Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Spelunking the Easy Way - Lewis and Clark Caverns

Dad, my brother and myself, anxious to Board the Train - 1968

I know it's not the best photo but its the one that represents my first visit to Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, situated about mid-point between Butte and Bozeman, Montana.  I'm guessing I was about 10 years old.  My mother, who was somewhat claustrophobic and not inclined to get down on her hands and knees in the dress she always wore, with a group of strangers, to crawl down one tunnel or another left my Dad, who was pretty much game for any new adventure, in charge.  And an adventure it was!  

We were early for our tour, as was my family's nature and so my brother and I did our best to entertain ourselves while we waited for others to arrive so we could begin the journey. When we were gathered in numbers sufficient for the tour, we boarded a small single car train, which took us along a narrow track scaped along the side of the mountain about 1/2 way between the toe and the peak.  From there, we hopped into what can best be described as a roller coaster, which was dragged unceremoniously up to the mouth of the cave. Sitting in the front car, I remember hanging onto my dad for dear life; it was a L O N G way down and one never could be certain that the cable wouldn't snap at any moment sending me tumbling headfirst into the valley below.

My brother and I were sufficiently marked by our experience that, as adults, some 20 years later, we were both still talking about it.  He was the first to return with his family in the late 1980s.  I made my repeat performance this past fall.  While I may not have been in the same total state of awe as I was when I was 10, I was pleased that I was able to confirm to my better half that it was certainly worth driving a few hundred miles out of our way for. 

Stack of Dirty Dishes - 1968
The caverns have been familiar to 1st Nations people since long before their discovery by  Europeans.  It wasn't until 1882 that two local fellows noticed them.  In 1892, local ranchers Tom Williams and Bert Pannel noticed steam coming from the mouth during a hunting trip but they didn't get around to exploring them until 1898.  Williams wanted to start giving tours but a court battle over ownership ensued with the railway, which one.  In 1908, the railroad gave the land to the federal government., even though tours were first developed around 1900.  First known as Limspur Cave, the site was officially renamed Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument in 1908.  Funny thing is, neither Lewis or Clark ever set foot in the caves, though they do overlook approximately 50 miles of trail travelled along the Jefferson River by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  The Caverns were eventually transferred from the Federal Government to the State of Montana and declared its first state park in April 1938.

Cathedral Room - 1968
Grand Finale - 2016
There have been a few changes to Lewis and Clark Caverns since my initial visit in the late 1960s.  The little train is long gone, as is the roller coaster car, though there remains some vestiges of the track.  All this was removed to try to stem the erosion it was ultimately causing.  Now there is about 1/2 mile hike up a path at a steady incline to the cave entrance, followed by a downward trek through the caves, only to return the 1/2 mile or so but this time at the same elevation as the admittance and gift shop.
Valley View from Cave Entrance - 2016
There is an entertaining but educational bent to the tour, as each of the guides shares stories, popular names for the more spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, colums and helictites.  

If you find yourself with a couple of hours to spend, and you're in the area, stop by. You won't be sorry.