Guest Post by Jason George
What's the difference between National Parks and National Monuments? In the United States both are protected areas deemed historic for preservation under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The difference between two is which government body designates it. To become a National Park, a bill has to make its way through congress. We often tend to hear the expression “it would take an act of congress to change x” when the chance of something changing is pretty slim. That’s why we see far fewer national parks than national monuments. Currently, there are 110 national monuments and 59 national parks. Why is it so much easier to create a National Monument? It only takes one person to make it official, the President of the United States.
In the northern reaches of California, there are 72 square miles of land that, at one point in ancient history, was a hellish nightmare of volcanic activity. With time, the eruptions slowed and faded into a tranquil scene. Now, you’ll see rolling hills of sage, chocolate colored buttes with junipers popping out, kangaroo mice scurrying around, and hints of the secrets that lay below ground. What lies above is enticing, but it’s what rests below that brought Josh Hydeman and I to this National Monument.
We were given a chance to document a unique relic within the park that will be lost in less than a generation due to changes in climate. A lava tube filled with beautiful ancient ice formations are quickly melting. We were there to capture and preserve this marvel through photographs.
*The Land of Rainbows*
During our first few days in the park we were greeted with a a bipolar weather pattern. Buckets of rain were poured from the sky and strong winds came in, at one point our metal canoe took flight. All that was followed by copious amounts of sunshine. It seemed like the weather really had no idea what it was doing. A side effect from this nonsense was an amazing rainbow that happened for the first three mornings. The rainbow stretched across the horizon and every color seemed to pop right out. One rainbow wasn't enough though, and a second could sometimes be seen above the first. We were lucky enough to be able to stay with Jessie Barden, an amazing park ranger. Rangers get assigned houses and apartment units Within the park to live in while they are working there. The houses are situated in the middle of the park, tucked close to some trees with views of the Park's great expanse stretching out all around us. I felt like I used some kind of real life cheat code to get here.
The routine for the first few days was to roll out of bed at sunrise, drink some coffee, stand in awe near the big living room window looking out onto the park, and then preparing to go underground. No matter what the weather is like above ground, it’s pretty much all the same below. We had some new LED lightning panels that were provided by Rosco, so we had to get some testing in before we moved onto the Crystal Ice Cave. We decided to do this in the “Labyrinth” cave. The labyrinth is one of those things that is very accurately described by its name. A 3D puzzle that is just over 6,900 feet long, multi-leveled, crisscross of paths, and myriad of dead ends. To add to the fun of this, you also have to deal with sections of the cave that is less than 1 foot tall. You have to get on your belly, turn your head to the side, and inch your way forward. One of these sections lasted for over 100 feet! Imagine yourself in a veil of darkness. Your headlamp illuminates a small slice for you to find your way. You can’t look back because there is no room to turn around. The only direction you can move is forward and oh so very slowly.
*The Cave of Ice*
The Crystal ice cave was discovered by a local in the early 1900s. This local was not brave enough to enter the cave but knew someone who was. J.D. Howard, the father of Lava Beds, climbed down into the entrance to explore this new find and named it Crystal Ice Cave. This beautiful place is a lava tube that collects and traps freezing cold air and is adorned with frozen features throughout.
Historically the Crystal Ice Cave was visited by locals on Sundays after church. The cave was a place to cool off in the summer. Once Lava Beds National Monument was established in 1925 the Crystal ice cave saw 100 visitors a day. Access to the cave has recently become very limited due to a rapid melt. Over the the past two decades members of the Cave Research Foundation and park staff have monitored the loss of year-round ice in the cave and have seen significant loss. This past year there were only eight recreational trips limited to six members and one park guide. If this trend continues next year their may be even less trips. Photo-documenting the cave in a beautiful way is actually important. People only protect what they care about. They only care about things that are beautiful. The more beautiful the park the more visitation and the more funding. Lava Beds National Monument is one of the least five visited parks in California and although these cave tours tend to fill up fast it is still relatively unknown.
The weather above ground started to turn pretty amazing so we took a break from caving at this point and checked out some spatter cones and buttes. We roamed around the backcountry to check out some larger cave openings. The days were dwindling down to the point that we had to head back home. We had one last thing on our check list to do and that was to visit “Fossil Cave”. The cave gets its name from actual fossils being found inside. The cave's location is not made public since it’s also a very fragile place. Besides being in a very non-descript spot, basically in the middle of nowhere, the only way into the cave is a 50-foot rappel. Once you start to lower yourself in, you are instantly greeted with a view of ferns that stretch in every direction inside the cave. I felt like I was lowering myself into some kind of fantasyland. We photographed and explored the cave throughout the day. When the time came, the only way out is the way we came in, back up 50 feet. As we were leaving the sun was going down and leaving an orange glow over Mt. Shasta. It was an honor to document a place that is changing so rapidly for future generations.
Josh Hydeman has recently been working on a film about the Crystal Ice Cave and was hired by Steve Bumgardner, a nature filmmaker who primarily works in Yosemite National Park. The very purpose of the film is to showcase the beauty, science, and history of the cave. At the rate the ice is melting there soon will be none left; the film will be the way we remember the ice. Such is the future of many frozen features on our very planet.