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The Cave Next Door

Man hopes 10-year quest to find ‘the big one’ will culminate sometime this year during 100th anniversary of the creation of the Oregon Caves National Monument
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July 12, 2009

Paul Fattig

David Hodges isn’t always up to climbing down into the nearly six-story vertical shaft in the mountain.

“There are times when I haven’t been here for a few months and it’s raining, everything is wet and slick, I look down that hole and say, ‘Nope, not today,’ ” said the rural Cave Junction resident.

After all, the shaft plunges 57 feet straight down into the bowels of the Earth in a fashion that would curl the toes of Gimli, the stout dwarf who was at home in mountain tunnels of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

But the bearded Hodges, with steel gray eyes, also is made of stout stuff. It’s a rare day when he backs off climbing down the shaft to continue his 10-year quest: to unveil a cave that could rival the Oregon Caves.

And in his gut, he knows he’s very, very close.

“I believe this might possibly be the biggest cave in Oregon,” he said.

He hopes to find the subterranean connection this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Oregon Caves National Monument, whose boundary is just a few hundred yards from the shaft.

“It is not my cave,” he stressed, noting finding “the big one” would be a tourism boon to the local economy. “This is public land. The cave belongs to everybody.”

Hodges and three other cave buffs — Steve Knutson, Don Young and John Dodge — discovered what has been dubbed the Cave Next Door back in the late 1990s on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. They were members of the Klamath Mountain Conservation Task Force, a nonprofit organization and member group of the National Speleological Society.

They dug out an entrance near Lake Creek and mapped out 800 feet of the cave. They found places they named the Boulder Patch, Duck Run and the Spring Room. Some 80 feet inside the mountain they found what they called the Snail Room, a cavern about 30 feet wide and 20 feet high.

Leading up to that room is a small tunnel Hodges’ wife, Martha, dubbed the Trachea.

“Ugh, the Trachea,” recalled the wiry Hodges. “You had to crawl through that. You had to blow your air out to get through there. Then your top had to turn right while your bottom had to turn left. It was a tight crawl.”

Beyond the Snail Room is an area referred to as the Canyon Complex, where it widened in places to 40 feet, he recalled.

“There was good air blowing through there,” he said. “But by the spring of 2000, it had collapsed.”

Figuring there had to be a better way into the cave, Hodges began exploring farther up the mountain. He discovered a sinkhole in the ground in an old logging unit roughly one-half an air mile from the Oregon Caves entrance.

There is a small stream — so small it can easily be stepped across in July — that flows nearby, trickling across the old logging road below.

When Hodges and company diverted water from the stream into the sink hole, it came out a half-mile away at the original entrance they’d found.

Convinced that he was linked to the Cave Next Door, Hodges began digging the shaft in 2002.

“I’m not a spelunker or a caver,” he said. “I’m more like a shovel with a heart attached to it. I just dig.

“My purpose is not to disturb the cave but to find it. I know the importance of keeping a cave virgin.”

He noted a mammal bone about four inches long and as thick as a deer’s femur remains where it was found in the Snail Room.

There is more than a passing resemblance between Hodges and historic photographs of Elijah Davidson, the Williams resident credited with discovering the Oregon Caves while hunting with his dog, Bruno, in fall 1874.

Hodges, 61, was reared in Corvallis, where he attended Oregon State University, majoring in physics. But his formal education was forever interrupted by three years in the Army’s counterintelligence unit. In 1972, he arrived in the Sucker Creek drainage of the Illinois Valley, where he filed a mining claim and became adept at digging.

He works seasonally in maintenance for the National Park Service, but said his interest in the Cave Next Door has no connection to his day job.

Visitors to the Oregon Caves chateau may recognize Hodges as the fellow who each Wednesday evening gives recitations of classical poems in the lobby by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service and Robert Frost.

Before climbing down into the shaft on a recent afternoon, Hodges donned an old suit jacket he keeps handy for warmth while digging, giving him the appearance of a distinguished college professor. With that, he began a rousing rendition of one of Frost’s lesser known poems, “The Investment.”

“Over back where they speak of life as staying,” he began. “You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t. There was an old, old house renewed with paint, and in it a piano loudly playing … .”

“That’s a wonderful look at grinding poverty,” said Hodges, who completed the poem without missing a word.

He then began descending with a Mail Tribune photographer into what those with vertigo would perceive as Hades.

“I’ve seen big, strong, able guys look down here and shake with fear,” Hodges said as he climbed down.

Although there is no ladder, Hodges has reinforced the shaft with sturdy cedar posts. He said he carefully covers the shaft when he isn’t digging.

He fired up a generator to provide light down below.

Hodges and the photographer were down in the hole for 45 minutes before climbing back to the surface.

“It’s pretty tight,” Hodges said. “After you go down 57 feet, it balloons out a little bit as the hanging wall recedes. But so far I’ve found just one cave room.”

He estimated the room is about 20 feet long, 15 feet high and 10 feet wide.

“It’s definitely a cave,” he said. “There is a fault line in the ceiling. That provided a natural way for water to come down. That’s how the cave was formed. The cave exists because the marble was dissolved by water.

“Geologically, it is connected to the Oregon Caves,” he added, referring to the marble reef from an ancient sea in which the caves reside. “Whether there are cave passages that go back to the monument is not yet known. It is all part of the sea floor that was pushed up.”

Early on in his digging, he discovered an air flow coming up from the shaft, a tantalizing indicator of a cave, but that flow has since been blocked with dirt, he said.

Looming over the shaft is a gin pole he has used to excavate buckets of dirt from the hole.

“That’s how they dug wells in 3000 B.C., and it works fine,” he said.

What hasn’t worked so well thus far is a computer video system he hopes to set up to cover exploration in real time.

“We want to keep the process of discovery hooked up to the Internet,” he said. “I would love to have the public share in it.”

At some point, he hopes to establish a nonprofit organization to help with the project.

These days, he works largely by himself, although the three who were with him in the initial discovery of the Cave Next Door help when they can. Friends also periodically pitch in to help on their time off.

“But the safest is when I’m alone,” he said. “When I’m alone, I’m not going to drop anything on my head. With one person, you only have to worry about physics. Two people, psychology gets involved really quickly.”

No one has gotten hurt and he intends to keep it that way, Hodges said.

“The Forest Service or the (National) Park Service can come in and take this over at some point,” he said. “It is up to them in the end how it gets shared with people.”

Perhaps a century celebrating the second 100 years of the Oregon Caves National Monument will include the discovery of the Cave Next Door, he said.

“Wouldn’t that be something to find it on the 100th anniversary of the monument,” he said. “Who knows? It might happen. But the success of the project all depends on what the cave is like, small and muddy or big and beautiful.”

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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