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Cleaning up Bend, below and above the surface



Natural World

Cleaning up Bend, below and above the surface

By Jim Anderson

Bend's human population is growing; some say in an out-of-control fashion. But back in September of 1951 when I rolled into Bend on my Harley, there were only 11,409 people living in Bend (thank you, library), while today there are over 80,000!

I'll bet, out of all those people, only a tiny handful know that the earth is somewhat hollow beneath their houses perched on the surface of lava. Yes, lava—mostly basaltic pahoehoe that flowed from our local volcanic vents.

According to the investigations carried out by Matt Skeels of the Oregon High Desert Grotto into the geology of the Bend area, during the time period known as the Upper Pleistocene, about 11,000 years ago, Newberry Volcano—our very own National Monument located just south of Bend—was a very active feature on the landscape. There are many, many lava buttes and caves all around us that provide spectacular evidence of its past active nature.

Lava Top Butte, which sits on Newberry lava, just across Highway 97 from Lava Butte with its Forest Service fire lookout on the summit, was a very active volcano. If you visit the butte in summer, stick around after dark and you'll hear the tooting cry of flammulated owls that live in woodpecker holes of dead trees. They spend winters in Panama, but come back to the Northwest in summer to lay eggs, raise babies and eat crickets. They're among the insect-eating owls, pigging out on moths and nocturnal beetles, thereby competing with migrating and hungry hoary and big brown bats that also spend summer in our neck of the woods.

Not presently known in popular circles, the impact of the many Lava Top Butte basaltic eruptions—most of them pahoehoe flows—has had a profound impact on the Bend landscape, giving us Charcoal Cave No.1, Hidden Forest Cave, Crossbill Cave, Neighboring Cave, Arnold Ice Cave, Young's Cave, Stepladder Cave and others nearby.

Lava Top Butte is also the source of many of the lava caves ("tubes," really) that are, literally, under the homes, highways, and playgrounds of Bend. While today we have built our homes over the caves, back when the first Native people came through the Bend area, they lived IN the caves.

Like people of today, early Bend pioneers also left their garbage laying around—especially the caves they used as iceboxes. Broken beer bottles and tons of plastic and other "junk" left in the caves by today's visitors has been cleaned out by people who do not enjoy seeing garbage laying around, like members of the Oregon High Desert Grotto.

The garbage left behind in the way back time by Native people are today's archeological treasures, but the same can't be said for what is left in and around the caves today. Someone has to collect it and place it where it belongs, and the members of OHDG are good at it.

Eighteen of the more stalwart OHDG members—including a lot of kids—recently took on a cleanup of Young's Cave, part of what cavers and geologists who play and work on lava formations call the Arnold Lava Tube System.

OHDG member Eddy Cartaya organized three groups to start in different sections of the cave, which by past standards, wasn't in terribly bad shape. Brent's photograph above shows the whole group just before exiting the cave with their bags of litter, including glass, metal, wood, plastic, etc.

While in the cave, two grotto members, Aspen and Bryce Marchington, slithered through what's called "The Rasp" and videoed a section of cave most of the group will never see. OHDG Chairman Brent McGregor says it's a very tight crawl that regular-sized cavers won't fit through—unless they break a rib or two—around 7.5 inches high but only lasting a foot or two before opening up into walking passage for a few hundred feet.

Because of the light litter load, the cleanup crew had time to jump into Stepladder Cave to clean it as well. Not a lot of trash there, either, said leader McGregor. Besides cleaning the caves, and because of their love of the underground, this also was an opportunity for the members to get prepared for the National Cave Rescue Commission training which will be in Bend this summer under the leadership of Cartaya.

That same lava tube system has left many homes in Bend with built-in basements. According to long-time OHDG member, Charlie Larson, there are several older homes erected on the thin ceiling of a lava tube where the original owners knocked a hole in the surface and built a staircase into the cave.

In many instances, that little addition created a very unique opportunity for underground recreation off the usual urban route. Larson's cave guide has stories in it about some Bend residents holding dances in caves under their houses.

With that 80,000 human population staring Central Oregonians in the face, it seems like the time has come to take a serious look at all the recreation and natural features of the area. This should probably begin with a very close look at what expanding the Urban Growth Boundary might do to our unique lava lands and underground features.

Members of OHDG and other residents of Central Oregon are very concerned that sites for new homes close to—or directly on top of—underground features created by the ancient lava flows from Newberry may be overstepping the UGB.

Providing people with their own private entrance (and possible personal dumping ground) into the public's caving recreation systems just doesn't seem like a good idea.

Unfortunately, lava tubes have been recognized and used for all too many types of recreation that deface the natural features. The worst case situation was found in Hidden Forest Cave, very near Bend.

The area wasn't used as a garbage dump, but rock climbers placed several climbing bolts on the sides of the cave. When official signs were posted asking them to remove the hardware—and not to install any more—the signs were not only torn down and destroyed, but also defecated on...

Considering these events, it would seem like a good idea to breathe life back into the now-defunct Central Oregon Conservation Task Force to help prevent such untidy things from happening again.

On July 22, McGregor, will lead a grotto crew into Crossbill Cave for another cleanup campaign. If you're interested in becoming a member of the grotto and/or going along on the next grotto outing, send McGregor an email at and he'll provide the way to do it.

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