Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ape Cave, Mt St Helens, WA

I haven't been able to load pix for a few days, probably because of the rain. Which will last the next week. Thick, heavy, wet, Noah-build-an-ark rain. So here's a story about a fun place to visit. You enter the cave in the middle and most folks walk down. But if you go up you can have some fun rock scrambling(flashlight in the teeth), and climb out a hole in the ceiling. I went with my sister's cub scout troup, and we came back to a dead starter in the mini van. And we shocked and amazed other cave hikers as we replaced the starter in the parking lot(dear BIL to the rescue!).

Sept 3, 2005

Deep in Bigfoot country on the south slope of Loowit(others call it Mt St Helens), under a pelt of scrubby young firs and scraggly wind beaten uncle firs, a crack in the ground reveals an old lava tube. Years ago a few bushwhacking Boy Scouts discovered the cave and named it for the Abominable Forest Man, thinking it was the perfect place for his lair.
A steaming live volcano lurks in the near distance. The land has the air of frequent destruction. The braided meandering bed of the Lewis River lies wide in ashy sand and cobblestones. Ape Cave is the remains of a lava river that flowed two thousand years ago. As the edges of the flowing lava cooled, the sides and the ceiling formed.
Long ago lava flowed through the future Ape Cave for about three years, cooling around the edges, bubbling over through cracks. Stone cold now, it stays a constant damp 42 degrees, a fact repeated on signs and by the ranger tour guide--“It’s cold, wear a jacket!”. The walls are alive with slime and I’m warned if I touch it, it dies. Someone asks the ubiquitous bats-in-the-cave question and the ranger explains bats(Little Brown Myotis) abandoned the cave years ago because of all the noisy tourists.
Walking down-cave, the floor is treacherous, strewn with boulders that fell from the ceiling as the empty tube cooled. The ranger assures us that all the boulders that will fall, have fallen. They still look head-splitting. My eyes strain to see as clearly as they’re used to in daylight. I feel queasy thinking of the ancient molten lava that flowed here for three years, but after awhile though the cave starts to feel sheltering, even homey. The cave meanders, just like a river does. The rangers rent propane lanterns and hopefully you get one with a fresh tank. The cave smells of damp sand and old cold, with undertones of burnt hair and clothing from careless lantern-bearers.
Ape Cave was closed for a few years after Loowit blew her top. I remember hearing the blast when Loowit lost her head, an almost subsonic stomach-punch of inconceivable power. During that time of footlessness, sand castles began to form again on the cave floor, colonizing the cave as water dripped from the ceiling to wear away at the floor. The path of the wind is also written on the cave floor. The wind blows down-cave or up-cave depending on the season, gently shoving pebbles back and forth wearing parallel grooves in the floor.
A large part of the fun in exploring Ape Cave is people watching. Despite signs and rangers drumming warnings “The cave is cold and damp, wear a jacket” or “The cave is very dark, take three sources of light” people don’t pay attention. I helped one woman over the rocks with my flashlight as she said “I just don’t understand why it’s so dark in here” (she was wearing sunglasses). Another woman teetered down the steep stairs in a tank top, shorts and high heels --“I don’t understand why it’s so cold in here”. No, they don’t understand…
Listen to what people say…”It’s so dark in here”, “Why can’t they clean up the rocks on the floor?”, “Where’s the Boogey Man?”, “Let ME carry the flashlight!”. Being in the cave brings people in touch with their long-ignored inner caveman, and it is unsettling. Yet some delight in the foreign landscape. Kids rush on ahead to find the Meatball, an Indiana Jonesy stone medicine ball wedged overhead. They beg their parents to please go to the very end of the cave and suggest turning off all light. Terrified parents squeak “NO!”
I’m down to the last bit at last. Time to get down and crawl the last 50 feet or so. The ceiling gets lower and lower, I crouch and waddle, crawl, and finally wriggle like a snake with my flashlight in my mouth to the little room at the end. I sense the immense weight of the rock around me, ready to fall and smash me. Most people(the adults), if they enter the last bit at all, panic a short way in. They turn around with difficulty and rush to get out, breathless, into the now-spacious main cave.
I go further in with the others who want to go to the end(the kids). I like the not-knowing what is ahead…will I have room to turn around, or will we all have to back out? But in the end--surprise!-- there is enough room to stand up. I feel the timelessness, no sun travels across the sky to mark time. I think of the forest growing above, roots creaking down, seeking the water that seeps down around the walls. I want to leave my handprint.
Traveling back up-cave, the way is familiar. By now my eyes are used to seeing in the dark, my mind fills in the blanks of detail left by the dark. I lag behind, trying to find a place in the bends where light disappears fore and aft. I turn out my own flashlight, savoring the inky silent black. I stand against a wall and smile at folks who come along. I can see they think I’m nuts to give in to the dark.
I come back to the entrance, climb the metal fallout shelter stairs back to the surface. The daylight world bursts open, shimmering with a clear, piercingly beautiful light. My eyes are overwhelmed by detail, having gotten used to seeing in shadows. Now coming up into the young woods I feel like I can see everything--the grain of the basalt, the spores on the ferns, every needle, bark bug and far off cloud. The cave has given me eagle eyes.
I breathe deep the sunshine, and Bigfoot smiles from the hillside.


cyndy said...

wow...I am amazed by your story. (I cannot go into caves, like I cannot swim in the ocean where I cannot see the shore.)...some sort of primal fear takes over..

Bitterroot said...

What a marvelous narrative! You've brought the cave to life in wonderful word pictures here.

waterwitch said...

Beautiful, just beautiful. I did Ape Cave recently (the other end, though). There's that wonder with a base note of fear of being buried alive, and the joy of seeing color again after two hours in the dark.

the Dzonoqua poem is beautiful, too. My former partner and I shared a love of and respect for Dzonoqua, and I look for her in museums and art shops. There are several versions of her at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver BC.