Category Archives: Caves

Mmm, Cave Bacon: The Oregon Caves

Smith River, northern California

Smith River, northern California

Smith River is right along the California and Oregon border near the coast, along the Redwoods Highway.  The river corridor is a worthy spot to hang out, go fishing, rafting, hiking or pursue other outdoor options. We happened by there last weekend on our way back from California and enjoyed a brief sojourn.

The real destination for the day, however, was Oregon Caves National Monument, a gem hidden in the mountains of Southwest Oregon.  This is not a place you will stumble across.  The windy dead-end access road ensures that.  The trouble to get there, however, is well worth it.  The lodge itself, sided with the bark of Port Orford Cedars, feels like a mix of Timberline Lodge and a funky old lake resort.  It was cool enough that we actually debated spending the night even though we were running late on our trip.

The lodge at Oregon Caves National Monument

The lodge at Oregon Caves National Monument

When we got arrived at the lodge in the early afternoon, we realized we’d have to sign up for a tour.  We also realized that our faithful pup Jackie Chan couldn’t go in the cave.  There are too many steep stairs and even some that should be called ladders.  First, we had lunch in a vintage café in the basement of the lodge whose specialty seemed to be milkshakes.

I dashed out for the ninety minute tour with Ranger Mike and fourteen other tourists while Denise and Jackie took a hike around the cave and along the rocky ridge above.  It was a great place to explore.  The forest is more diverse than Northern Oregon Forests.

Denise and Jackie outside the lodge. The main cave entrance is right above them.

Denise and Jackie outside the lodge. The main cave entrance is right above them.

The cave had many of the classic features or cave decorations such as stalactites and stalagmites, columns, cave bacon, flowstone, and moonmilk. Hungry yet?  Apparently the latter can actually be eaten, since it’s bacteria.  Its form roughly approximates cottage cheese.


Nice little column. Notice how the dripping formed an almost conical base.

The vaguely V-shaped whitish object in the middle is cave cottage cheese.

The vaguely V-or heart shaped whitish object in the middle is moonmilk.

I love the dark color of the marble coming through

I love the dark color of the marble coming through

The tour of the cave was well worth my time.   I was pleased that I remembered some geological features and was able to answer some of the ranger’s questions.   Caves are pretty amazing.  Just don’t try it without a light.  There were some big holes and tight places, and it would be easy to get in trouble quickly.

Funky formations.  Drapery, I believe it's called.

Mmm.  Cave bacon.  You’ll lose a tooth if you take a bite.

One of the most amazing sights was the formation where people had inscribed their autographs back in the 19th century. The group included the prominent  Thomas Condon, the first geology professor at the University of Oregon.  It surprised me that a scientist would leave his mark on nature like that, but it was a different time.  They didn’t even have Twitter (gasp!), so here was his version for later travelers.  The amazing part is the natural lamination that has occurred.  Mineral layers keep accruing.  Decades later, park rangers attempted to erase the writing, to no avail.  The formation continues to grow over Condon’s writing even as you can still see his words.

Autograph spot.  Weird that geological forces have lacquered over the autograph so you can see it, but not touch it.

Autograph spot. Weird that geological forces have lacquered over the autograph so you can see it, but not touch it.

It is funny  to think that a 19th century hunter who found the cave went into it without a flashlight while trying to save his dog from a bear.  You have to respect a guy who will go that far for his pooch.  Right, Jackie?  The Oregon Caves was a great destination.  The tour offered great geology lessons, and the area itself was a nice place to relax before the final leg of our journey home.

Jackie chilling in the lodge with the resident bear

Jackie chilling in the lodge with the resident bear

The Dominican, part two: Los Haitises

In my last post, I started writing about a fabulous spring break trip Denise and I took to the Dominican Republic.  After a few days in Santiago, we spent time lolling about the beach at Las Terrenas and enjoyed a great trip to a waterfall with our son’s college group.  At that point, the end of the trip was near.

