August 28, 2010

The sun rising over the Modoc Plateau.

The majestic volcanic Cascade Mountains range from northern California up into Canada. Lassen

and Shasta

are both fascinating and wonderful sights to see. But as they are relatively proximitous to the Zuckershack and we had visited them before, we bypassed them on this trip in favor of a site that were new to us, Lava Beds National Monument.

Friday night, we departed on our eagerly-anticipated journey. The first part of our trip was exceedingly unexciting: driving up the interstate to Redding in the dark. Determined to find a geocache each day of the trip, we left our room at the Redding Super 8 at 11:45 pm to find a parking lot cache across the street.

In the morning, I dressed in shorts, a tank top, and sandals, gleefully anticipating the absence of the chilly Bay fog. I went out to the car to get something, and returned with a frown on my face.

"It's raining," I announced.

So, while we ate the Super 8's yummy (complimentary!) waffles for breakfast, I looked again at the National Park Service's web site for Lava Beds. The "Things to Do" page listed caves.

"We'll see some caves," I said. "That should keep us out of the rain."

I downloaded the park brochure with the cave listings so that we could see them without internet access.

I had hoped to see Mt. Shasta from the road, as I-5 passes very close to its base, but, alas, the inclement weather rendered this exceedingly large mountain entirely invisible.

We stopped for lunch at Ellie's Espresso Cafe in Weed, a place we remembered from a past visit. Given the weather, we felt justified in sitting down for soup, salad, and wifi from a neighboring motel.

We left the interstate shortly after Weed, turning onto US 97.

This is a beautiful scenic road that is part of the "Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway."

"Legacy" makes it sound as if the volcanic activity is a relic of the area's ancient past. Apparently no one likes to think about the fact that, for instance, Mt. Shasta could violently blow its top at any moment. But there were two major Cascade eruptions in the 20th century alone, Lassen and Mt. St. Helens. It is patently ridiculous to believe that the area is volcanically dormant.

We passed through a lava park.

After a lot of pretty scenery and a marsh full of egrets, we passed onto the Modoc Plateau proper.

Just outside the park, we saw this fascinating sign.

It makes it sound as if the growers generously agreed to take some of their very own water and divert it to the wildlife refuges. How magnanimous of them. The truth, of course, if that they apparently agreed to divert a little less water from its natural pathways onto their fields. However, if by putting up ridiculous signs like this, the state can get the farmers to agree to divert less water, then I say, hallelujah, let's put up some more signs!

Eric at the park entrance.

We veered off onto a side road for a brief tour of the Modoc sites. The Modocs were native to the Lava Beds area. When the settlers arrived, they of course came into conflict with the natives. A reverend and his wife set up a peace conference, at which General Canby agreed to come unarmed to meet the native leader, known as Captain Jack. Captain Jack apparently agreed to the meeting in good faith, but between the time it was planned and the time it actually occurred, he was convinced by his fellows to double-cross the settlers. Captain Jack killed General Canby, as well as the reverend and some other settlers. The reverend's wife lived to tell the tale.

This cross commemorates the spot where General Canby was killed. Photo by Eric.

The Park Service's sign explained that many settlers wanted the US Army to remove the natives entirely.

"Why did they hate the natives so much?" Eric asked, knowing that I have read a lot about this history.

"Oh, because the natives would take their food," I explained. "This was in the days before modern refrigeration, and the settlers would store up a bunch of food to get themselves through the winter, and the natives would come and take it. The settlers thought of the natives as a bunch of annoying raccoons. Now, to be fair, occasionally the natives did kill some settlers. But typically, the natives would kill one little girl, and then the settlers would come and kill forty natives."

Captain Jack and his Modoc tribe fought the settlers, but eventually were forced to surrender and move to a reservation. No doubt, to the government, this seemed like a much more humane solution to the problem than simply killing all the natives. Similar stories occurred all over the Sierra Nevada to the south. The natives had an advantage in knowing the territory, and having many places in which to hide from the settlers. But in every case, eventually the modern technology of the settlers would enable them to overcome the natives. Off the natives went to reservations, where they struggle today to maintain shreds of their traditional lifestyle.

I remembered that westerns from the 50's and 60's had brought these conflicts to life for modern Americans. I remember other children playing cowboys and Indians, where the children acting out the part of the Indians would hold one of their hands behind their heads to represent a feather, and use the other to cover their mouths to make war whoops. By the time Eric was that age, the game had evolved into Empire and Jedi. Thank you, George Lucas, for this fortuitous but almost undoubtedly unintentional contribution to societal progress.

But we didn't really come to Lava Beds to see the Modoc War sites -- we came for the geology. So, after having sandwiches in the car (the rain had lightened up a bit, but the picnic area was still wet), we turned back to tour the main park road, stopping at various geologically fascinating viewing points. As the most recent eruptions in the area occurred about 1,100 years ago, the rock is black, with no flashy red sparks like Hawai'ian Volcanoes National Park. Consequently, for the entertainment of visitors who lack imagination, the Park Service put has pictures of hot red Hawai'ian lava on virtually all of the signs.

