A group of students once asked me whether I had ever been to Ape Cave. I had never heard of it. They gave me directions to get there and told me they would be there on Saturday.

The cave is south of Mt. St. Helens. I went there with a friend, thinking we might meet them there, but somehow, we missed them. We had brought “headlight” flashlights and I had brought my camera and some portable flash equipment.

The cave is a long lava tube, probably the longest such structure in the hemisphere. It is called “Ape Cave” because it was discovered by a youth outdoor club called the “Apes”. There are actually two parts to the cave; each is about one mile long. If you look at the pictures on the sites mentioned (and a search will find others), you can see that the tube is quite narrow, but the width varies from place to place. It is rather cold down there, and dark. Really, really dark. The interior’s floor varies from strewn boulders to relatively flat and comfortable. There is a very well established trail, worn smooth by the feet countless hikers. Off the trail, it can be quite rugged.

At one end, there is a concession which rents Coleman lanterns, which people carry with them as they hike through the cave. The lantern lights it up pretty bright. Without the lantern, with just the headlights, our vision was by an essentially axial light; that is, the light was very close to the axis of our vision. In this light there was quite a strange luminescence that expressed as a texture of light wiggly lines, like strange bright jewelled worms, on a black field. It is some kind of a plant growth, possibly a fungus. The lanterns would not reveal this wonder. We didn’t go far into the cave because my friend didn’t want to brave the depths. We didn’t know that it would be like a refrigerator, and had not brought warm enough clothing to spend a long time down there.

I proposed that we go over to the edge of the cave in a wide section, as far as we could get from the trail and turn off our lights. Doing so, we plunged ourselves into absolute darkness and silence. Having spent so many years in darkness as a color printer, I wanted to experience darkness in a different way, without the presence of so many pending work orders; darkness in a very large subterranean space, unbroken and solitary, but with another person. That was unusual for me, because in the darkroom I work alone. It was terrific. I have a strong motivation toward experiences of myself in unusual places, inside myself and out. This was one of the best so far.

How long did it last? Not very long, because soon we began to hear a distant sound, which gradually grew louder. Sounds began to become clearer, and differentiate. Their source began to reveal itself as a group of people. I guess we were expecting this. Gradually, a dim light began to grow from our right, and a small party came through, talking, with their lanterns. They passed. The light dimmed and the sound gradually diminished, finally extinguishing altogether. Several other groups came through, each time illuminating the interior, turning it from eerie to prosaic, then gradually disappearing. Like a train going through at night, the sound emerging from nothing, peaking, then diminishing again to nothing. Each time, we were again swallowed by the dark and the silence. No one saw us. They were all focused on the cave ahead, and didn’t think to look toward where we stood silent, our lights extinguished.

This went on for awhile, and then hearing the sound begin again so far away, we listened carefully to its growth. This time it was different. There was an unusual density to the sound, combined with a distinctly increasing chaotic quality. As it approached, it got more and more chaotic, a crescendo of chaos. The light grew, as did the sound. We wondered. What on (or under) earth could this be. Louder and louder, it became almost deafening, and intensely agitating.

As the light grew and the sound grew, individual voices began to emerge and then we saw the comedy unfold. It was perhaps two or three families with several lanterns. There were a whole bunch of children, complaining and crying. Somebody was eating a sandwich. One or two adults were smoking cigarettes. “Dad, why did you bring us here?” “I hate this place! It’s boring!” “I want to go home!” “I’m tired!” “Carry me!” Adult reply: “SHUT UP!” “You are grounded for a week!”

What a great metaphor. These people had brought themselves to the cave, truly a wonderful place to experience and see, and had made sure that they wouldn’t see it. They had rented the lanterns, and the lanterns cast a bubble about them. They couldn’t see the luminescent patina on the walls; their light was too far off axis. They went all the way through the cave with the screaming kids, the cigarettes and sandwiches. They had packaged themselves in a darkproof box.

All they had was what they had at home. Maybe it was even worse. They had none of the accustomed resources, and there was still a long way to go.

Copyright Larry Bullis, 2004 —All Rights Reserved


Here are a couple of links to sites concerning “Ape Cave”