Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ape Caves: An Abused Natural Wonder

This was going to be a typical trip report, replete with fanciful language describing the wonders of Ape Caves, a 3 mile long lava tube burrowing through the flanks of Mt. St. Helens. I would have described the feeling of descending into another world, of traversing natural train tunnels, towering Lovecraftian cathedrals, shining slabs, and twisting patterns in the rock. However, this ancient, hallowed cavern has been so badly defaced that to promote it without mention of its poor condition, and the need to remedy the circumstances that continue to degrade it, would be remiss in the extreme.

At the visitor center, at the trailhead, online, in brochures, and at the cave mouth are signs pleading with would-be adventurers to behave themselves within. There are entreaties not to litter, to leave natural objects in the cave, to not touch the delicate rock formations on the walls of the cave, not to eat in the cave, not to smoke in the cave, and not defecate in the cave. Most, if not all, of these rules have been broken, and the cave is a lesser place because of this.

The lower and most popular portion of the cave is by far the cleanest, though even here graffiti and cigarette butts may be found. The longer, less visited, upper portion of the cave is a different matter altogether. Upon arriving at the first of 27 boulder piles, the smell of human waste hits you, and as you progress it only gets worse; one begins to wonder if one has stumbled upon a sewer rather than one of America’s greatest natural wonders. Practically every crevice in the mounds of boulders has been used as a trash bin; from wrappers and cigarette butts to bottles and bags, it is as if the cave is transforming into a landfill.

The second boulder pile is the worst. Bedecked with damp toilet paper, the smell is truly terrible. It was so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to reach the top and climb over to the other side. Traversing another mile of trash and sewage just didn’t appeal to me for some reason.

I hope that this article will help some folks who might read it to treat caves with respect. However, it is likely that the perpetrators of such wildland atrocities aren’t going to see this (probably because they don’t know how to read), and so action needs to be taken.

Ways of solving this issue could include:
      1. Close the cave at night and in the off-season. This would keep ne’er-do-wells from causing mischief at times when no officials are present in the area.
     2.  Maintain a constant presence of rangers in the cave.
3       3. Plant hidden cameras throughout the cave and advertise their presence.

Of most immediate importance is the massive cleanup effort necessary to remove the garbage, graffiti, and human waste. Hopefully such an endeavor can be instigated; the caves are too special a place to be let go to ruin.