METALINE FALLS — Erica Thorson turned off the lights 500-feet into Gardner Cave to show a tour group of nine people just how dark the dark can be.
It was the end of the tour, the last cavern of the cave tourists are allowed to visit. And it was the last tour of 2021 — the 100th anniversary of Crawford State Park, Gardner Cave’s home, a half mile from the Canadian border, a two-hour drive from Spokane.
She turned on her flashlight and used it to make a circle glow on what may be the most impressive formation in a cave full of geologic curiosities and wonders. It’s an 8-ton column, created over some 90,000 years as a stalactite from the ceiling and stalagmite from the floor grew into each other, creating one mass. It is the largest cave column in the Pacific Northwest.
Here, Thorson likes to strike a lighter to show what it must have been like for the first explorers of the cave, who would have used torches to light their path.
“The light you use changes the experience,” she said.
But among the tour group that day in mid-September was a baby unhappy in the darkness. The crying intensified. Thorson hurried, cutting out some of her usual discussion with the lights out.
“I tried to go fast,” she said, flipping on the switch.
Thorson, whose official title is parks interpretive specialist, has been giving tours at Gardner each summer since 2016, minus 2020 when the state kept the park closed because of COVID-19.
This year tours returned with masks, social distancing, a requirement to register online and a limit on the numbers allowed on the tours.
For Thorson, the limits had benefits. Leading a cave tour for 25 people is challenging. Groups closer to 10 — the pandemic limit — are more manageable .
Her tours are 45 minutes long but feel closer to 25 as she packs in the geological reasoning behind formations, the history of the state park, safety warnings, and, if you’re lucky, a brief and distant visit with one of the cave’s full-time residents, a bushy tailed woodrat — better known as a packrat.
She sprinkles in humor. Some of the formations are created by calcium bicarbonate. She notes that the active ingredient in Tums is calcium carbonate.
“Do not eat the cave right now if you have heartburn,” Thorson said. “That would be gross.”
Thorson grew up in Minnesota. She planned to become a geologist, but switched degree programs to geography at Eastern Washington University after some struggles with math. In the off season she lives in Rathdrum but visits family back in Minnesota and cross country skis.
“It’s a dream job for sure,” she said. “I live in the park and work in the park.”
In preparation to give her first tour in 2016, she read through three scripts on file in the park office. Armed with the basics, she winged it. Now the tour has more of her flare, tidbits she’s picked up, often from folks she led on a tour who visited the cave decades earlier as children.
The tours require some imagination as she points out what appears in the rocks and formations.
There’s a walrus, owl, mountain goat, bulldog, giraffe, snapping turtle, pipe organ, Christmas tree, lopsided wedding cake, tango dancers, Jabba the Hut, Izzy the Lizard and Richard Nixon.
And there’s one she usually point out that hangs from the ceiling.
“A little girl on one of my first tours said it looked like a booger pickle,” Thorson explained.
Gardner Cave became a state park in 1921, one of the first in the state.
Many business and community leaders at the time suggested that the cave’s status as a state park was only the beginning. It could become a national park. Perhaps even an international park. An attraction that would spur business, tourism and the construction of “good roads.” (At the time, the trek to Gardner Cave was roughly a five hour drive from Spokane).
“There are other caves nearby, which if they open into each other, may make this one of the greatest scenic attractions in this part of the northwest and perhaps one of the wonders of the world,” Harl J. Cook, of the Eastern Washington Historical Society, told the Associated Engineers of Spokane in 1922, according to the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
Just three years earlier, the cave was explored by the sitting governor, Louis F. Hart. He left Spokane on his journey to the cave in a motorcade of five automobiles. By the time he arrived at the cave, there were 15 cars and 100 people.
“Dr. A. Meldrum, president of Spokane university, a member of the party, pronounced the cave a wonderful find and declared it would become one of the great wonders of the northwest,” according to The Spokesman-Review. “Governor Hart and the others express their opinion that the cave should become part of a state park as is planned and declared there seemed to be no reason why it should not be taken over. They were greatly impressed with the scenic possibilities.”
But a century later, Crawford State Park, home to Gardner Cave, remains a sleepy, 49-acre state park, just 9 more acres than what was donated for the park by William Crawford, owner of a general store in Metaline, in 1921. While the cave may not compare with caves farther east, it is a geologic formation rare in the Northwest. The cave is named after Ed Gardner, who claimed to have discovered it around 1900.
And while improvements did arrive slowly through the years: smoother roads, a parking lot, electric lighting in the cave, ladders, and eventually a steel walkway and steps, it has often been a lower priority in the state park system. It was one of a few parks the state officials proposed to close during budget cuts in 1994 and 2011, though it stayed open both times, according to attendance data.
