A little look-see on the internet suggests we might break the monotony of four Interstate 84 hours with a stop at a famous ice cave not far off the freeway. I’m not sure what an ice cave is but it sounds intriguing.
No, it isn’t the entrance to Kentucky’s Creation Museum,¹ wherein Biblical characters are supposed to have lived alongside dinosaurs (curiously invoking wolves and lions as the most fearsome creatures of their divine prose without mentioning the tyrannosaurus, velociraptors and pterodactyls that must have hounded them), it’s the Shoshone Ice Cave of Idaho.
We drove today to Twin Falls to pick up Kayla’s friend Jataya who will stay with us for the week. We try to break up the monotony of this semi-regular drive with a stop at some new point of interest. Last night’s internet search has led us here.
The barren approach past scrubgrass and the Black Butte lava field north of the small town of Shoshone had me wondering if I’d read the directions correctly. But this faux frontier town coated liberally with crimson and kitsch leaves no doubt.
Access to the ice cave requires a tour ticket and tours only happen when enough people are queued up. Seems we have a few minutes to kill. Luckily there’s a museum to peruse.
The museum of arrayed rocks and bones takes little time to take in so it’s off to the races, dinosaur versus elephant. Kayla strikes an aerodynamic pose while Jataya prefers the slow and steady approach.
Judging by the volume of quirky artefacts, found and made, the proprietors often have their own time to kill.
I can’t see this without thinking of the John Denver song.
Tubs of loaner jackets are available in the store if you didn’t have a chance to bring your own. It’s hard to think of wearing one when it’s so hot out but I guess it’s pretty cold in the cave.
“Southern Idaho has the largest unbroken field of lava on the North American Continent, covering 23,000 square miles or nearly one-third of the state. The fields reach a depth as great as 5,000 feet and represent 30 million years of volcanic eruptions.”¹ Walking across the dark, edgy rocks on this 100 degree day² would be ill advised if we had far to go.
The Shoshone Ice Cave is an isolated section of a large lava tube snaking southeast from the Black Butte volcano set on the horizon a bit over a mile away. It has been several thousand years since the volcano erupted but only forty since it vented a five hundred foot column of steam.¹ Our destination is closer, just a couple hundred yards away.
Monochromatic gumby people posed along the trail watch impassively from their place in prehistory. Some miles southeast of here is the remnant of a lava bubble known as Wilson Butte Cave where native peoples took shelter over the last 10,000 years, possibly longer, while hunting bison. On the National Register of Archeological Sites, it “provides some of the earliest evidence of human presence in Idaho and North America.”¹ Related to it,
Archaeologists have found seven ice caves on the Snake River Plain that were used as refrigerators by Native Americans. Although Indian tribes used the ice caves for at least 8,000 years, archaeologists have only known about and studied them since 1986 … They’ve discovered antler tines (possibly used as ice picks), broken hand stones (possibly used as hammers), and bison bones with frozen sagebrush stalks. Bison meat was probably stacked between layers of sagebrush stalks.²
It is said the natives referred to the cave we’re seeing today as “Cave of Mystery.”³
We arrive near the ice cave entrance and wait a moment while the prior group exits.
The entrance is within a collapsed section of lava tube, a kind of rock bowl that reflects heat like a parabolic mirror. We stand cooking a few minutes while the tour guide describes the cave’s history. Can’t we hear this inside?
We are surprised how much the temperature drops as we step into the shade and descend between basalt blocks. We aren’t even inside yet.
A small door is closed behind us once we’ve filed into the half-lit rock vault. From 100°F to freezing, it feels wonderful.
According to a 1914 Idaho Statesman article, “this ice cave was discovered only a year ago,”¹ though recent unsourced remarks suggest it was found by Alpha Alonzo Kinsey in 1885.² In any case, there were plans by 1925 to make improvements for tourism³ which began in the 1930s with an enlarged entrance and creation of a second opening.⁴
Idaho Statesman, “An Idaho Wonder is an Immense Ice Cave in the Heart of a Lava Desert” (October 12, 1914)
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.¹
Ironically, these “improvements” (characterized by some as “crazed overdevelopment”²) caused all the ice to melt — not much to tour then. And so it remained until 1954 when Russell Robinson leased the land and, by charting air flow with the help of a physicist, was able to restore most of the cave’s ice forming conditions. It was reopened to the public in 1962 and is today managed by Robinson’s nephew.³
Looking back at the entrance we see a wall of mortar and native stone representing Robinson’s restoration.
A few decades of ice formation has not matched what formed over the millennia prior to the manmade melt-down. In 1914, prior to the melt, the cavern
completely lined as to floor, ceiling and sides with smooth ice, has the appearance when sufficiently lighted, of the interior of a magnificent church. The ceiling of ice describes a perfect arch while the walls stand plumb to the floor to a height of perhaps 20 feet … The floor, ceiling and walls show even surfaces of the purest ray serene.¹
And still in 1924, “flat crystals of ice hang from the roof and sides like a myriad glittering spangles making this room at the foot of the ladder a veritable fairyland.”² “Large icicles hang from the ceiling and the side walls are covered with thick masses of frost crystals, arranged in fantastic forms.”³
Today there is only wet ice on the floor — no frost or glitter.
Idaho Statesman, “Nature Runs a Refrigerator in Lincoln County” (October 5, 1914)
Idaho Statesman, “The Ice Caves of Black Butte” (July 20, 1924)
Idaho Statesman, “Lincoln County Looks to Irrigation Water for Prosperity” (December 28, 1924)
Our group is led along a boardwalk suspended above the ice, stopping here and there to hear facts or legends from our guide. This, for example, is “the lowest elevation ice cave in the world that holds ice year-round”¹ and is said to have supplied the nearby town of Shoshone with ice in the 1880s, primarily to keep its saloons’ beer cold.²
Fred Cheslik quoted in Idaho Magazine, “Cave of Mystery” (September 2009)
As we spread out to view cut rocks on an easel, wondering what the story is here, our guide suddenly lunges to catch a little girl slipping off the platform onto wet ice. Jessica and I make some remarks under our breath about the mom who let her daughter wander alone instead of holding the leash (at least) attached to her backpack.
While the little girl sobs, we hear some about the rocks then see them glow under blacklight. That’s interesting.
There was rumor during the Prohibition years of this ice cave giving rise to a kind of natural whiskey spring.
Shoshone Journal reports the discovery, by U. R. Rail, geologist, of a spring flowing whiskey in the lava burns north of town. ‘As soon as the find became known … a stream of automobiles headed for the caves, searching for the golden stream, but Rail kept secret the exact spot where the cave and its wonderful spring was located.’¹
Rail theorized that the Snake River Plain there was once covered in cornfields that later flooded then were covered in the lava flows of ensuing eons then engulfed by a glacier.
“Heat and pressure during a long geological period extending over the glacial period,” Rail explained, “had consolidated the decaying corn into a soft, brownish yellow substance which upon exposure to air had solidified into the mineral I have named whiskorn.”²
Cold water from the ice cave is supposed to have percolated down to the subterranean whiskorn to cause steam and a whiskey spring. Needless to say, the spring was never found.
Idaho Statesman, “Finding of ‘Whiskey Quarry’ Starts Stampede to Caves” (January 29, 1923)
U. R. Rail quoted Ibid.
It is fun to learn more of our local history and geology. There’s always much more than meets the eye.