Fire and Ice
Touring an Idaho wonder: The Shoshone Indian ice caves
By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer
The tour begins behind the curio shop on a trail that winds through fields
Coats of different sizes and colors hang from the curio shop wall.
The coats are there for first-time spelunkers fooled by the summer sun,
unprepared for the cold that awaits beneath the hot desert floor.
Fred and Patti Cheslik have been running tours down through the Shoshone
Indian Ice Caves for 13 years. The sitewhich includes the curio shop, a museum and
caretakers quarterswas created in the mid-1900s by Freds
grandfather, Dr. Edward Stewart Robinson and his son, Russell.
The strange and wondrous place resembles a bizarre amusement park in the
middle of nowhere, a surreal mix of prehistoric and western memorabilia and the
contrasting beauty of pristine ice caves in an arid desert.
The red log structures on the site are fashioned like an old frontier
A big green dinosaur towers at one end of the outpost and a 30-foot statue
of Chief Washakie, a leader of the Shoshone Tribe, stands watch to the south.
Totem poles greet visitors at the curio shop door.
Cow skulls and antlers, bleached by the desert sun, are tacked to the
outer walls along with wind chimes and dream catchers.
A UPS delivery truckthe modern day replacement for the Pony Express
and stagecoachpulls into the parking lot a century, it seems, before its time.
Amid a high desert sea of sage brush, 40 miles south of Ketchum, charred
remnants of Black Butte volcano spread out on both sides of Highway 75.
The lava fields are an ancient reminder of the geologic forces that shaped
the landscape thousands of years ago.
Jagged blocks of lava, some the size of houses, are piled across the
desert floor. Here they flowed on a burning red river, then came to rest and hardened over
Black Butte, the volcano from which the lava flow spewed, is located south
of Magic Reservoir. The Shoshone Indians, after whom the caves are named, worshipped the
volcano as their Fire God centuries ago.
Today, on the edge of the lava field, the Shoshone Indian ice caves
welcome tourists to a surreal and icy underworld below an arid lava desert.
Beneath the desert floor is a maze of volcanic tunnels formed over the
centuries by water and lava flows.
The main cave, through which the tours are led, is three blocks long, 30
feet wide and 40 feet in height. The ice at the bottom of the cave reaches a depth of 15
feet. Touted by geologists as one of the natural wonders of the world, the Shoshone ice
caves are the largest known on earth.
"Can you imagine ice caves in a lava bed?" one tourist asks.
Tour guide Cassie Hayes, a 19-year-old geology major from Montana Tech in
Butte, leads the group of 25 single file towards the entrance of the cave, answering
questions along the way.
"Is the volcano still alive or is it sleeping?" 8-year-old
Jordan Griffin of Provo, Utah, asks before stepping into the shadow of the caves
Hayes says Black Butte is no longer active, that the last eruptions of the
volcano occurred between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.
As recently as July of 1973, however, a vent on the north- west side of
Black Butte spouted a gas column nearly 500 feet into the sky.
The vent acted up, on and off, for the next two weeks, then ceased as
suddenly as it started. Then, a year later, on the 4th of July, it spewed a
small column of gas. Since then, the volcano has remained inactive, or
"sleeping," as young Jordan put it. However, the earths cataclysmic inner
workings never cease.
Hayes informs the tourists that one-third of Idaho is covered with lava.
In fact, southern Idaho has the largest unbroken field of lava on the
North American Continent, covering 23,000 square miles or nearly one-third of the state.
The fields reach a depth as great as 5,000 feet and represent 30 million years of volcanic
In the shadow of the overhanging ice caves entrance, the temperature
drops suddenly from 85 degrees to near freezing.
A thermometer inside the cave reads 28 degrees.
According to Hayes, the temperature in the cave stays between 24 and 32
degrees year- round, chilled by the expansion and compression of the caves airflow.
It is the worlds biggest natural refrigerator.
Descending into the cave, the sightseersawed by natures
splendid artworkforget the cold.
Gothic-like arches, nearly perfect in form, curve gracefully overhead.
Haunting in the dim light, the lava sculpted archways shimmer like bridges over frozen
Following the tour, proprietor Fred Cheslik tells the history of the caves
and the legends of the Black Butte flow a story of bandits and ice cold beer.
In the 1880s, the caves were an ice source for the booming town of
Shoshone, which boasted 23 saloons and three restaurants, all of which used ice. The ice
was cut into blocks then loaded in freight wagons and hauled to Shoshone, 18 miles away.
"Ice cold beer was quite a deal back in those days before
refrigeration," Cheslik said. "Shoshone was the last stop, the last taste of
civilization before heading north for the mines of Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and
In the late 1800s, with the mining industry booming north and south,
miners payrolls were regularly run back and forth in stage coaches along the Big
Wood River. The ice caves, Cheslik said, became a popular place for robberies.
"Bandits ambushed the payroll at the river then escaped across the
lava flows where they couldnt be tracked," he said. "The sheriff would
have to pick up the trail at the end of the lava flow which gave the bandits time to get
Shoshone Indian Ice Caves tours run from May 1 to Sept. 30, from 8 a.m. to
7:15 p.m. For more information, call 886-2058.