Thursday, May 06, 2021

A refuge, a monument, and a mountain

| May 2, 2021 12:00 AM

The Oregon/California border, at least what I saw of it several weeks ago, follows an unambiguous stretch of highway named Stateline, appropriately enough, unceremoniously dividing the two states and straight as a ruler. On either side of the road the land is flat — an arid, sagebrush-scrubby landscape.

Klamath Falls, Oregon, is the biggest nearby town, about a half hour’s drive. Just a few miles up the road from where we were camping is Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, it became the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. I toured it with my son’s girlfriend one sunny afternoon when the weather was temperate for that time of year in that part of the country. In the space of a couple of hours we observed more than 25 species of waterfowl, raptors and other wetland birds. Along the waterway, great blue herons nested in the tops of trees in one grove. In a separate, adjacent grove bald eagles, which we learned had migrated from Glacier National Park, perched nearby, while great egrets by the dozens poised on one leg in the water below and a flock of snow geese soared above.

The refuge — a mix of wetland, upland habitat, and over 16,000 acres of farmland — is a primary stopping point along the Pacific Flyway. Approximately 80% of the flyway's migrating waterfowl pass through the Klamath Basin during their spring and fall migrations.

Irrigation canals channel open water throughout the refuge. We spotted two mated pairs of sandhill cranes and a stunning pod of white pelicans that made for some spectacular photos as they lifted off the water in unison, passing right by our pickup.

Lower Klamath is one of six separate wildlife refuges that comprise the extensive Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex — sometimes called the “heartbeat of the Pacific Flyway.”

The next day the two of us drove a half hour to Lava Beds National Monument. This surreal, high desert country sits on top of the massive Medicine Lake Shield volcano. The monument is known for its hundreds of lava tube caves. Formed over the last half million years when molten lava flowed through the basalt rock layer and left hollowed caves, it’s the highest concentration of lava tube caves in North America.

The entire area is peppered with cinder cones rising up above the lava beds. Almost moon-like in appearance, the monument was struck by wildfire last year and 70% of the park burned, making the charred landscape of gnarly, blackened trees, volcanic rock and sagebrush seem even starker.

Dozens of the caves are open to exploration. We were there on a day of mixed sunshine punctuated by brief snow flurries, so the caves, at 50 degrees, were warmer than the outside temperature. We had one flashlight and two cellphone flashlights between us, so we didn’t go in too far; a large flashlight and hardhat is essential to explore the caves’ deeper recesses. The deepest, Catacombs Cave, is nearly 7,000 feet long. Many of the caves have unique geological features such as skylights — Sunshine Cave; luminescent bacteria — Golden Dome Cave; and ancient Native American pictographs — Big Painted Cave.

If you’ve never turned off a flashlight while you’re in a cave, it’s a humbling experience. Absolute darkness. Absolute silence. Lava Beds National Monument is an unexpected side trip in a unique part of the country. Beautiful. Fascinating. Spooky.

Our last field trip was to Mount Shasta. The mystical mountain — many people and Indigenous tribes believe it’s sacred — gives an imposing view for miles, its bright, snowcapped cone rising monumentally from the landscape floor. At over 14,000 feet, this potentially still active volcano shoulders its satellite cone, Shastina. On the sunny and warm March day my husband and I visited, we stood on a huge snowfield gazing up Mount Shasta’s south flank, found folks picnicking and puppies playing in the snow, and watched happy skiers glissading down the mountainside.

Community Editor Carol Marino can be reached at