Story and Photo by Ryan Deto

The caving day starts late at the camp. The sun is already high on a late Monday morning when Oregon High Desert Grotto cavers, out of Bend, start out for Bogus Creek. They will travel eight hours east for the promise of extensive black lava-tube caves filled with jagged a’a (aha) and smooth pahoehoe (pa-oo-ei-oo-ei) lava, gypsum crystals, bats and the chance to discover new caves.

Caves are the only unexplored places left on earth that can be discovered by the average person. With inexpensive caving gear – harnesses, helmets and headlamps – anyone who is willing can travel deep into the wilderness.

Legitimate caving groups such as the Oregon High Desert Grotto (OHDG) don’t want just anybody to find caves. In caves, micro-ecosystems can be destroyed with a single careless footstep. OHDG says uninformed tourists have broken off unique lava-formed stalagmites to take home as furniture. Cavers would prefer to keep caves hidden, and are hesitant to reveal new caves – even to other cavers. The OHDG newsletter articles do not include cave locations in case the newsletter “gets into the wrong hands.” New caves are only explored by self-proclaimed cavers, who believe this is the best way to keep the subterranean lands as pristine as possible.

Today, OHDG members are venturing miles from civilization to find new caves. The unmarked campground sprawls out near a pond filled with croaking frogs. Hills, canyons, snowy mountain tops and an abandoned silo lie in the distance, while only cows, barbed wire fences and gray petrified cow pies are in the foreground.

Brent McGregor is the first one up. McGregor lives in Sisters, Oregon, where he crafts furniture out of juniper wood. McGregor’s friends say he looks like Father Time with his eight-inch dark chocolate beard, circular spectacles and bald head. Matt Skeels wakes up next. McGregor says Skeels is an extremophile – an organism adapted to live in caves. Skeels delivers pizzas for a living and never brags about his accomplishments, even though he has been awarded a plaque by the Oregon governor for surveying and mapping the inside of countless caves. He fears random tourists destroying caves so much that he once tried to name a cave he found “Hunta Virus Cave,” but the Bureau of Land Management denied the request.

Once everyone else wakes up, the group hikes beyond the soft, grassy camp and into the pastures littered with ragged basalt stones. They reach a sinkhole large enough to swallow a house and the entrance to Bogus Creek cave. McGregor checks his GPS devices and quietly confers the exact whereabouts of the cave to the others.

Deeper into the cave, the sunlight fades and the temperature drops. Cream-colored gypsum crystals cling to the walls like hardened drool. “You have got to see this,” shouts Lonnie Seiders, a sprinkler-fitter from Remond. “Seiders reaches the end of the cave and waits underneath an extended archway. Skeels is by Seiders’ side within seconds and they follow the half-tube around a bend, hoping it will lead to virgin passage.

Unfortunately, the half-tube ends in a solid wall, so the cavers exit Bogus Creek cave and search for other virgin underground passages in the area, but to no avail.

Disappointed, the cavers lie flat on their backs with their headlamps off in Upper Bogus Creek cave. If the cavers were to extend their arms up, they would touch the cave ceiling, which gradually lowers until there are only inches between the rock and the sand. Skeels, who once squeezed through a crack so tight he had to take his pants off to fit, crawls to the back but determines he can’t make it through.

Fitting through small spaces is a big aspect of caving and discovering new passages, but this practice can be dangerous. According to the American Caving Accidents report, from 2004 to 2008, there were an average of nine caving related fatalities annually. These dangers are another reason grotto groups like OHDG keep caving a secret.

At the back of Upper Bogus Creek cave, Seiders stares at the fissure that Skeels failed to fit though. He is aware of the dangers but decides to go for it, belly-crawling through the sand until he reaches the slim opening. He begins to dig sand out of the way and yells, “I think there is a passage here!” The others don’t believe him, but he squeezes first his head through and then his torso. Eventually his feet slide through and he is kneeling in virgin passage. Skeels joins him. Both men are sitting in a place no human has sat before.

The ceiling of the tube is rough to the touch. Eons ago, the heat from the hot lava melted the rock of the ceiling and caused globules to form and then freeze in time when the lava left. Moisture has inundated the tunnel and water droplets cling to the igneous roof, illuminated by the headlamps. Skeels and Seiders soak in the fresh, damp smell of the passage before sharing with the rest of the group. If the cavers had brought surveying material, such as measuring tapes and sketching pads, they could have mapped the cave and claimed the rights to name the passage.

Exploring virgin passage brings up the cavers’ dilemma: while finding new land is the goal of caving, it also means that there is a possibility of harming previously untouched soil. “Caves have valuable resources and it’s our duty to know what is in a cave so we can manage it and protect it,” says Skeels. “Once lost, they may never be regained.”

The next morning, Skeels and McGregor wake up early to explore while Seiders and the rest of the group wait at the camp. McGregor’s voice comes over the walkie-talkie: “We found a virgin cave…400 feet long…about a mile south of camp.” McGregor names the cave Three Stinkers after the three big black stink beetles lurking around the skylight entrance. With no means of escape, the beetles bask under the light, begging to see the outside world. Skeels and McGregor hike past them, looking to discover new lands in the darkness.

Sidebar: Pioneered in Europe during the 1890s, caving became an official recreation in the states when the National Speleological Society (NSS) formed in 1941. It took until the 1960s for caving to become popular, and the caving numbers continued to increase throughout the 1970s. Now, caving numbers have dropped significantly, but new caves are still being discovered because of dedicated caving groups and grotto societies. Estimates place the number of caves in Oregon at around 1000, but an accurate number is difficult to determine because cavers don’t want to widely divulge their information in fear that naïve tourists will come to the caves and destroy the delicate habitats.