On our last full day in the D.R., we get up early and have breakfast on the beach.  We are a bit sad knowing our trip is coming to a close, but we also know that adventure still awaits.

After breakfast, we pile into buses and head south on windy roads to the port town of Samaná.  Once there, the group mills about the waterfront and its sunglass and t-shirt hawkers while the advisors sort out trip logistics.  Eventually we board a large boat with two decks.  Soon, a guide is talking to us, mostly in Spanish, as the boat moves away from the docks.

Samana Boat

Setting out across Bahia de Samaná, all smiles.

Land recedes slowly as we cross a massive bay toward a national park known as Los Haitises.   The hour long trip is uneventful until we near  the south side of the bay.  Sailboats are tied up before an undulating, lush green shoreline.   It could have been a set for Pirates of the Caribbean V.  Our guide points out limestone cliffs and rare birds and discusses the history of the native Taino people. We tie up at a rickety dock installed against an overgrown hillside, ready to move about.

The boat’s crew lowers kayaks into the water.   Denise, Casey, Maya, and I clamber down a ladder and, in a couple minutes, we gain a semblance of paddling coordination.  Being at water level and observing the natural world is fascinating.  The interplay of water, rock, vegetation, and sunlight from the height of the kayaks is almost magical.  Did I mention the weather is perfect?

In short order, we nose the kayaks into the channels of a mangrove swamp whose entrance lies in a nearby cove.


Casey and Maya paddling

Some of the students do not get the gist of kayaking.  They laugh and bump into logs, rocks, and other kayaks.  A guides teases one pair, holding their stern line when it trails in the water.  When the paddlers notice the dead weight, there is  mock indignation on their part and laughter from the rest of us.


The peaceful and mysterious mangrove swamp

We paddle into the swamp for almost half an hour, finding low hanging branches and crabs lurking on spiderlike root systems. Limestone cliffs jut from the water, and we navigate myriad complex channels.   It feels like a puzzle.   I could happily explore for  hours, but we must head back to the boat.

Lunch is great, and everyone seems relaxed.  Some of the students jump into the water from the upper deck.  I follow suit, somewhat tentatively. Then we switch groups and pick up flashlights.  A cave tour is next.

Cave mouth

The somewhat ominous maw of the cave

The cave is not mammoth, but experiencing it is fascinating, including seeing how people react to the darkness.  A number of the students have never been in a cave before.  Curses, laughter, whispers, and phrases like “wow” and “ohmigod” appear.  Highlights of the venture include stalactites, flowstone draperies, a squeeze passage, and bats.  In one area, the cave’s ceiling opens to the sky, and a densely vined and twined ficus tree grows out of it.  Nearby, in a dark slot, green light emanates from the sun-lit waters creeping beneath the limestone.  We are that close to the outside.  On the way out, we see humanoid petroglyphs.  Denise and I agree that the cave is amazing, and we are very pleased with the day’s adventure.


Ancient cave petroglyph

The boat ride back is rough, and spray kicks up over the bow and sides of the boat.  Multiple people get queasy, although it doesn’t bother me.  People are tired and chilly, but most seem very content with the excursion.

On the return leg of the bus trip, we stop at a house and buy a giant wheel shaped loaf of bread.  The carbs contribute to some heavy napping. That night, our last, we have a grand meal on the beach.  Later, we drink a wee bit of Dominican rum and play silly games in people’s rooms late into the night.

Beachside Dinner

Maya, Casey, and friends at beachside dinner. Ahhhh.

A taxi comes for us at five a.m. Half an hour into the drive, bleary eyed, we spy a body on the side of the road.  The taxi driver does not want to stop, but we find la policia and alert them.  Hopefully, the man is just blackout drunk.  The mood becomes a tad somber, and once we are at the airport, I consider the darker aspects of our trip.  There is obvious poverty, pollution is bad in places, and racism is apparent.  Yet that cannot override the great experience we have had, and I consider a return.  Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean at over 9000 feet, calls out to be climbed.  Until then, however, I am happy to fly back to the States, dreaming in Spanish.