Matt Skeels of Bend likes to explore the underworld of Central Oregon. As a member of the Oregon High Desert Grotto, Skeels is a guardian of Central Oregon's caves. Having discovered a number of caves over the years, his peers call him the "cave finder" and the "cave bloodhound." For Skeels, cave exploration is special because of the mystery involved. "They provide a unique environment you can't find anywhere else. There's also the element of surprise in finding something that no one else has found or even seen," he says. Skeels says Deschutes County has 690 caves – the most in the state. In actuality, he thinks the number is far greater as more are discovered each year. The majority of Central Oregon's caves are part of lava tubes which developed 80,000 years ago, spreading from Newberry Crater located 30 miles southeast of Bend. The Redmond Caves are thought to be at the northern edge of the Newberry lava flows.
Located an easy stroll off Airport Way near the Redmond Airport, there is a series of five caves on a 40-acre parcel within the Redmond city limits but on federal BLM land. Known by locals for decades, there were many proposals on how the caves should be used, with ideas ranging from fallout shelters to mushroom farming, and even a landfill. In 1995 the caves were designated as "significant" under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act. Today the area is fenced with gates, and motorized travel has been banned to help protect the caves which can easily be explored on foot during daytime hours.
"This Cave is probably 400 feet long," Skeels says in describing the largest of the caves. "These caves have definitely been used by Native Americans over the centuries," he adds. Based on archeological evidence, BLM's Greg Currie speculates that the caves were used as a stopping point by natives who camped there while traveling through the region.
Skeels has solid advice for those who want to explore Central Oregon's many caves. He encourages everyone to wear a lighted hard helmet for head protection, and bring along spare lights for backup. Lava formations can be fragile, he explains. "If someone breaks a rock formation, it's gone for good. It can't grow back like in a limestone cave." He also advises against the temptation to build fires in enclosed cave areas as it depletes oxygen and tarnishes rock walls.
As populations increase and Urban Growth boundaries expand closer to the 40-acre site, both men worry about conserving the special caves. "This Cave is unique because it's within the city limits of Redmond," notes Currie. "In the short term, fencing the site has helped reduce the number of garbage sites that were cleaned up," he says. Currie adds that the Bureau of Land Management is trying to inform people about the site to make it a place for people to come to learn about natural resources and the history of the area.
As airplanes buzz overhead, departing and landing at nearby Redmond Airport, Skeels sees some challenges ahead to protect the caves as more people discover them. "We need to educate people on how to go caving so everyone can enjoy this special place for generations to come," he says.