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A visitor emerges from a low section in the Catacombs. Photo courtesy of Lava Beds National Monument

The Catacombs crawl

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — Don't confuse stoop it with stupid or stoopit.

The Urban Dictionary defines stoopit — it really is a word — as, much like stupid, an idiot. And you'd have to be an idiot not to stoop it when crawling through the incredibly tight squeezes in Catacombs Cave at Lava Beds National Monument.

For about a third of the way into Catacombs, which is about 2,000 feet long from the entrance to its seldom-visited far end, it's possible to walk upright through fascinatingly intricate passageways. Well, mostly upright, except in sections where the cave ceiling is three feet or less from Catacombs' floor and a brief, scoot-on-your-rear-end lava fall.

Few people make the time-consuming crawl to the cave's far end, which requires slithering on hands and knees through some foot-high slots, but it's not necessary to go beyond a personal comfort zone to appreciate one of the park's most notable caves.

Catacombs got its name from J.D. Howard, a Klamath Falls millwright who discovered, explored and named many of Lava Beds major caves. He's also credited as being "The Father of Lava Beds" for his efforts to have it protected as a national monument.

According to "Lava Beds Caves," an excellent, must-have cave guide by Charlie and Jo Larson, Howard was seeking shelter from a blizzard when he dropped into a collapse and sat down near a packrat nest. Feeling air movement, he tore away the nest and uncovered a small opening and went about 1,000 feet inside. In his writings, Howard explained, "Catacombs Cave I named for its many branches and alcoves. It made me think of what the burial chambers under Rome might look like."

Easily missed near the cave entrance are some badly faded words Howard painted on the walls, including, "March 2, 1918."

It's ironic that Howard, who painted names in several of the prominent lava-tube caves, would face charges for defacing federal property in contemporary times. While he took pleasure in his discoveries — and later took friends into Catacombs and other caves — he eventually regretted opening Catacombs because of damage done by careless visitors. Each year Lava Beds staff and volunteers clean out surprising amounts of debris from several caves, including Catacombs.

Howard also named other Catacombs features, including the Wine Case, a pillar that splits the underground trail, and the Boxing Glove Chamber, the stopping point for most ranger-led cave tours. During a recent tour, ranger Patrick Taylor talked about Howard and the cave's geology, including its lava flowstone, rafted breakdowns, popcorn lava, clinkers, lava slime (a gold colored "bacteriological mess"), lavacicles, and "cave kisses," water that drops from the ceiling and brings good luck to the person "kissed."

Cave visitors, Taylor advised, should always carry two sources of light. Knee and elbow pads are recommended for tight spaces. Although portions of Catacombs floor are relatively smooth, the pads greatly reduce the discomfort for the tighter squeezes. Suggested, too, are hard hats. As Taylor cautioned, "If you bump you're head, you'll have a lifetime memory."

Ranger-guided Catacombs tours, which are offered only occasionally during the winter and more often during the summer, stop at the Boxing Glove Chamber. From there the cave's complex maze of chambers continues, frequently requiring belly crawls. Although the distance from its entrance to its terminus is about 2,000 feet, the cave's length — because of its braided complexity, its many branches, and its parallel tubes — is variously estimated at 6,900 to, more recently, 8,436 feet.

While guided tours provide informational tidbits and a sense of security, Catacombs, like other Lava Beds caves, is open for individual exploration. A map provides helpful guidance. Expect to get occasionally turned around. Just don't be stoopit.

— Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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