He’s working a summer job for the U.S. Forest Service in California and writing dispatches from the West during his stay.