November 17 2017
Before Cave Creek trickles through the dining hall of the historic Chateau at the Oregon Caves, it pools into a small, penny-filled pond. It's a sparkling blue-sky day last July, and I'm sitting on the pool's bank watching as a butterfly zips about the maidenhair ferns and thimbleberry bushes at the water's edge. An American Dipper flitters in and out of the pond. On a day as beautiful as this, I have to question what could possibly compel me to spend the next three hours in a dark, wet cave.
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve is home to what's called a "solution cave." This type of cave is formed when underground water and naturally occurring acids dissolve rocks and minerals while passing through pores and fissures. This particular cave has about 15,000 feet of passageways formed over millions of years as water seeped down from the old-growth coniferous forests above. Unlike most solution caves, this is a rare instance of one formed in marble rather than the more common limestone or gypsum.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft established the cave as a 480-acre national monument. In 2014, Congress designated the two-fifths of a mile that Cave Creek travels underground—lovingly and somewhat disconcertingly called the River Styx—as the first subterranean National Wild and Scenic River. At the same time, Congress protected 4,070 acres of the river's watershed as a National Preserve to safeguard the water that flows through the cave's fragile ecosystem. This cave system is home to several endemic species, including the springtail and cave crickets. These insects are found no other place in the world. In total darkness, they find their way around with long, slender antennae and use their body fluids as a sort of antifreeze in the constant 44-degree environment.
The River Styx would soon guide me through the disorienting experience of leaving this moment under the sun and descending into the earth—just as it did for the cave's first recorded discoverer, Elijah Davidson, in 1874.
Legend goes that Elijah was hunting with his dog, Bruno, when Bruno chased a bear and seemed to disappear into the mountainside. Elijah raced after him and stumbled upon a dark opening in the rock. Proving the love between a man and his dog, he lit a match and headed in. When his last match burned out, Elijah was in total darkness, unable to see even his hand in front of his face. Then, he heard the trickling of water. Remembering the stream he'd seen flowing out of the entrance, he crawled on his hands and knees until he found the river. He then followed its flow until he spotted a pinprick of light again at the cave's opening.
As the park's artist-in-residence, I was intrigued by the chance to experience a little of what Elijah had. I quickly signed up to join two National Park Service rangers and six other park visitors on an off-trail caving expedition into the belly of the Siskiyou Mountains. But once I actually arrived there, I felt a jolt of fear.
There's tightness in my chest as I contemplate entering this unknown world. Will I panic, and embarrass myself? Will I take a wrong step and get hurt? These are the anxieties we face at night, asking, pleading: Will everything be ok? Will we make it through this darkness back into the light? A cave is like a metaphor for our unknown futures. It seems strange, in a way, that people travel from around the world for a chance to experience this vertiginous underworld, this place where the green of life becomes a pigment of our imagination.
Although it's 93 degrees on the surface this July day, it will be chilly in the cave. As we gear up, Ranger Kat shares her techniques for keeping cool in our caving suits as we wait in the heat to go over safety protocol and caving etiquette. We mimic her seasoned moves, each of us folding down the tops of our canvas onesies to tie the arms around our waists. Her and Ranger Dana's enthusiasm for caving and for this park helps calm my nerves and increase my excitement.
At last, we zip up our suits and feel the first refreshing burst of the cave's natural air conditioning. Soon, I'm crawling on my belly through the mud. I'm navigating through tight, jagged tunnels and scrambling over large boulders and rock piles. The vibrancy of the world I know has been swapped for a color pallette of browns and grays. It feels like we are in the womb of the world. We lie together on a slab of marble, another slab inches from our faces, and turn off our headlamps. In complete darkness, we listen to the cave's only sound: water. Drip, drop, drop, drip.
Ranger Dana guides us through a meditation and encourages us to contemplate the very beginnings of this cave's formation up through its designation as a national monument and to this moment we now share. I smile. Somehow, in this moment under the earth, in a region known for its active fault lines, I let go of my fears. In this moment, I find peace with the unknown.
The rangers instruct us on solving our next "caving problem" of getting through the narrow slot on which we're lying. Ranger Kat recommends rolling "like a taquito at a gas station." She laughs, and rolls on ahead. I joyously roll after her.
It has been hours of climbing and squeezing through the cave when we see it—a faint bit of light ahead, brighter and more welcoming than any headlamp. We exit to the sun and walk the trail back down the mountain to the visitor's center. I chuckle as I imagine how elated Elijah must have felt as he exited the cave to find his dog Bruno waiting for him.
The Siskiyou Mountains have birthed me back into the world with renewed appreciation for life's basic senses. The birds are chirping. Summer's heat rests easily on my skin. The leaves display a brilliant green. The cave's icy taste lingers on my tongue, as I breathe in the forest's sweetness.
Everything is ok. We made it back into the light.