Friday, October 26, 2012

Into an Ice Cave

I’m in an ice cave, one of Lava Bed National Monument’s many lava tubes (caves), but one of the few that sometimes has ice or water in its depths.  It is blessedly cool in here.  Quite dark.  A little damp.  Almost quiet.  One big fly buzzes about in this monstrous acoustical chamber, every few minutes one drip of water splats, and after sitting quietly in the darkness I finally hear the flutter of wings.  

Dale and I have come to this cave in the hopes of watching birds come to drink.  There is no surface water on the Monument, except for brief puddles after a rain.  When this cave has water, it is a magnet for thirsty birds.  

End of summer is always dry here, but this summer has been unusually dry.  I’m surprised there is any water here this year.  Many years there isn’t.  When I first asked at the visitor’s center if this cave has water they said they didn’t think so.  But luck, in the form of an unlucky bobcat, was with me.  When I stopped to ask a different question yesterday, the ranger remembered me.  She said a bobcat had died in the cave and when a ranger went to remove it, he saw water.  The bobcat probably explains the fly buzzing about.  

By the time we reach the entrance to the collapsed lava tube I can’t help but wonder if I dragged Dale off on a wild goose chase.  Hot, dusty and birdless getting here.  We did see a couple of very small lizards along the trail.  

A lava tube is an empty tube where once a river of lava flowed inside a thickening lava flow.  The roof of this lava tube has two collapsed sections of roof.  When we pass the first opening several birds fly out.  There was even a flock of quail down there!  Suddenly the trek feels worth the effort.  The second opening has a trail built down into the cave. 
We need to be half billy goat and eventually we need to use our flashlights. Soon we are tucked in the darkness sitting on very uncomfortable basalt.  The chamber is about fifty feet tall.  I see indirect light ahead coming from the first opening and a little light comes from behind me, just enough light for me to sketch.  The rest of the tube stretches off into utter blackness.
Once we get used to the darkness we can see about a hot tub full of clean water surrounded by a tumble of broken boulders.  The birds arrive via the first entrance.  They have to adjust to the darkness too.  A Townsend’s solitaire approaches cautiously.  This one clings to the side wall first high in the cave, then perches lower down on a tiny ledge where it is darker.  

Finally he is on a boulder near the water.  Another has been coming down, flying from one boulder to another.  Each leg of the journey is a short flight and then a little wait.  We hear the flutter of their wings on the way down.  Soon we have six solitaires drinking.  There isn’t room for more unless one is especially acrobatic.  

One sip after another.  I’ve counted up to twenty sips.  The birds are vey wary and quiet.  If one spooks, all fly out.  Soon a juncoe comes for water and a robin.  Mostly solitaires.  Only one is brave enough to take a quick bath.  When we came several years ago a Cooper’s hawk came into the cave.  The little birds have good reason to be wary.  

I honestly think I could sit in this cave from dawn until dusk.  I find each minute fascinating.   After an hour we both feel as though our butts have been reformatted into angular depressions .  Must remember to bring a good cushion if I ever think I’m going to spend that long day here.  


  1. Wow Elva, this is utterly amazing! and a bit scary! The birds must be terribly thirsty to brave this, what I might call, 'ordeal'. But it obviously is quite a life-saver for them. I applaud your braveness in entering this lava tube, I'd rather sit on the highest branch of the tallest tree! Smile!

    1. I hope I didn't give the impression the lava tube is still warm. It's been cold for hundreds of years. Very solid now ... but full of jumbled rocks that fell when it formed.

    2. Not at all Elva! I presumed it was long dead, but we have nothing like that here in Soth Africa, the closest would be caves, and not visited by birds at all {except for bats}. And I find even caves scary! lol!

  2. I love this post, I remember camping at Lava Beds with a collage friend, we explored maybe a dozen caves/lave tubes, some went down in the center of the campgrounds and you could come up at the other end. Some involved crawling and flashlights. Also nice hikes to some of the bigger ones, in the "badlands." And lots of history with the Modoc Indian wars. Thank you for the great memories, Amy in Roseburg.

  3. Not sure I could go into a cave like that, but its fun reading about your adventures. More great sketches here.