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Let's Get Volcanic: A day at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument and Derrick Cave

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A couple of weeks back, my good friend (and geologist) Al Waibel gave me a call.

"Hey, Jim, how about joining a few friends and me Wednesday? We're going out to Newberry Monument and then Derrick Cave." Would I?

If these people were friends of Al's, they were already friends of mine - we all just didn't know it. So, at the assigned time and place, we all met, shook hands and carpooled off to Newberry Monument, south of Bend.


I was put into a vehicle driven by Ed Reingold, a retired Time magazine bureau chief who has been all over the world, and his wife, Ellen, the mother of their six daughters. From the moment Ed turned the ignition key on his four-wheel Honda we were old pals.

Driving down Highway 97 to the turn-off to Newberry Monument, we couldn't help but notice the thousands of white butterflies bouncing around the trees - and a few unfortunately off the windshield.

"What are all those white butterflies?" Ellen asked. I explained they were pine whites - or, as known by the scientific community, Neophasia menapia - a fairly common butterfly in coniferous regions of the western United States. Then Ed and Ellen started to talk about the wildlife they saw in Japan, Africa and other places they had lived, and I sat back and ate it up.

As the name implies, the larvae (caterpillars) of pine whites feed on the leaves (needles) of conifers. Whether they do any damage to the tree is doubtful, but the enjoyment they generate in people who watch them is unquestionable.

As the day drifted into the cool of the afternoon, we noticed the butterflies slowing down. Instead of flitting about the trees helter-skelter, they spent more time nectaring on the delicious blossoms of rabbit brush and wildflowers. They also could be seen gliding slowly through the ponderosa and lodgepole pines. As we drove the power line road near Fox Butte, about 20 of them drifted by the window, slowly gliding toward the forest floor - and for a moment, I heard the beautiful strains of Beethoven's Sixth, the "Pastoral Symphony" drifting through my memory. It fit...

Why the sudden explosion of pine whites? I have no idea, except that it's another of those wondrous mysteries in nature. California tortoise shells and painted lady butterflies do it, and when they do, they can be so numerous they really do defoliate their host plant, our common ceanothus, a bushy plant easily identified by their waxy-looking leaf-vein structure.

When we drove inside the gigantic rim of Newberry Monument, we stopped for a while at Paulina Creek Falls (named for grand old Chief Paulina). I hadn't been there in many years and what a wonderful surprise to find a paved walkway, picnic tables and interpretive signs. The falls themselves didn't look as if they had changed; they were still eagerly taking the water of Paulina Lake on its long journey to the Pacific.

The 80,000-year-old welded tuff being cut away by the creek didn't look worse for the wear either, but the absence of dead and dying lodgepole pine was beautifully obvious. My last visit was when the outbreak of the Mountain Pine Beetle, dendroctonus ponderosa, first started. They kill trees by boring through the bark where the eggs are laid and then the larvae feed. After an outbreak, the needles on hundreds of acres of lodgepole appeared red as the trees died; it's like an insectivorous fire.

Eating our lunch at the East Lake boat landing was like dining with butterflies. No matter where you looked, hundreds of pine whites drifted by and almost touched your face as they fluttered by. I hadn't had that luxurious of an experience since the painted lady outbreak throughout the West in the '80s.

Walking west from the East Lake campground will take you to the site of the internationally famous East Lake Health Spa of the early 1900s. The operators of the facility piped the sulfur-rich hot water into large tubs where guests could soak away their health troubles in the hot, volcanic waters. It would probably still be operating today, but the plumbing was plugged solid with volcanic chemicals, closing the moneymaking spa down.

And it's those hot - very, very hot - waters that are making the Newberry Monument area a hot spot (literally) for geothermal energy production.

"Something has to be done, and done fast," Al Waibel said, as the discussion came around to geothermal energy replacing coal-fired plants. Al often equates the way we generate power with coal as a car speeding down a blind alley with nothing coming but a dead end.

The final stop on the jaunt was Derrick Cave - after an unintended side trip to Quartz Mountain, one that brought out an impromptu and enjoyable lecture from Al on the finer points and cutting-edge science of obsidian (pun intended).

Derrick Cave, named for one of the Fort Rock Valley's early pioneers, was used during the Cold War era by Lake County to store emergency supplies in the event the Soviets dropped the "Big One" on us. NASA also used it to see if lava caves could be identified from space for astronauts to use for living space. Now people use it to "ohhh" and "aww" over the beauty of a lava tube, and if people don't bother them, local bats, such as Townsend's big-eared bat, will also use Derrick Cave as a quiet place to sleep away winter.

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