The fabled 17 mile lava tunnel from Bend to Redmond

A few years ago, I stopped at a random house asking about caves in the neighborhood. The fellow I spoke to was a friendly chap and had no information to offer, but he did have a question for me. He asked “I heard that the military base east of Bend on Dodds road was built on a lava tube that runs all the way to the Redmond airport. Do you know anything about that?”

The military base he was referring to is the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program high school on Dodds rd. I don’t know if it is built on a lava tube, but it’s surely possible, just as it is for nearly any other building in central Oregon to unknowingly be built over a lava tube. There are plenty that are. But somehow that old rumor that Bend is connected to Redmond via a 17 mile lava tube had morphed into a secret military access route to the airport.

It’s suspected that the rumor began during the prohibition era when a few locals were known to have illegally distilled liquor in a few caves around the Bend area. Remnants of these operations were found in Skeleton Cave, Distillery Cave, and Moonshiner’s Cave. But only Skeleton Cave is of any sufficient length to be even remotely considered as the basis for this rumor, and as we know today, Skeleton Cave is not quite a mile in length.

An old distillery barrel in Moonshiner’s Cave.

News stories in the Bend Bulletin would later remark on the rumors. The first known mention “Tunnels Under Bend” (p. 4) occurred in 1940 after a fellow offered up a story of a 17 mile long tunnel used for shipping alcohol. The editor of the article, most likely Phil Brogan, rightly denounced the plausibility of such a fanciful tale citing no evidence. However, he does note that fissures underlie the landscape. Still, it’s hard to imagine an uninterrupted 17 mile long fissure running north to Redmond, when most of the faults in the area are not fissures but merely fault scarps and run generally SE/NW.

Another brief article made the front page of the Bend Bulletin, titled “Impressions of central Oregon visitors” (p. 1). A visitor asks the pervasive question about the two cities being connected by a cave the size of a subway tunnel. This myth is rebuffed too and the editor again suggests fissures, the odd cavern or two, and a subterranean stream. In 1958, another article “Cavern Explorers” (p. 4) briefly mentions the rumor that did not die.

The longest lava tube in Oregon is still Lava River Cave. A little over a mile long, it is the perfect example for when conditions are right, this lava tube still could not live up to the tall tales of the prohibition era. The city of Bend is underlain with the same lava rock that created the Lava River Cave and this flow nearly extends to the city of Redmond. Some caves have been found underneath, but there’s very little chance that these caves developed unbroken channels 17 miles long. Or that the roofs did not collapse and segment these caverns. If a cave of such mythical proportions did exist, it’d still be easier to ship the illegal moonshine on the surface even with the risk of being caught.

Entering the nether world

My maiden blog post! As the editor of the Oregon Underground, the newsletter of the local caving club in central Oregon, it will be challenging to not duplicate efforts between that venue and this one. The newsletter will have the crème de la crème: the cave maps, the best pictures, the grittiest details, and exclusive articles from a variety of authors. But it doesn’t get published as much, so this blog will shine in ways that it cannot.

But just how will this blog differ? In quantity. Many of my excursions that go undocumented will find a home here. Aside from exclusive content in the form of trips and pictures, I hope to have video too. More musings, more snippets, more history, more of just about everything. Maybe even non-cave related items?


My son Nyhl in Mycelium Cave

What will this blog not be?

Another position I have with the Oregon High Desert Grotto is that of webmaster. From time to time, I get emails that ask for cave locations. Unfortunately, I have to refuse every single request.  You see, most cavers (that’s what we call ourselves) operate under a kind of secrecy. That is, we don’t reveal cave locations. It’s not that we are jerks or selfish. But it serves to protect the caves from the wrong-doers, and the good-intentioned from themselves. Caves are a delicate thing and can easily be harmed beyond repair. On the flip side, spelunkers who wander into a cave unprepared can hurt themselves by not being properly equipped with the right gear.

We are entering a new phase with our culture as it continues to harness the power of the internet. Everything that cavers hold dear is at risk. All kinds of information is becoming accessible and it won’t be long before all those secret caves become more visible and accessible with just a click of the finger. If the average joe can go online and find coordinates to a cave, there is no need for him to contact his local grotto. This is the threat all grottos must face in the future lest they become an afterthought. Cave location secrecy is still an effective management policy, just not a foolproof one. I intend to employ it here and strongly urge anyone interested in caving to contact their local grotto to learn more. Click on the “About” page above for a link to the Oregon High Desert Grotto website.

One of the ways I plan to help cave management is by reversing the lack of education the general public has on caves. The status quo has come about through a modus operandi of decades of secrecy. This secrecy has not brought caves into visibility as a resource that needs to be protected. Secrecy has been a double-edged sword. But those days are quickly coming to an end. So it falls on all cavers to begin to educate the public as to why caves need protection and the proper way on how to do that.

In my case, I hope to foster a love and respect for caves through this blog. This may bring new responsibilities to local grottos and I hope that they will rise to the challenge of training new enthusiasts and create a new generation of cave caretakers.