The floor is lava. No, really, it is. Yeah, it’s 2,000 years old and relatively safe to walk on, aside from those pesky grooves and holes that make it easy to twist an ankle, but still, it’s LAVA.
I’m stumbling around like one of the living dead today after a weekend full of adventure. Everything aches—arms, legs, and feet, in particular. I’ve got scabs on my knees and shins, and my tailbone is bruised. But it was a crazy fun trip.
Early Saturday morning, my husband, fourteen-year-old twins, and I drove to Maupin, Oregon to go white water rafting on the Deschutes River. We booked our trip through Forward Paddle, who I highly recommend. Our guide, Jim, is the owner, and was wonderful. He kept us entertained with stories, coached us on upcoming hazards, and most importantly, showed us a good time while keeping us safe. (Safety is very important when one, you’re no spring chicken and your limbs don’t bend like they used to, and two, you’re putting your favorite people in an inflatable raft and braving class 4 rapids).
We went through a set of rapids aptly named Devil’s Hole, rushing over a wall of water and submerging in a swirling whirlpool before bobbing up and going on our way. It was quite a ride.
Halfway through the trip, Jim asked how we felt about going over an eight-foot waterfall. This was met with silence as every passenger looked around, wide-eyed, at the others. “You okay with that?” I asked my boys. One was cool with it, though he looked a bit nervous. I’m sure I did too. The other, my adrenaline junkie and rollercoaster enthusiast, was all for careening off a waterfall. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
We went through a practice run—row, row, row, and then pull in your oar and stuff your butt in the bottom of the raft as fast as you can. “The most important thing is to stay in the boat,” Jim told us. “You do not want to fall out.” He didn’t care if we lost our oars, hats, or sunglasses—we just had to do whatever we could to hold on. There was a reason for this: the Diaper Wiper. If we fell out, the river would swallow us up, give us an ultimate wedgie, and then spit us out on two large rocks called the Meat Grinder and the Cheese Grater. Not a pretty picture, but an excellent motivator.
We beached the boat to watch another raft in our group go first. I have to say, it did not give me a great deal of confidence to watch them disappear over the edge of the waterfall and then see their guide fly out of the boat. (The guide was fine, by the way. When we caught up to him, he laughed it off—though he did get teased by his fellow guides. All in good fun.)
Then it was our turn. We dug in our oars, rowed furiously, and then tucked in as quick as we could. I grabbed the handle on my bench and hung on tight, which was a very good thing because I felt my body fly up and land on the inflated edge of the raft. Aside from one of us losing an oar and all of us coming up sputtering water, everyone was okay, and we let out a cheer as we zipped past the Cheese Grater. I believe we now have bragging rights for surviving the Diaper Wiper. Maybe I’ll put that on a t-shirt.
So that was Saturday. On Sunday, we headed up to Mount St. Helens, to explore Ape Cave, one of the longest lava tubes in the United States. The lower cave is 1.5 miles round trip, a nice walk down a gentle incline. If you go, take two flashlights in case one goes out.
It’s not terribly dangerous in the lower cave since the tunnel is huge, but you wouldn’t want to trip and fall over a boulder or ridge in the lava floor. There are some cool features—a suspended boulder called a meatball, and ridges that narrow to look like train tracks.
At the end of the cave is a tunnel that grows increasingly narrow. You’ll have to army-crawl if you do it, but it’s not too scary if you’re not claustrophobic.
To illustrate how pleasant a stroll the trail is, here’s a photo of me in the lower cave. See, not breathing hard at all.
The upper cave is an entirely different animal, and I don’t recommend it if you go alone, if you’re in poor health, or if you have small children with you. It’s an amazing, but strenuous, experience. Even though it’s only 1.5 miles long, it takes hours to get through because you have to climb over 27 (yes, 27) piles of boulders, each mound of rocks as big as a house.
Between those, you have to climb up several rock walls, formed by spilling lava. The largest, an eight-foot wall, had few handholds. It was good thing we were with a group, because it took teamwork to scale that one. Here’s a photo of me after surviving that.
It has been five days since we entered the cave. The water has long since run out, and we lost Uncle Archibald to the mutant cannibals who inhabit this God-forsaken place. I fear I shall never see the sun again.
On the bright side, my boys had a fantastic time. It’s an experience they won’t soon forget. (Neither will I. I bruised my tailbone on a rock and have that to remind me.)
We celebrated each obstacle conquered and enjoyed climbing up on rock shelves to shine our lights and look up and down the tunnels. Where the lava tubes narrowed, we could feel gusts of cold wind. The lava flows were different textures—smooth, rolling mounds and hard ridges on the floors, and spiky ripples on the ceilings.
Near the end of the tunnel is a skylight, which was a welcome sight after all that darkness.
Finally, we reached the ladder and emerged from the cave. (The tunnel goes on even further, but we’ll have to come back to explore that part. It was late in the day and we had another 1.3 miles to hike before we made it back to the parking lot.) See the hole in the ground there? Yeah. That’s the exit.
I’m sure we’ll return. Mount St. Helens is huge and there’s much to explore. We hope to head to Lava Canyon for our next adventure. Maybe next time we’ll encounter Sasquatch. I hope he’s not a mutant cannibal.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017