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A Forsaken Land

With over a month of consistently dry weather in November and early December, I spent some time photographing in Lava Beds National Monument. Lava Beds is the unloved younger sibling of our local crown jewel, Crater Lake National Park. (Crater Lake was established as a National Park in 1902, Lava Beds as a National Monument in 1925.) At first viewing, one is immediately taken by the stunning blue water of Crater Lake, but the park also contains an abundance of stately ponderosa pine and fir trees, meadows, and waterfalls to enthrall the visitor. Lava Beds, on the other hand, is a fairly barren scabland of rugged volcanic rock, in various forms. Sometimes the rock is just softball to basketball sized chunks scattered about in grasslands. In other places there are lava flows, consisting of jumbles of jagged larger boulders that sometimes go on for miles, interrupted only by occasional patches of soil and grass.

Other than a few bits of ice deep in some of the lava tube caves, there is no water at Lava Beds. There are some trees, widely spaced junipers that could hardly be described as stately. It is a desolate land. Whereas visitors flock to Crater Lake, a person can at times feel like they are the only human for miles at Lava Beds, particularly in the “off season.” On the most recent of my visits, I saw or encountered a half dozen vehicles on the road, but not a single other person out of a vehicle - this in the span of five hours or more. During my previous visit I thought I heard voices at one point, only to realize it was the distant howling of coyotes.

Photographing at Lava Beds is difficult. Of course there is the physical challenge, and some associated danger, of attaining good camera positions – I learned recently that it is a good idea to wear a pair of leather work gloves to protect one’s hands in the event of catching a fall! Aesthetically, there is nothing to really draw the eye. No gently flowing stream or roiling river, no pond or lake, no beautiful foliage or trees. A few of the juniper trees have some modicum of intrigue to their form, but most look like malnourished Christmas trees. The rocks, rather than reflecting light, seem to absorb it. There is a general lack of color, other than earthy grays and browns, and grasses and other small plants that are green for a short period before turning yellow-brown, an appearance they retain much of the year.

Upon entering the monument from the north, a left turn will take the visitor east, toward Canby’s Cross and Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a couple of historical sites associated with the Modoc Indian War. Most visitors will instead turn right and head south for the main attraction, a maze of lava tube caves. The first significant feature encountered in that direction is a lava flow called the Devil’s Homestead, which is viewed from an overlook perched on a layer of volcanic rock above the flow. I have made several photographs there, trying to capture the essence of the flow and its inhospitable nature. With a lack of defining features, this endeavor is fraught with opportunity for failure! Only recently was I able to get a view that illustrates the substance of the flow, and also has some visual interest:

The gently curved distant skyline is the Medicine Lake shield volcano, the largest volcano in the Cascade Range, by area and volume. Shield volcanoes are formed when molten rock finds its way to an opening at the surface of the earth, and flows out over the surrounding countryside. Layers of molten rock then build up to form what is usually a rounded, gently sloping dome. Also visible from points within the monument is Mount Shasta, a stratovolcano. Eruptions of stratovolcanoes are more explosive, and such volcanoes are built up in layers of material, some of which flows out and some of which falls from the air after being expelled during eruptions. Stratovolcanoes generally exhibit a conical shape – perhaps the most iconic stratovolcano in the world is the beautiful Mount Fuji. I’m a bit biased, but I think the view of Shasta from the north rivals that of its Japanese cousin!

In the distance, but in front of the Medicine Lake shield, we see a number of smaller cinder cones that dot the landscape covered by the Medicine Lake flow. These are formed from chunks of lava blown out of vents in the earth’s surface, and many of them contain small craters at their summits. The most distinctive cinder cone in Lava Beds is Schonchin Butte, occupying a central location between the low, flat areas around the Devil’s Homestead and the slopes trending up to the summit of the Medicine Lake highlands.

To me, much of the soul of Lava Beds is in its wide-open spaces, that remind me of my homes in central and southern Wyoming for the first 35 years of my life. The geology is volcanic, rather than sedimentary, but the open sky and unencumbered vistas are similar to those of Wyoming’s several large basins. That is the feeling that I have tried to capture in some of the images I’ve made at Lava Beds. The landscape lends itself naturally to a panoramic format, as can be seen in the following two photographs.

On the left side of the first photograph, we see the northern terminus of the Devil’s Homestead flow, and the high escarpment on the right is known as Gillem’s Bluff. The second photograph was taken from a vantage point near the summit of Schonchin Butte. A fire lookout is located just out of the photograph to the right, atop the rugged jumble of lava rocks making up the crater of the Schonchin Butte cinder cone. The dark part of the low, flat area in the distance is the Devil’s Homestead, and beyond it we see the escarpment of Sheepy Ridge. The highest point in the far distance is Stukel Mountain, north of Merrill, familiar to residents of the Klamath Basin.

The photographs above are part of what will likely become a long-term project. (A few earlier photographs can be found in the black and white nature gallery here at my web page.) Now that winter is finally setting in, I will likely not visit Lava Beds much more in the near future. But as things begin to warm up again in the spring, I intend to continue my quest to convey the spirit of the region photographically, and look forward to more days of relative solitude in its open spaces.

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