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For the week of July 4 through July 11, 2000

Above ground, the Shoshone Indian Ice Caves site is a strange mix of prehistoric and western memorabilia. Express photo by Willy Cook

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 of lava.

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 site—which includes the curio shop, a museum and caretaker’s quarters—was created in the mid-1900’s by Fred’s 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 outpost.

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 truck—the modern day replacement for the Pony Express and stagecoach—pulls into the parking lot a century, it seems, before its time.

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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 time.

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.

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"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 cave’s entrance.

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 earth’s 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 eruptions.

In the shadow of the overhanging ice cave’s 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 cave’s airflow. It is the world’s biggest natural refrigerator.

Descending into the cave, the sightseers—awed by nature’s splendid artwork—forget 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 rivers.

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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 1880’s, 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 Stanley."

In the late 1800’s, with the mining industry booming north and south, miner’s 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 couldn’t 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 away."

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.

 

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