Author: Steve Stampfli, White Salmon, WA, USA,

Cover of 1901 book by Edward Earle Childs


When U.S. Captain George B. McClellan traversed Washington’s Cascade Mountain Range in 1853 (nine years before he would briefly serve as general-in-chief in Lincoln’s Union Army), his wagon train was well equipped with a trained naturalist, other scientists, artists, interpreters, and native guides.  The main purpose of his “Northern Survey” was to locate a possible transcontinental railroad route, but a secondary reason was simple scientific and ethnographic exploration of the American west.

The McClellan Survey began at Ft. Vancouver, Washington on June 15, 1853, and worked its way up the Columbia River until veering north into the Cascade Range west of Trout Lake, Washington.  In mid-August, the expedition encountered a curious landscape dominated by a long series of lava caves, natural bridges and rough-bottom trenches, stretching along a 12 mile line from the Big Lava Bed eruption cone down to the present site of Trout Lake, Washington.   Modern day travelers retrace the route via driving State Highway 141 west of Trout Lake, merging onto USFS Road 24 along Dry Creek to Peterson Prairie, then continuing along roads 60 and 66 to the South Prairie vicinity.  Along the path are found the current day “Trout Lake Ice Cave” and “Natural Bridges” waysides.

During the Holocene epoch (6,200-8,200 years ago) lava eruptions from the Big Lava Bed cone flowed east-northeast toward Trout Lake.  During one such flow, the surface cooled and crusted over (much as a cold mountain stream might freeze-over from the top), thus creating a sub-surface conduit carrying the stream of molten rock.  Once the eruption stopped, the underground conduit drained of lava, thereby creating a long vaulted underground passage.  In the centuries that followed, some long sections of the passage collapsed forming open trenches with boulder-strewn floors.  Other short sections remained standing as “lava bridges”, while other longer sections of standing conduit resulted in what we now term “lava caves”.

When arriving in the region, the 1853 expedition’s first source of knowledge would have undoubtedly come from their native guides, plus contacts they had with the native people who inhabited the high country around Mt. Adams in summer.  As a result, the expedition was able to describe the area traversed, and record local American Indian mythologies that told of the origins of the terrain.  The following transcription is one such origin myth, copied directly from the 1854 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the US Congress:

“In descending the valley from Chequoss (note, historians conclude this is likely Indian Heaven), there occurs beneath a field of lava a vaulted passage, some miles in length, through which a stream flows in the rainy season, and the roof of which has fallen in here and there. Concerning this, they relate that, a very long time ago, before there were any Indians, there lived in this country a man and wife of gigantic stature. The man became tired of his partner, and took to himself a mouse, which thereupon became a woman. When the first wife knew of this, she was, very naturally, enraged, and threatened to kill him. This coming to the man’s knowledge, he hid himself and his mouse-wife in a place higher up the mountain, where there is a small lake having no visible outlet. The first woman, finding that they had escaped her, and suspecting that they were hidden under ground, commenced digging, and tore up this passage. At last she came beneath where they stood, and, looking up through a hole, saw them laughing at her. With great difficulty, and after sliding back two or three times, she succeeded in reaching them, when the man, now much alarmed, begged her not to kill him, but to allow him to return to their home, and live with her as of old. She finally consented to kill only the mouse-wife, which she did, and it is her blood which has colored the stones at the lake. After a time, the man asked her why she had wished to kill the other woman. She answered, because they had brought her to shame, and that she had a mind to kill him, too; which she finally did, and since when she had lived alone in the mountain.

Another story about the same place is to the effect that it was made by a former people called the Seaim, a name corresponding with the jargon word for grizzly bear. The mouse story seems to be interwoven with the Klikatat mythology; for, besides the name of this place, Hool-hool-ilse, (from hool-hool, a mouse,) one of the names of their country, is Hoolhoolpam, or the mouse-land. This is given to it by the Yakamas…”.

Consideration of this historical source leads to the remarkable conclusion that the Yakama people of the mid-1800s most associated their allied Klickitats with a land dominated by the presence of some small animal, whose common name was translated by expedition members to mean “mouse”.  But was the land’s ubiquitous namesake truly a mouse, or even a member of the rodent family?  Or, given all the verbal and written translations and transcriptions involved in capturing the archetypal myth, did the expedition err in nomenclature?

It is certainly true that many rodents live in association with blocky rock environments like collapsed lava tubes, lava bridges, lava caves, lava plains, mountain sides, and talus slopes in the Pacific Northwest.  Rodents found in such areas include marmots, pack rats, chipmunks, ground squirrels, deer mice and others.  But to anyone who has spent time along this section of the McClellan Trail, it is obvious that Mouseland (hoolhoolpam) must instead be reference to the American pika.  Evidence of this is expressed by the currently high concentration of these members of the rabbit order (Lagomorpha) that inhabit the area, plus the fact that many Mouseland cave names reference this very visible and audible animal.  Current day place names include “Pika Here Cave”, “Pika Ice Cave”, “Squeaking Pika Cave”, and even “Chubby Bunny Cave”.

Along one lower reach of lava trench separated by bridges and caves, I have noted pikas in nearly every trench section, often in close proximity.  Pikas are territorial and usually widely dispersed on open talus, but perhaps the many deep trenches separated by basalt walls and rubble results in sufficient isolation without the usual distance seemingly required on open talus slopes.  As is often the case, perhaps “good walls” make “good neighbors” in the pika community.  Overall, my informal surveys have recorded the animals along at least half of the Mouseland reach, from 2400 to 3000 foot elevation.

Pikas, like all organisms, are subject to strict habitat criteria, including specific temperature ranges.  Their temperature tolerances are likely narrower than many other mammals, simply due to the fact that early members of their family (Ochotonidae) evolved in association with highly buffered temperature environments, typified by natural cooling and heating mechanisms (e.g. Chimney and Balch effects), constancy of the earth’s heat, plus the insulation afforded by winter snow cover and blocky rock deposits.  There is a huge metabolic efficiency advantage bestowed upon animals that can evolve in association with such environments, given the fact that the calories normally required for keeping warm and cool can be devoted to other important life activities such as acquiring food, reproduction, resting, reflection, and even play.

The drawback of genetic adaption to a narrow physical environment (i.e., habitat) is that it means such organisms are unable to venture far from that physical range.  Thereby, a state of what’s called “endemism” comes to exists.  Endemism is defined as a species’ ecological and genetic state being unique to a limited geographic location, or habitat condition.  Such species display relatively small geographic ranges consequent to their highly specific habitat requirements, and inability to migrate far from their “islands”.  Some highly endemic species such as ice crawlers (or grylloblattids) have very small species distributions, many being less than 100 square miles.

All of this leads to the difficult question of whether seemingly protected but narrow temperature range (stenothermal) organisms like pikas are at greater risk of extinction due to global warming than wider temperature range (eurythermal) organisms, such as tree squirrels.  On one hand, the cave and rock dwellers exist in a very stable temperature controlled habitat that is highly “decoupled” from ambient conditions at the earth’s surface.  It’s logical to assume that these sheltered but temperature-limited organisms can survive regular, short-term climatic cycles in place, perhaps better than more eurythermal forms.  On the other hand, if these short-term cycles of variability end-up trending toward consistently higher ambient temperature norms, this could result in a small but significant change in the subsurface environment, and be enough to put highly sensitive endemic and stenothermal species like pikas and grylloblattids at an even higher risk of extinction, especially since migration to new “islands” of suitable habitat is nearly impossible.

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