Eric in front of a field of a'a, the jagged, rocky lava.

We were surrounded by cinder cones.

We laughed at this ridiculously obvious warning sign.

A landscape of native plants.

I could not leave this fascinating rock unphotographed.

We loved the Fleener Chimneys, which are spatter cones.

The view from the path up to the Fleener Chimneys.

You could look down into the holes. Photo by Eric.

We wanted to find a cache for the day, and also wanted to see some caves. We were able to accomplish both of these at once by going down into Skull Cave. The cache listing told us that this cave had ice inside it, which had served to sustain natives in the area.

The entrance to Skull Cave.

The entrance from the inside.

Until this point, I had seen mostly jagged a'a formations, but in the roof of the cave, I finally saw some lava that looked like the smoother pahoehoe.

I have been nervous about going so far into a cave that I couldn't see outside, but this cave was large and open. We had talked to a couple outside the cave, who had told us there would be a lot of stairs, but that we wouldn't have to go very far in.

Eric on the stairs.

I made it to the bottom without being too scared, and was able to touch the ice.

Skull Cave was an exciting and dramatic experience. After we got out of it, I said to Eric, "This is why we geocache!"

Back on the surface, I saw the clouds above this cinder cone, creating an illusion of steam rising from the cone.

Eric wanted to see some of the caves that had native petroglyphs in them, so we took a short hike out along a path to Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge. The rain at this point was very light, but we were still happy for our Seattle Sombreros.

The path followed a long, continuous series of craters.

Me at the entrance to Big Painted Cave. Photo by Eric.

Detail of the roof at the cave entrance.

We looked around for the petroglyphs, but all we could see were these glowing white spots, which looked pretty natural.

I did see this interesting rock, which looked a bit like petrified wood.

We found a path through the open cave chamber, which led down a narrow passage. I asked Eric to go down first, in case I were overcome by claustrophobia and felt the need to make a hasty exit. Eric went first, reassuring me that the Park Service wouldn't let visitors into the cave unless geologists had certified that it was stable.

"It's a well-known fact that geologists can't predict earthquakes," I pointed out. "I keep trying to tell myself that I'm just as likely to be buried under earthquake rubble at my desk on the 40th floor of a San Francisco office tower."

I followed him into the hole, and he said that the passage turned a corner and then opened up into a larger chamber where you could stand up. I asked him if he saw any petroglyphs, and he said he thought he did. So I went into the chamber, out of view of the light, worrying that I wouldn't be able to find the exit with my flashlight.

This is what Eric had seen.

It looks a little bit like Kokopele, but it also looks like a natural formation. I couldn't believe I had climbed through that narrow passage for this.

I did get a nice picture of the water at the bottom of the cave.

When I turned around, I was easily able to find the way out with my flashlight. I climbed up through the passage, and could see the wide-open cave entrance easily once again. Eric was quite proud that I had managed the cave so well.

I wasn't particularly interested in seeing Symbol Bridge after that, but Eric wanted to go, so I reluctantly agreed. In the end, I was extremely glad I went along with him. Symbol Bridge turned out not to be a deep cave, but a short passage.

There was a tree on top of the bridge. I wondered how it was rooted.

But most excitingly, we could see many obvious petroglyphs, without even entering the passage.

It's obvious what the natives thought of as good artistic subjects -- the sun, water, flowers. I thought to myself that I was acting on the same primal urge by walking around taking pictures of the same things.

We were able to set up camp in the light, and the rain had mostly stopped.

Lava Beds was the only place where I hadn't been able to make a reservation, because they don't take them, and the ranger had assured me we wouldn't need one. Throughout the day, we had remarked on how few other visitors we had seen in this beautiful park. The campground was uncrowded, and the bathrooms, water and garbage cans very close to the site. It was not a bear habitat, so we didn't have to separate out all of our food. While Eric was making a dinner of red quinoa and green beans, I got into the car and sorted our four bags of dry groceries into separate bags for breakfast, lunch and dinner, to make things more convenient and easier to find.

While I was inside Pearl, I thought about how relatively developed her interior was compared to our tent. She's watertight, well-lit and climate controlled. It's true she doesn't have plumbing, but she does have electricity! Eric has developed the capacity to charge a dashboard GPS, an iPod, a laptop, a cell phone and four AA batteries all at once. It's true that several fuses were blown during the development of this system, but it is stable now. When we had been struggling all day to find things in the grocery bags, it sure hadn't seemed so comfortable.

We ate our dinner in damp and chill conditions. The park service had used lava rocks to build the picnic table. It's nice that they used readily available natural materials, but Eric described the table as, "One gigantic trip hazard." Photo by Eric.

It was a cold, cold night -- 39F (4C). I did not sleep well.

This site had not been on our "A" list, but we were glad we managed to fit it in. We had a very exciting day in spite of the unfortunate weather. More people should visit this underappreciated park.

Distance driven so far: 394 mi (634 km)

Caches found so far: 2

On to Oregon.

Last updated: 08/29/2010 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman