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Education in Action: Lava Beds National Monument

Posted Sep 29 2011 12:00am

Seeing as how I’ll probably be referencing it for the next several weeks, I figured a recap of my week away from Running and Rambling headquarters was in order.

I had the opportunity to help chaperone a group of over thirty 8th graders - one of whom was my son - for a week of camping, hiking, cave exploration, and various other outdoor adventures, all in the name of education.

(Click to enlarge any photo)

Our destination was Lava Beds National Monument , an area near the California / Oregon border that lies on the flank of an enormous shield volcano. It’s an area of remarkable geologic activity and a region of great historic significance – basically, it’s a place that makes science and social studies totally cool. This is a major selling point when you’re dealing with a bunch of moody adolescents.

Nearly every activity we did there could be the topic of its own post, some of which were practically writing themselves in my head while I was still in the midst of doing them (I love it when that happens). I also managed to grab a few morning runs, and took advantage of the setting to do some extensive gear testing – all of which made for a pretty fantastic week from a blog standpoint. There were a couple of notable exceptions, as I’ll explain shortly, but for now let’s get to the overview.

Actually, one of the first downsides (for me, anyway) came right off the bat. I’ve never been a big fan of camping; as I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, I’m perfectly willing to stay out all day and all night doing any sort of crazy messy outdoor activity you choose … but when it’s all said and done, I like a warm shower and a nice bed afterward. But for the entire week of this field trip, there were no beds or showers, or even a water feature like a lake or river to rinse ourselves off.

I thought I’d hate this aspect of the trip, but you know what? With my inflatable queen-size air mattress, goose down sleeping bag, and ergonomic pillow, it was … well, I still didn’t like it. But I guess it wasn’t quite as miserable as I feared it would be.

Our campground was situated in an area that had the feel and appearance of a high desert plain. We were at about 4500’, temperatures were hot (90-100 degrees) all week, and everything was dusty … the only difference between this and a typical desert is that the predominant feature of the terrain was dried lava rock.

We spent a lot of the week studying geology up and down: down, as in this mammoth crater (called, fittingly enough, Mammoth Crater) that is the source of almost all the lava beds we would explore …

… and up, as in a journey to the top of Little Mount Hoffman, one of many buttes in the region formed after a lava explosion, when the magma cooled in the air and fell back to Earth to form a cinder cone. In the distance behind the lava field is Mount Shasta, a massive composite volcano that dominates the landscape and is visible from most of the park.

(And if you’re wondering how I can throw around terms like shield volcano, cinder cone, and composite volcano so easily – well, it was an educational trip, after all; I figured I may as well pay attention.)

Our group activities centered mainly around “caving”, or descending into hollowed-out lava tubes. Some, like this one called Skull Cave, are enormous openings that you could probably drive a bus through …

… while other cave entrances are marked by nothing more than a sign and a hole in the ground with a ladder in it. There are countless caves in the park, with more than two dozen officially marked and mapped out, some of them containing miles of networked passages that drop hundreds of feet underground.

If you’re lucky, you can stand upright in the caves, but more often than not (especially if you’re 6’2”) you have to do some method of crouching or duck walking. Notice that I’m wearing kneepads, which come in handy …

… in the multiple areas where you have no choice but to crawl on your hands and knees. Things could be a lot worse, however …

… because there are plenty of tubes where all you can do is wriggle like a worm across the lava rock floor. Some stretches like this are 10-20 yards long; it’s definitely not the place for anyone who’s remotely claustrophobic. By the way, that’s my kid working his way through the opening with a couple of his buddies. Yes, I followed behind them; no, it didn’t go well.

In case you missed it in the earlier photo, I was wearing Vibrams in this cave – the FiveFingers Trek LS , which I’ll officially review next week. However, the thought occurred to me: am I the first one to post pictures of Vibrams in an underground cave? That would be kind of cool; I think I need to investigate this further.

From “down” to “up” again: the following day we climbed Schonchin Butte, a relatively middle-aged cinder cone at roughly 65,000 years old …

... in contrast to the eruptions from at a spot called Fleener Chimneys which are merely 10,000 years old – the blink of an eye in geologic terms.

The chimneys were also a cool spot to practice a little bit of lava rock climbing, as demonstrated here by my son …

… and here by me, again in my Vibrams. I don’t have any aspirations of becoming a rock climber, but there’s something very primal and rewarding about clawing your way up to the top of some enormous land mass. Small doses will suffice for me, though.

I mentioned the social history of the region, and the most memorable story took place right here, in an area known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold. It’s named after the leader of the Native American Modocs , who were the last tribe standing near the end of the so-called Indian Wars.

In 1872 and 1873, the United States Army was charged with relocating the Modoc north to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon. The Modoc tried to negotiate terms to stay in their homeland, the Army refused, and killings took place on both sides – the most significant of which was Captain Jack’s assassination of US General Edward Canby, which stood as the only death of a United States General during the Indian Wars.

Of course, the Army didn’t react kindly to the Modoc resistance, and came back with several hundred troops to remove the tribe by force or extinguish them entirely. The story didn’t end well for the Modoc – it never did for the Indians – but the final band of 60-80 Modoc used the caves, tunnels, and harsh lava terrain as a natural fortress, holding off the entire Army for nearly six months before eventually fleeing and scattering across the northwest.

It’s stories like that, told in the actual setting where they occurred, that bring history home in a way that no amount of textbook reading can accomplish. The same rule applies to volcanoes and caves: it’s one thing to learn about them in a classroom, but another thing completely to see and feel and experience them firsthand. That’s why trips like this are so awesome for the kids, and why I felt fortunate to be included. (I'm still just a big kid in a lot of ways.)

The fact that it gave me some great blog fodder was completely secondary – but it’s the one you’re likely to hear about more in the weeks to come.

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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