A wonderful thing happened in the summer of 2010. Arnold Ice Cave changed from an inaccessible and boring footnote of the caves of China Hat road, to a long, beautiful, and historically interesting cave. Well, I guess Arnold Ice Cave was always historically interesting, but only in a hands-off sort of way. You see, for the better part of of the last century, Arnold Ice Cave was full of ice. In fact, by the 2000s it had so much ice that you couldn’t get into the cave. The ice had effectively filled it up and sealed it shut.
In the 1920s and 30s, miners harvested the cave’s ice after Hugh O’Kane cornered Bend’s ice market. The late 1930s were the last time anyone entered Arnold Ice Cave’s “Boys of Bend Extension” and it was only accessible because of the ice mining operation. The miners had removed so much ice that it allowed explorers to access what was then, a new extension of the cave. Soon after, the cave slowly began filling up with ice. Before long, only the entrance room could be entered. The wooden stairs that were installed by Deschutes National Forest in 1963 were eventually swallowed up never to be seen again, and so too the rest of the cave. That is until the summer of 2010.
July of 2010 was… interesting, to say the least. A pair of young adventurers attended an Oregon High Desert Grotto meeting. The meeting went as planned until the couple discussed their visit to Arnold Ice Cave. They nonchalantly talked about exploring a tight crawl and traversing over thousands of feet into the cave, noting old items in the cave such as an empty cigarette box that “disintegrated on contact.” The members of the Oregon High Desert Grotto couldn’t believe their ears – Arnold Ice Cave was sealed off with ice! Certainly, this couple must have mistaken it for some other cave (anecdotally, one of the Grotto’s members, Ted Hasse, had visited Arnold Ice Cave a week or two prior to the young couple and found the cave still inacessible). They insisted it was Arnold Ice and were pretty clear in their description that it merited further investigation.
That very evening, a small group of cavers from the Grotto drove straight to Arnold Ice Cave. If the report was true, it meant the rumored extension was open! As with all things on China Hat road, time was of the essence. When things get into the hands of the public, the sad truth is, they tend to destroy things. As you will read, Arnold Ice Cave was no exception. This is why cavers are so secretive about cave locations!
The cavers arrived at Arnold Ice with all the necessary gear. They discovered there was a small hole in the ice-choked entrance and it lead to a 12 foot drop. I was on this trip and I was unprepared to be dumbfounded. The four of us, Brent McGregor, Lonnie Seiders, Jeremy Wendelin, and myself all rigged up and dropped down the hole. We were now in the remains of the historical ice mining chamber. We stood at the foot of an ice wall that was once an advancing ice sheet that had previously sealed the cave. Slabs of a wooden structure were spotted and were quickly determined to be the remains of the stairway, now completely obliterated. The cave passage loomed darkly.
Our group explored the chamber finding items from the first half of the 20th century. McGregor took pictures and would eventually make several return trips to document everything. At the end of the mining chamber, large deposits of ash were a foot thick and we did our best to avoid them and advanced to the end of the room. We observed a small gap between the wall and the large pile of rocks that blocked our path. It was the only way forward, so one by one, we all made the 20 foot crawl and popped out into a small room on the other side of the rock pile.
No modern caver had been beyond the breakdown choke in 75 years. Previous maps of the cave only noted the historical mining chamber. But it was true, Arnold Ice Cave continued on, and we could see the darkness beckoning. As a caver, this is what you live for: virgin passage. While not quite virgin, this was real, real close. Only a handful had been before us. Our feet carried us over the piles of loosely settled rock until we came to what cavers call “original passage.”
Original passage is any lava tube passage that is devoid of piles of rock that broke free from the walls and ceiling. Original walls and ceilings are smoother and sometimes look metallic, especially when highlighted with drip water. The original passage in which we found ourselves was impressively tall, but not unexpected for an Arnold System cave. Arnold Ice Cave was huge! And it kept going! The cave is long for a central Oregon cave and an eventual survey by Geoff MacNaughton and I brought the total length to 2,638 feet.
Suffice it to say, our group had a blast exploring Arnold Ice Cave that evening. We found lots of cool and interesting things and kept finding them on return visits. One of the coolest things we found was the skull of what we assume is a wolf. It was found in the “Original Skull Passage.” I made the discovery when we were slowly looking at everything in the cave. It was in plain sight, but the skull had aged in such a fashion that it took on the color and look of all the surrounding rock. It was lying at the foot of the wall on the floor. It was perfectly camouflaged, or so I thought. I alerted Brent to the discovery, and we took pictures in situ. After some discussion, we decided to pick it up and take a full set of pictures of it from all angles. I’m glad we did, because today that’s all we have left of the skull.
Within a month or two, as the public learned that Arnold Ice Cave was again accessible, they began visiting it in droves. When Brent and I had done the ethical thing and put back the wolf skull for future study, we thought we were doing the right thing, and we were, but unfortunately there is nothing you can do about the uneducated and selfish who would take that opportunity for themselves and deprive the rest of us. You see, because that wolf skull has been stolen from the cave, we can no longer learn about it. No one can see it and admire it. That skull was worth so much more inside the cave than it is outside. The context is lost. I wouldn’t be surprised if that skull has deteriorated and sits in a box in someone’s garage, or its academic potential lost as it sits on a bookshelf, its future unrealized.
But there is a small glimmer of hope that the person who took the skull may be reading this story. If so, or if you know the person who did, I would urge you to contact me, so we can find a proper home for this skull. Clearly, the skull is not safe in the cave. We could find a home for the skull where it could be appreciated by everyone and studied by scientists who could add to our collective knowledge about it and our surrounding landscape. I think we could look past these mistakes and be thankful that the skull could be returned to the public, because really, that’s who owns it. This is a part of our history and it would be a shame if it was lost for good.
That was not all that was lost from Arnold Ice Cave though. In those first weeks of access, McGregor photo-documented many of the items found in the historical mining chamber. Things like axes, hub caps, flash cubes, old beer cans, and more. All of these items were antiques and now they’re all gone. Removed one by one to enter into personal collections. That large ash deposit that was a foot thick when our caving group encountered it? It’s been trampled flat by hundreds of feet since then. New graffiti has popped up all over the cave too, some as directional arrows indicating the way out, as if a linear passage wasn’t straight forward (pun intended) enough.
Today, Arnold Ice Cave is becoming much like the other caves of China Hat road. I typically get asked by the common folk why all the caves are gated and they express their discontent at losing access to the caves. The truth is, the general public doesn’t take care of the caves. I know that is not true of everyone and generally it’s a “few bad apples” that ruin it. The bad apples that frequent China Hat road love to litter, deface, vandalize and some are willing to go so far as to kill cave inhabitants such as bats. Recall in 2011 the Hidden Forest Cave incident, where a group of young adults ran roughshod over the cave and covered up native American art panels with spray paint. All for a few moments of glory.
Americans are an interesting lot. Our culture, unlike that of the Europeans who respect caves and openly reveal cave locations to everyone, is in stark contrast. We want it all but zero of the responsibility. We are at the late stage of the game where there are so many people now, that it is effectively easier to manage a cave by gating it, than it is to educate every single person in our community indefinitely. The latter is much more difficult because it’s a never ending process. Each successive generation needs to be taught how to respect the environment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: convenience breeds a lack of respect. We will never be richer until we learn to deal with our own ugliness. It’s a shame, but for now, that seems to be par for the course.
Special thanks to Brent McGregor for supplying photographs for this article.