The caves are no secret, most people who have been around Central Oregon for a few years have either heard of, or poked around in some of the Horse system lava caves. But lately they've been getting a little more attention - at least from cavers like Skeels who are keenly aware that urbanization can quickly degrade cave habitat for bats and other - sometimes rare - creatures. Yet, in some ways the growth can be a mixed blessing for cavers and conservationists who know that with increase exposure will come more opportunities for preservation, but also more risk of degradation.
Skeels caught the caving bug as a teenager after happening on an old brochure for the annual meeting of the National Speleological Society in Bend. The brochure, which Skeels guesses was never intended for public distribution, included a guidebook for several local caves. Given how closely cavers tend to guard such information it was sort of like finding a real treasure map in your cereal box.
"As a rule, cavers don't give out locations to caves," Skeels said. "Once you tell one person and they tell another person and by the time it gets to the 20th person they have the wrong intentions."
So Skeels may not have been going exactly by the rulebook when he brought me, my camera and his six-year-old son out to do some cave exploring recently.
Skeels knows the cave well, which once served as part of a private landfill on the property. It's one of the roughly dozen that he surveyed on behalf of Department of States Lands in southeast Bend on a parcel known as Section 11. The state has been lobbying aggressively to get the land included in the city's ongoing urban growth boundary (UGB) expansion. If the state were successful, the area could become one of Bend's next large-scale master planned neighborhoods - think Northwest Crossing in the Juniper forest. And therein lies the conundrum for cavers like Skeels who relish the access they have to caves, but are also keenly aware of the threat posed by over use and outright abuse.
Yet despite its name, Garbage Cave #1 is in relatively good shape. After strapping on a CCM ice hockey helmet and a headlamp, I wriggled through a small entrance, pushing my feet into the cool darkness. After sliding over some rather rank garbage I popped my head into the cave and found that it opened into a massive room nearly 100 feet deep with a large vaulted ceiling that was 15 feet or more at its highest point.
Skeels then guided his son and I back over a large outcropping where the cave opened into a second taller vault. Prodded by our guide, we scrambled rather blindly over sharp angular rocks to a third chamber. We arrived in the lavasicle room, a low-ceilinged annex whose walls and roof were covered in row upon row of what look like small, polished molten nipples that glistened suggestively with droplets of subterranean moisture. It could have been Bruce Wayne's Bat Cave.
On the grand scale of caving, which includes rappelling into caverns and subterranean lakes, this was beginner's stuff. But it's a clue as to what fuels the interest of the small but dedicated band of local cave explorers - there are only about a dozen active members in the local grotto, according to Skeels.
"You're involved in this unusual beauty. Most Oregonians don't even realize what they're driving over. It's unfortunate that most of the caves around here have been pilfered," said Brent McGregor, a local furniture maker who has been active in the local caving club for about three years.
McGregor said he doesn't really know what drew him into underground exploration, but that it probably has to do with his affinity for the unusual.
"I've always been attracted to the freaks of nature," he said. "I work a lot with juniper trees and I look for the really interesting trees that aren't going to go through a mill. I see that sense of unusual things in nature and that attracts me to them. I find that over and over."
Not everyone is as philosophical. We found plenty of evidence of abuse. Even in the lavacicle room. A previous visitor, presumably inspired by such subtle and austere beauty, had christened the room with a beer bottle.
Walking around the Section 11 caves it's easy to see why the Department of State Lands has been pushing for its inclusion in the UGB. The property affords expansive views of the Cascade Range and sits on the desirable edge of vast amounts of federal land-the state actually obtained the property in a land swap deal with the Bureau of Land Management in the late 1990s.
While Skeels would like to see the entire Horse system protected and conserved for future generations, he knows that's not likely to happen and he's the first to admit it.
"We don't have an inventory of the caves in the expansion area, so we don't know with a great deal of accuracy where the caves are located," said Brian Rankin, a long-range planner at the city.
But given the dozens of other confirmed caves on the east side of the city - where the bulk of the UGB expansion is slated - it's likely that the city will have to tackle the issue of cave conservation, regardless of whether Garbage Cave or any of the other Section 11 lands are brought into the city.
House Bill 2320 would require adults to wear lifejackets, even on non-motorized watercraft