I was finally going to tour the Oregon Caves! But first a few safety precautions. Not for us… For the bats! You see, bats that live east of the Rocky Mountains are being decimated by White Nose Syndrome. Infection with the fungus causes bats to rouse too frequently from hibernation and they starve to death through excessive activity. The symptoms include loss of body fat, unusual winter behavior (including flying), damage and scarring of the wing membranes, and death. Sadly, affected areas have experienced declines in the bat population of over 90%.
Luckily, White Nose Syndrome has not yet made its way to the bats at The Oregon Caves, so the tour guides take precautions. You cannot bring any shoes or clothing that have entered a cave where the fungus is known to exist. We checked out and got our tokens, indicating we had passed the safety check.
Then it was time! The tour lasts about 90 minutes and travels about 1 mile through the cave. We entered the cave at the entrance where Elijah Davidson first entered in 1874. It was surprising how quickly the light goes away. The cave is equipped with electric lights, but our Ranger turned them off to let us experience the total darkness.
A stream runs through the cave; so you could hear the sound of water. Once the lights were back on, we were guided along a series of narrow passageways and metal staircases. The Ranger showed us the dingy brown color of the marble along the route, discolored over a hundred years by the oils in so many hands; high up on the walls the marble was bright white.
We saw the different formations, stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws, popcorn, bacon, moonmilk, columns, draperies (also called curtains) and flowstone. The draperies in one room reminded me of those meringue cookies that you can buy at the store.
We also saw where early tourists signed their names on the marble; the writing is clearly visible but is now encased in a clear stone layer, as new marble is forming over top. Although geological changes occur extremely slowly, this is one time where change is clearly evident. We also saw where stalactites and stalagmites were broken off and carted away by people eager for a souvenir.
Our Ranger also did a great job of showing us how the tour has changed over time. We were walking on smooth surfaces lit by electric lights, with metal catwalks and metal staircases. But in the early days of Oregon Cave tours, tourists did not have the luxury of today’s infrastructure. They did their tours with lanterns and wooden ladders, which became very slippery from water dripping in caves. Our Ranger pointed out where the original tour route was, and sections where visitors had to hold onto handholds in the wall, and creep along narrow ledges. I’m not nearly that adventurous.
We also got to hear stories about life in the caves. Fossil bones from several species have been found, including a jaguar that is estimated to be between 20,000 and 40,000 years old and a grizzly bear that is over 50,000 years old. Other fossils include the rare mountain beaver and a blue grouse. The tour took us by the grizzly bear bones, which are encased in a viewing box at the end of the tour – still in the same place where they were found.
The whole tour was fascinating, seeing all the different rooms and passages, and it didn’t feel like 90 minutes had gone by when we finished the tour. The cave is pretty cold though, staying a relatively constant 44 degrees, so it was nice to get back out into the 80 degree sunshine!
And after the tour we went to get some lunch at the Oregon Caves Chateau!