At the deepest point of Heppe Ice Cave, there’s a pool of water that stays partially frozen throughout the year. When I hiked down into the cave last week, the layer of ice was visible about a foot under the water’s surface. I stood in twilight at high noon. A house finch flew down from the mouth of the cave and landed by my feet. He didn’t seem to mind me, just drank leisurely from the pool. I waited him out— watched him flutter and disappear back into the light.
The Monument is 46,000 acres without a drop of surface water— only what snowmelt collects at the bottoms of lava tubes. A ranger told me that over the phone while I was planning the trip. I imagined an inhospitable landscape not capable of supporting human life, but I was terribly wrong.
I didn’t take Tule Lake into consideration. Just north of the Monument, Tule Lake was massive before the Bureau of Reclamation drained most of it for irrigation in the early twentieth century. Tule Lake sustained Native populations for the last 11,000 years.
The north half of the Monument, closest to Tule Lake, was the site of the Modoc War of 1872-1873. At Captain Jack’s Stonghold, one can walk through the series of lava formations that Modoc leader Kintpuash and sixty followers used as trenches and fortification for five months. Despite their small numbers, they held off hundreds of US Army soldiers in a last-ditch attempt to protect their homeland. As a Jew, I was reminded of Masada.
Intent on catching the full moon rising, I hiked Schonchin Butte at sunset. It didn’t occur to me that it was the Fourth of July until I saw the miniature fireworks way out on the horizon. It was a terribly sad thing to see those fireworks over the battlefields, knowing that Kintpuash was ultimately hanged and the survivors were packed in cattle cars and shipped to a reservation Oklahoma.
There’s so much more to grapple with than the walls of caves.