Dungeons & Dragons in Montana

One of my outdoor mentors told me one time about an expedition he made to Denali in Alaska. He said that in order to avoid the crowds and expense of the big-name National Park, they used Denali State Park as their base of exploration. The State Park is immediately adjacent to the National Park lands and he said that everything was the same – same views, same wildlife, same adventure opportunities – but fewer people and less expensive.

He advised me whenever I have the choice of National Park versus State Park in the same area, don’t discount the State Park experience.

Of course, there are National Parks that you absolutely cannot miss. In Montana you really should not avoid Yellowstone and Glacier. But I’ve kept his recommendation in mind and I’ve had some great experiences (and some dire misadventures) in State Parks because of it.

For instance, at Butte Montana, one of the nearest Montana State Parks on the map is Lewis and Clark Caverns.

Lewis and Clark Caverns lie just outside Cardwell, Montana right on the Jefferson river. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through the area on their Corps of Discovery expedition in the summer of 1805 and our trail guide pointed out several terrain features that are mentioned in Lewis and Clark’s journals, but they didn’t actually discover the wet caves that now bear their names.

According to our guide, local Indians revered this particular mountain because in the winter it occasionally “breathed smoke.” Then in the late 1800s a couple of ranchers saw a cloud coming out of the top of a mountain and went to check it out. What they found was a cave opening with warmer, wetter air inside than outside so as air flowed out of the cave it formed the clouds the Indians had seen.

Example of Erol Otus artwork
Example of Erol Otus artwork

I don’t know how many of my readers have played Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop game in which players can role-play a wizard or elf fighting monsters and stalking around castles looking for treasure, but in the 1980’s there was a famous artist named Erol Otus who worked creating illustrations for Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks. (I should say “is” because Otus is still alive and kicking.)

Otus’ artwork frequently featured caves and caverns, and his illustrations of underground caverns seemed totally weird and fantastic to me, with bizarre twisting columns, stalactites that seemed like they might be watching you, bumpy cavern walls that appeared to flow and ooze, and misshapen shadows that might hide some ill-formed imp or other creepy creature. I always assumed that Otus’ unbelievable drawings of underground settings were totally made-up out of his twisted mind, but then my family of stalwart adventurers stumbled into Lewis and Clark Caverns.

You enter Lewis and Clark Caverns through an iron-banded oaken door set into the side of the mountain and you find yourself in a short, smooth-walled tunnel that seems like it might have been chipped out of the stone by dwarven delvers of old. Then immediately you encounter a second iron banded wooden door.

It turns out that this pair of doors is similar to an airlock. The guides are diligent to make sure that the inside door is shut before they open the outside door and vice versa because there is such a large air pressure differential between one side of the mountain and the other that if they do not keep at least one door shut all the time the cavern can develop such a powerful wind flow that it can knock people down and they can have a really hard time shutting any of the doors.

Once the inside door is shut tight, you step directly into a world from Erol Otus’ imagination complete with stalactites that have to hold on “tite” because they hang from the ceiling and stalagmites that grow from the ground and over time “mite” form a column. These wet caves are also chock full of interesting stone formations with fun names like cave popcorn, flowstone, and cave bacon.

As we took our stroll through what the Ranger called the “Wonderland cavern,” he pointed out stone formations that in the weird half-light looked like a pagoda, a sheep, a gnome, a pipe organ, a gaping maw…

In some cave tours that we’ve done in the past, the guides will get you well down into the cave then turn the lights off for a minute or so to show you what absolute pitch black darkness looks like. Unfortunately our Ranger declined to do this during our tour because he said that they’d recently had a problem with the electrical lighting system and he wasn’t sure if the lights would come back on.

Then we’d really be in a pickle – a really dark pickle.

Categories: Nature, Travel

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