Visitor numbers at Gardner have varied greatly over the years. Just in the last 35 years, it’s been as high as 29,300 in 1995 and fell below 4,000 in 2004. In the last 15 years, annual visits have mostly been between 4,000 and 8,000.
That’s not much in comparison to many other Eastern Washington state parks. In 2019, the last normal year of operations, Crawford had 7,400 visitors. In the same year Palouse Falls had 118,500, Steptoe Butte had 90,900, Mount Spokane had 387,600 and Riverside had more than 1 million.
“I’m really surprised by the number of people who don’t know about it,” Thorson said. “It has so much variety. It’s a gem for Washington.”
Visitors and vandalism
Even by the time Crawford donated the land to the state, vandalism had destroyed some of the cave’s grandeur. Visitors carved their names on the walls, broke and stole stalactites and fired guns in the cave.
Coeur d’Alene photographer Jack Rottier called the cave fascinating after a three-hour tour he took in 1947, but he added that it was “sadly mutilated and marred by souvenir hunters.”
“Aside from a few signs and ladder it is apparent the park has been neglected and no attempt has been made to preserve the beauty of the limestone formation within the cave,” he wrote in an article that appeared in the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
In the first 50 years as a state park, there were few limitations placed on visitors. They were allowed to go as far as they could in the cave, which at the time, was 1,055 feet, twice as far as visitors can go now, to the end, called the mud room. It was an adventure that required crawling through “the narrows” of the cave. But, slowly, the state took action to protect the cave.
Stairs replaced ladders within the the upper parts of the cave in the mid-1950s. Electric lights were installed in the late-1950. Official state tours at the time took visitors to the end. Then manager of the park, George Armbrecht, noted that women were much more likely to make it through ‘the narrows” to the mud room.
“See that spot ahead of us,” he told reporter Fenton Roskelley, pointing to a narrowing of the cave 6-feet wide, but only 2-feet high, “A lot of men see that spot and decide not to go any further.”
These days, that half of the cave is blocked by metal bars, accessible only with permission. The state also installed horizontal metal bars just beyond the entrance of the cave.
(The metal bars are horizontal because bats struggle to maneuver through vertical bars. Even so, there are aren’t many bats in the cave. Thorson says she usually sees maybe four or five little brown bats — the actual species name — a year in her usual time at the park from May to late September. She didn’t see any in 2021.)
John Buchanan, Eastern Washington University emeritus geology professor, has explored thousands of caves. And, yes, many of those were longer and more spectacular. But Buchanan still considers Gardner Cave a special place with great examples of flowstone and rimstone dams.
“I do believe it was worthy of state park protected status,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t want to diminish it at all.”
Most caves in the Northwest, like Ape Cave near Mount St. Helens, are lava tubes, formed by volcanic activity.
Gardner Cave is a limestone cave. It’s the kind of cave that has stalactites and stalagmites, crystal formations and brilliant colors. It formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, but got filled in as glaciers pushed over it, filling the cave with debris. When they melted, it was washed out.
Water seeping through it causes spectacular growths and triangular foot-tall rimstone dams that form pools trapping water that flows through the cave during the winter and spring.
Thorson is sometimes asked if the water is drinkable.
No, she says, not if you don’t want to drink traces of packrat poop.
Buchanan said the area is one of the few locations in Washington plentiful with limestone. He said there are likely many undiscovered limestone caves near Gardner Cave that remain filled with debris.
There are likely other parts of Gardner Cave that remain filled in, he said. One of Buchanan’s students, Kyle Martin, dyed the water in the mud room, and proved that water from the cave flowed out the side of the mountain, above the nearby Boundary Dam. The hypothesis that water from the cave exited out the side of the mountain had been suspected since at least 1903, when such speculation appeared in an article in The Spokesman-Review.
Over time, more sediment could be pushed out by water, he said.
“Some day, you might go down there and a big chunk of sediment has been blown out,” he said.
In 1979 two EWU geology undergraduate students researching the cave located a small opening in a cave wall. They opened it a bit more, enough to squeeze through, and discovered a passageway that essentially doubled the known size of the cave. That part of the cave also is blocked to visitors.
Buchanan, who was entrusted with a key to the cave when he taught classes at EWU, took many students there over the years. He said the parts of the cave open to the public are the parts that have the coolest geologic formations.
Boyd Knauss, 81, who goes by the name Afri-I, was on that last tour of 2021 with his son, Jon Knauss. Afri-I lives near Kettle Falls.
“For decades I’ve been meaning to come over and check it out, and I finally made it,” he said soon after Thorson turned on the lights at the end of the tour. “It’s a wonderful experience. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s different than any cave I’ve ever been in.”