Oregon Caves: Underground trek into ancient geology

Written by The Curry Coastal Pilot June 15, 2012 09:39 pm

A calcite column, flanked on the left by a stalagmite and on the right by a stalactite, was created by 2.5 million years of seeping carbonic acid. Photos courtesy of Barb Gonzalez

CAVE JUNCTION — It made one heck of a great hunting story.

It was the fall of 1874. Accompanied by his hound dog, Bruno, 24-year-old Elijah Davidson had just tracked and shot a deer in a mountainous region of the Siskiyou Range south of Grants Pass. Davidson was preparing to carry the animal out when Bruno took off up the hill, distracted by some other scent.

Davidson left the deer and went in pursuit of his canine friend, whose baying was becoming muffled and distant. Just as he had traced the sound to a small opening in the rocky mountainside, near the point where an underground stream was emerging, he heard yelps mixed with barks and loud snarls. He followed to see what all the commotion was about.

 

 

Keenly aware of the narrow size of the hole he was about to enter, Davidson left his rifle and ammunition outside the portal and shimmied in, armed with only a hunting knife. He turned a corner into pitch-blackness, reached into his shirt pocket for the box of matches he always carried, and lit one.

A whole new world unfolded before his eyes.

A limestone cavern, its calcite formations lined with marble, stretched beyond him into unknown depths. Davidson gasped as he beheld its stalactites, its draperies, its spurs of “cave popcorn.” But still he could hear Bruno in trouble in the distance, and so he pursued, lighting one match after another and marveling at the sights that surrounded him.

Then he ran out of matches. The dog would have to save himself. 

Luckily for him, Davidson’s ears could discern a trickle of water running within the cave. Now on hands and knees, he located the stream and followed it until he could see a distant light. After a three-hour adventure, he emerged to stare into a pair of big brown eyes: Bruno was waiting for him.

Only slightly worse for wear, the dog limped home beside his master to the hamlet of Williams. Davidson shared the story with his disbelieving family, then returned the next morning accompanied by his brother-in-law. Outside the cave entrance, they found the abandoned deer, partially eaten — and lying beside it, a large black bear, sound asleep. The men brought not one but two animals back down the mountain to feed their family.

‘Living rock’

This is the story of Oregon Caves’ discovery as related to me by Derek Neis, a park ranger at Oregon Caves National Monument. Neis has walked through the caverns more than 800 times in the past five years as an interpretive guide, and he no doubt embellishes the story a bit for entertainment value. But the basics are historically documented, and one can only imagine the wonder that accompanies any discovery of terra incognita.

Late last month, I joined Neis and a small group of other park visitors on a 90-minute tour of the caves. Although we covered only two-thirds of a mile in our descent to 220 feet below the Earth’s surface, it was a workout: We went up and down 526 steep steps and duck-walked through some passageways with ceilings only 3½ feet high.

Neis described the cave as “the geological equivalent of a human being” as he compared its different chambers to a mouth, throat, heart and stomach. It is cool, damp and very dark. And although the chambers are relatively intimate — there are no subterranean cathedrals here — they are stunningly rich in their contents.

“This is living rock,” Neis told us. “It continues to grow and change.” Formed of calcite deposited by sea water 250 million years ago, then buried far beneath overlying rock, the calcite metamorphosed into marble – a feature of only about 5 percent of the world’s caves, Neis said. 

Water filtering from the surface over the past 2½ million years created a carbonic acid that seeps through the rock, dissolving it and creating formations on the ceiling of the cave – stalactites, draperies and flowstone.

One chamber, dubbed the Imagination Room, features “moon milk,” a calcite precipitate that doesn’t fully harden but mutates into a variety of odd shapes. (“We call this ‘Cat Stuck in a Drain Pipe,’ ” Neis said as he motioned toward one formation.) Most active in winter, when increased moisture feeds bacteria, moon milk has a texture similar to cottage cheese, our guide said, and it has been used as a healing ointment of similar effectiveness to Neosporin.

Every room of Oregon Caves has a different feel from the next, reflecting the complex geology of the Siskiyou Range. There are a few columns and stalagmites rising from the ground, but many more examples of boxwork, soda straws and stalactites, which hold tight to the ceiling.

Names of such rooms as Petrified Gardens, Banana Grove and Niagara Falls are representative of their integral features. None is more captivating than Paradise Lost, reached by a staircase whose 45 steps are as steep as a ladder. In this intimate domed room, spectacular flowstone formations look like private boxes in an old-time theater, and drapery surrounds visitors like falling parachutes.

Unique species

It is not only rock that lives within the cave system. Federally preserved as a site of “unusual scientific interest,” the Oregon Caves “have more known endemic species than any other cave west of the Mississippi River,” said George Herring, the park’s chief of interpretation.

Those species include 120 creatures, among them harvestmen (“daddy longlegs” spiders), unique translucent insects and eight different bats. The flying mammals are rarely seen by summer visitors (caves are open only from late March to early November), but bats find the grottoes perfect for their winter rest. Among them are Townsend’s big-eared bats and pallid bats that have been recorded to live to 26 years, a remarkable lifespan for these animals.

Davidson’s story notwithstanding, no bears have been seen in the caves in recent years. But the skeletal remains of a black bear, dated at about 3,000 years, are displayed in a cavern near the exit tunnel. And the caves have yielded much older bones, including those of a jaguar carbon-dated at 38,000 years and a grizzly bear of nearly 50,000 years. A consistently humid climate and a constant temperature of about 44 degrees year-round make fossil preservation a sure bet.

Helmets and headlamps are unnecessary on the main cave tour, as the concrete path is lit at regular intervals. But an Off-Trail Adventure – offered twice daily Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the summer – requires not only those accessories but also gloves, kneepads and elbow pads. Visitors who undertake this three-hour escapade are guaranteed to get dirty as they wriggle through passageways with ceilings as low as 12 inches to reach corners of the cave system inaccessible on the everyday tours.

Also in summer, rangers lead nightly Candlelight Tours into the caves. I haven’t taken part in this, but I am told the subterranean world takes on a decidedly different perspective when illuminated by small flames rather than artificial lights.

A little history 

Word of Davidson’s 1874 discovery spread quickly through Southern Oregon. By 1886, two local men had filed a mining claim here, allowing them to begin developing it for tourism. “The development of this park is very much about tourism,” Herring told me.

Herring said that conservationist Joaquin Miller, backed by national-forest director Gifford Pinchot, led a movement to protect the caves from vandalism. That was climaxed when President William Howard Taft declared the site a national monument in 1909.

Despite their location near the Redwoods-to-Crater Lake tourism corridor, annual visitation stood at only about 1,000 per year until the National Forest Service built a gravel automobile road to the caves, replacing a horse trail, in 1920. Within two years, Model Ts were bringing 20,000 annual visitors to the national monument.

The caverns were lit in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression. The economic downturn didn’t stop construction of a six-story hotel. Work began in 1931 on The Chateau at The Oregon Caves National Monument; it was completed three years later with 23 rooms that have since welcomed visitors from around the world.