August 1 – As tired as we were from our portaging adventure (ordeal) the day before, we had to motivate ourselves and get up early. One of the unique features of the island is its geology. The northern third of the island has a lot of limestone in the bedrock. This is unusual as limestone is formed in tropical areas and is usually found near them. The chunk of limestone up here happened to be on the edge of the North American plate and over time the plate (which started out in the tropics) has moved all the way up to Alaska. The plate is colliding with the smaller and thinner Pacific plate. The result of the collision is that the North American plate is being pushed up giving us mountains here while the Pacific plate is sliding underneath. What does all of this have to do with our activities for the day? Well, when you combine limestone and a moist environment (like a temperate rain forest) you get caves. The northern end of the island is filled with caves. While most are fairly small one, El Capitan Cave, is extensive with over two miles of mapped passageways. We had scheduled a tour of the cave for noon and given our experiences with the roads so far we decided we would need three hours to make the 55 mile trip, and as a result we couldn’t sleep in. We did well on construction site traffic and didn’t have to wait long for a guide car to take us through (signs say the wait can be up to half an hour). On our way we pulled of the “beaten path” and ventured down a rough road to the town of Naukati. The area was given its Indian sounding name be a Coast Guard Survey team in 1904. It actually has no Indian history whatsoever. The town claims to have 135 residents, a sawmill and aquaculture operations. We saw a portable sawmill and five people hanging out at the local store. While at the local store (which featured gas, tire repairs, groceries, liquor, boat repair, propane, a post office and hardware all in one shack) we picked some ice and orange juice (it was on sale and cheap by Alaskan standards). We bounced our way back onto the main road and made it to the cave area by 11:40. Our guide showed up just before noon and handed out hard hats to everyone (there was also a father with his two children). She told us that the cave was wonderful, but that there were some stairs involved in getting to the cave. With that said we started on the path to the cave and a minute later were at the base of the stairs to the cave. Three hundred and seventy five steps later we arrived at the cave entrance. We had to crawl over a few boulders to get into the cave which was large and roomy. We were walking on the middle level of the cave, there was a level below us (which often floods) and a level above us. Our guide had warned us to stay near her as there were many pits that shot down to the lower level (there were also shafts that led to the upper level but she wasn’t worried about them). On our tour we saw several pits and were even allowed to stand on the edge of one and look down. While the cave is located in the National Forest, the Forest Service didn’t do much with the cave until 1982 when they installed a gate to keep people (who were stealing formations and artifacts) out. Many of the flow stone formations (rock created by minerals settling out of the water that ran along the walls) have been destroyed by people taking souvenirs with sledgehammers. When exploring the cave the Forest Service found many giant rooms with elegant stalactites and stalagmites that were still intact, but they are deep in the cave and we didn’t go there. Also found were the remains of a sea otter that had clearly been ceremonially entombed in the cave by local Indians. Another surprising find were 8,000 year old brown bear bones. Brown bears are no longer found on Prince of Wales Island, but they clearly used to live here (scientists are still working on an answer as to why they died out). The cave tour lasted about an hour and those stairs were a lot easier on the way down.
Near the cave (only 15 miles away) was a new trail, the Beaver Falls Karst Trail. Karst is the technical term for the geology in area – muskeg meadows that drain their water underground creating caves, sink holes and lost rivers all in a delicately balanced ecosystem. The trail was built in an area that had many karst features close together so they connected them all with nice, wide, stair free boardwalk. Along the trail we saw the Beaver Falls which majestically cascade down the walls of a sinkhole and then disappear into a cave opening. There were also many pits and places where you could hear an underground stream, but only see it through cracks in the ground. Since the trail is new, there weren’t any interpretive signs along it, so we’re not sure what we were looking at sometimes. We had lunch in the parking area and headed off to another unique cave.
On the road we ran into a delay as we found more construction. We had to follow this guy for quite a while until he found a spot to pull off the road. Our last cave experience of the day was Cavern Lake Cave. This lake drains directly into a small cave. About 300 feet later the stream emerges from the cave and goes through a series of waterfalls. Since we were in the neighborhood, we visited the community of Whale Pass, population 58. Like most other communities here, we only saw a few trailer homes and shacks. We followed signs to the “Wilderness Necessity Store” (with a name like that how can you lose?) which turned out to be a shed next to someone’s house. They had candy bars, chips, batteries, coffee cakes, post cards and some toiletry items. Our day complete we headed back to camp.