A great way to escape the rain

December 24, 2005

Webster’s Dictionary defines a spelunker as, “One who makes a hobby or sport of exploring caves.”

For several months each year the Ice Caves, in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, come to life. Ice stalactites cling to the caves’ ceiling, crystal clear and shimmering like diamonds in the rough. Each one tapering down to a find point, they are sharp, fragile and beautifully sinister.

And like time in fast forward, the icicles drip, drip, drip water onto the crystal-clear stalagmites rising like colonies from the cave floor. Some meet in the middle and bridge the gap.

A spelunking rule of thumb is that mineral stalagmites and stalactites grow about an inch every hundred years. In the Ice Caves, however, they can grow that much in an afternoon if temperatures are just right. By about February of most winters, the ice has transformed the caves into what looks something like the inside of a pumpkin before it is cleaned out for Halloween.

At less than an hour’s drive from the bridge, the Ice Caves are the closest spelunking hot-spot to Hood River. In the winter, access to the caves depends largely on the amount of snow on the ground and roads. At most, a one-mile or so hike through the snow is necessary. The rewards of exploring such a unique, other-worldly landscape are well-worth the short journey over the river and through the woods.

Precautions:

Clearly, venturing into pitch-black underground tunnels decked from ceiling to ground with sharp rocks, ice and icicles carries inherent dangers. With a few simple precautions, however, spelunking can be a safe, family-friendly way to see the Earth from a different angle. With the current torrential weather, it is also a great way to play outdoors and out of the rain. Following these simple precautions can help make spelunking safe:

* Never go alone: a key rule to any dangerous activity.

* Wear proper footwear: high-top hiking boots or spikes are the way to go.

* Carry extra lights: proper lighting makes spelunking far more enjoyable. A small lantern is the way to go. From a safety standpoint, an extra flashlight or extra batteries can potentially save a person’s life.

* Dress warmly: although caves stay at fairly constant temperatures, those temperatures are cold, even in the heat of the summer.

* When exploring caves, carry string, rope or chalk to mark the correct route back to the surface.

Directions:

The Ice Caves are located about five miles north of Trout Lake, Wash. Follow Highway 141 to Trout Lake. Veer left at the town’s gas station. A Forest Service ranger station is located just north of there, where spelunkers can learn more about the caves and the most current road conditions.

As of Thursday, the best route to the caves was to park at Atkinson Snow Park about five miles beyond the ranger station. From there, about a mile hike is required. Hike on the marked, groomed snowmobile trail leading away from the snow park for about half a mile until it comes to an intersection. Take an immediate left and follow the snow-covered road to the signs that point to the Ice Caves. The signs will lead to the opening of one of the caves, which has a staircase descending into the underground world of spelunking.

From there you’re on your own; however, the best route is the tunnel behind the stairs.

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