I had only seen the narrow strips of land within my headlights on my drive into Lava Beds National Monument, so when I woke, it was to an unfamiliar landscape. Volcanic rock, scrub and trees dominated the nearby landscape, lava domes dotted the more distant horizon. Clouds filled most of the sky, and the sun was still a little while from rising. I put on my gloves, down jacket and hat to explore more deeply my temporary home.
When I emerged from my tent, I was surprised at all the animal tracks showing the happenings of the night, it being such a sparse seeming land. I had heard coyotes as I went to bed, but the loneliness of their calls had only reinforced my expected lack of life in the area. From the number of tracks on the ground however, the land was very much alive.
I wandered the deserted campground, making short forays into the surrounding scrub, studying the various tracks, searching for interesting angles and vistas to shoot, scouting for where I wanted to be when the sun rose, if it rose, through the overcast. It was an interesting landscape with interesting colors. It seemed somewhat subdued and austere. Most everything that I could see had the feeling of being a survivor. A harsh land creating inner strength.
The sun took a little time to show through the clouds, but when it did I felt rewarded. It had a warmth to it that battled the grays, tans, and dull greens of the winter landscape (but did little to warm me). It highlighted the land, gave it relief, showing me me the nature of it. After I had taken some photographs, the sun returned to its hiding place among the clouds and I broke camp, determined to explore more of this new land, hopeful to see more eagles.
I drove the snowy roads of the park, exploring what I could see from the roads, occasionally stopping to take a picture here or a picture there, but the sun had gone out of the landscape, leaving scenes that defied my attempts at composition. I finally found myself with the road ahead closed from too much snow, and a slippery drive back. I followed an intriguing sign that I was determined to explore more deeply- [Valentine's Cave ⇒]
I’d seen signs for various caves as I’d driven through the park, but hadn’t stopped at any of them before this. The Cave I learned from the sign outside was actually a lava tube, as were the other “caves” that I’d seen signs for. I approached it.There was a twisting set of steps leading down into a dark mouth of earth.
It looked a bit ominous, but having a headlamp and a healthy dose of curiosity, it was something I couldn’t resist- I’d never been in a lava tube before. Not knowing what to expect, I carefully descended the steps. The layers of snow and ice coating them gave me visions of lying at the bottom, frozen, before the next park visitor came by, days later… although I was sure I would at least be able to drag myself back to my car, a theory I didn’t need to test as I safely reached the bottom.
As I entered the dark, close confines of the lava tube I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. The air seemed to be getting warmer, except that I had learned from the informational sign at the cave mouth that it was thousands of years since lava had flowed through this tube. It couldn’t be the warmth from volcanic activity (although I half expected a reddish glow to be coming from the dark depths of the tunnel), and I wasn’t being active enough to have warmed up that much, yet I was suddenly feeling like I could take off a couple of layers. I tried taking some pictures, but the lens of my camera kept fogging up right away, and I realized it was getting warmer. (I later learned that some of the lava tubes, because of their shapes work on a six month air exchange cycle. While it was wintertime, and the temperatures were below freezing outside, the cave was full of the air from summertime and was quite warm and humid- maybe a thirty or forty degree temperature difference. )
For more on the details of creating the photograph above you can read Anatomy of a photo #11: Lava Tubes and Temperature
The lava tube wove into curving darkness before my headlamp, twisting into separate chambers that then reconnected. The ceiling dipped and rose, so that at times I was hunched over, but thankfully did not have to crawl. The walls were fairly smooth and rounded, as though they had been bored out, except they were too textured from the lava that had flowed through and shaped them. I only made it a few hundred feet in, well out of sight of the entrance and stairs, before I became too nervous at being alone so deep underground, no one knowing where I was, when I turned around. Someday I will return to find the end of Valentine’s Cave.
Emerging back into the cold and grey of day, leaving the warm and humid night, I decided to get a little guidance for my explorations. I drove off to the park’s Visitor Center to learn a little more about the area, and to pay the camping fee (the park had been completely shut down when I arrived under the dark wings of night). I was in a very intriguing place, full of geology and history, the history mirroring the torn landscape where it was born. I also learned where to look for birds (and eagles).