Cascadia Cave

September 5, 2013.

Cascadia State Park to Cascadia Cave (private) | 2 miles | negligible elevation gain

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Cascadia Cave is a culturally significant site along the South Santiam River that has some of the oldest rock art, or petroglyphs, in the Pacific Northwest. I felt fortunate that I was able to go on one of the few public tours of the site offered each year. Led by archaeologist Tony Farque of the Sweet Home Ranger district, this all-day adventure was jam-packed with fascinating stories from Native American mythology, descriptions of found artifacts, and evolving theories of what the cave was used for in past millennia.

The tour began in Cascadia State Park, a lovely little park right off highway 20 in the town of the same name. We all gathered around a picnic table displaying artifacts and replicas of items used by the native Kalapuya Indians. Tony explained that the Kalapuya were known as the “medicine people.” They made use of the diverse plant species found in the Willamette Valley and Cascade foothills to concoct treatments for what ailed their people.

Camas flowers

Camas flowers

The plants also served as rich sources of food, although the nutrition was not always all that easy to extract. Huckleberries were gathered, not by hand, but with rakes that scraped berries and leaves off of the bushes. Berries were then sorted and dried before being carried back to camp. To render camas bulbs edible, for example, the Kalapuya built huge ovens in which to steam the bulbs for 72 hours. The camas bulbs were also mashed, mixed with dried fruits, seeds, and insects, and made into biscuits and cakes, which could then be used to trade for other items.

Other forms of currency included obsidian, beads, and tightly woven baskets. We looked at the array of crafted items on the table: obsidian knives, medicine grinding stones, antler tools, and strings of tiny shells. I imagined the skill and patience it required for each of these items to be created by hand.

After the introduction, we walked up the River Trail. The Kalapuya similarly used this area as a travel corridor, an ancient Highway 20 of sorts, and it looked much different in the past than it does today. According to Tony, the Kalapuya managed the land by using fire. Instead of weaving their way through a dense forest, they burned down the vegetation along travel corridors, permitting people to move more easily.

Potholes in South Santiam River

Potholes in South Santiam River

We stopped along the river at a section with many exposed rocks and potholes. This was a great spot for catching salmon. Salmon played a huge role in the lives of the native people all across the Northwest. Elaborate ceremonies were held to ensure the salmon’s return in the coming year. But today, we looked at the pretty rocks for a few minutes and turned to continue walking upriver.

Old Douglas Fir

Old Douglas Fir

Along the way to the cave, Tony pointed out some of the oldest trees in the park. One, just along the left side of the trail, was about 9′ in diameter and is an estimated 850 years old. As we continued, we learned of the many ways the native people used the Western Redcedar. The bark could be used to make clothing, bedding, mats, waterproof hats and ties. The wood was used to build canoes, homes and weaponry. Redcedar was also used for medicinal purposes.

At some point down the trail, we crossed the park boundary and walked onto private property. Cascadia Cave sits on land owned by the Hill family and managed by a timber company. Currently the only way to legally visit the cave is with a tour guide. Plans are now underway to turn the property over to public entities, including state and local government and Indian tribes. These groups intend to create a new community forest, providing opportunities for recreation, timber harvest and cave restoration. The most recent news story I can find about the proposal is here. You need a login in order to read the story, unless you locate Google’s cache of the web page. To summarize, people are still talking details and nothing certain is set. Unfortunately, efforts to restore and protect the cave for the future cannot begin until the land is in the public’s hands.

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Cascadia Cave Tour

We reached the cave at noon. We all dropped our packs, found a seat and took out lunch. Tony continued to enrich the experience by telling stories of the changing interpretations of the cave’s significance over time. Experts, shamans, native people, and ordinary visitors each made great contributions to the body of knowledge regarding the cave. The first non-native visitors to the cave were artifact collectors in the late 1800’s, who took many of the precious remaining bits of stoneware, tools, and other items from the soil at the base of the cave. Collection of artifacts was the fashionable thing to do back then, and many of the discoveries were removed to private homes and lost to history. The floor of the cave as it stands today is three feet lower than that of the original cave, due to the hordes of people excavating dirt to find buried treasures. In the early to mid 1900’s, archaeologists explored the cave and attempted to document the rock carvings by drawing pictures and publishing their findings. Later teams would discover more and more secrets hidden in the rock wall. To this day, much is debated about the significance of the figures etched permanently into the wall.

We took a look for ourselves, surveying the massive zigzag lines that ran horizontally across the cave. Some other petroglyphs were easy to see—bear prints, rows of vertical lines, human faces made of holes, and a wide array of symbols representing male and female genitalia. Others were more subtle, and had to be pointed out. I could vaguely see feathers, salmon, and other shapes if I really used my imagination. As a rational thinker, the wild interpretations of some of the imagery felt a bit far-fetched. But, I was no expert.

Bear prints

Petroglyphs at Cascadia Cave

Paint was applied by scientists in the past to make the bear prints more visible

Scientists in the past applied paint to make the bear prints more visible

Switching gears, Tony shared stories from Kalapuya folklore and suggested some possible ways they may have used the Cascadia Cave site. Was it a rest stop along a riverside highway? A place of trade and commerce? Or was it a place of spiritual significance? What did the clues tell us? Each new story had the crowd more and more convinced that THAT was the true meaning of the place. There were clearly numerous ways to interpret the evidence. He asked us to imagine this spot where we were sitting as it once was, when the native people managed the land. Instead of a lush, dense forest, it would have been a clear meadow, burnt out to permit easy passage. Then, Cascadia Cave (more like a slight overhang) could have formed the headstone of a giant amphitheater. With a shaman leading ceremonies at the cave mouth, hundreds of others would have filled the meadow, drumming, dancing, and singing. This site could have held significance to the Kalapuya as the link from the physical world to the metaphysical world.

Of course, that’s one way to look at it. The most astonishing bit of information Tony left for the end of the presentation. That nugget tied much of the folklore, academic findings, and recent inferences together. What was it? Well, you’ll just have to take the tour to find out.

Learn more about upcoming tours at Cascadia Cave and elsewhere in the Willamette National Forest at recreation.gov.

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