Volume II, No. 1, Fall 1974
by Robert McKenzie and Janet Florence Photographs by Robert McKenzie
Spelunking is the hobby of exploring caves. Unlike speleology, the science of exploring caves, spelunking, or cave crawling as it is more commonly called, is mainly for amateurs who enjoy caves for beauty and fun. This definition fits our group of BITTERSWEET cave crawlers. Almost all staff members have gone to at least one cave in groups as small as four, or as many as eleven. We first started in a very cold winter spell, continuing cave crawling all spring and into summer. And we are still researching caves for later articles. In this period, we have seen a great variety of caves since there are more than 200 caves in our county alone. We have gone down in sinkholes of all types and have explored small cave entrances that blossomed into huge rooms covered with intricate formations. We have explored caves that have huge entrances that dwindle to small passages in a few hundred feet and explored others which are filled with so much mud and water that we had to crawl and wade. Even better, we have explored caves where we could walk upright hundreds of yards without crawling or getting wet.
George Kastler, graduate of our high school and now naturalist at nearby Bennett Spring State Park, has been with us at all times. Since he has mapped many of the caves we visited, he knows about the caves--their dangers, their pleasures, their distinguishing formations and their locations. George has always been there to give a helping hand, to explain a particular point or to give reassurance when everyone tires. He is giving us the opportunity to learn about the numerous natural caves of the Ozarks and to experience the excitement of discovering a new world in our back yards. (This can be taken literally as Jay Luthy tells on page 51.)
George pointed out to us that to make the cave crawling experience more enjoyable and safer there are preliminary preparations and courtesies to be followed. These are locating the cave, checking weather conditions, asking permission, having a partner, notifying others where you are going, and preparing the pack.
The first preparation is to find the best route to the cave. As we get ready to go, we check maps to find, as nearly as possible, the exact location of a cave. If we know the general area where a cave is located, it is much easier to find. We also consult the maps to determine if the cave is approachable by car. If it isn't, we have to estimate the walking distance to it.
Also, just before we leave, we check the weather report. In the winter, we need to know the chances for snow, not because it will affect cave conditions, but because a fairly heavy snow might make the roads and trails leading to the caves difficult to traverse.
After the snow season passes, rain can present problems. The rains can cause the rivers which are outside most caves to swell. In rainy weather, a river or branch can rise so rapidly that a cave entrance close to the river bank can be submerged in a few minutes. The water level inside the cave may also be affected. When it rains, the water absorbed into the ground begins to filter through the bedrock. It will work its way down further and further until it finally seeps into the cave. Once in the cave, it begins to collect, causing the water level to rise.
The speed at which the water collects in a cave depends on many things. If the bedrock above the cave is already wet, groundwater will not filter through as fast as if the bedrock was dry. The size of the openings through which water filters down also has an effect--the bigger the opening, the more water that will seep in.
A prolonged rain such as a spring rain, will cause the water level to rise but it will rise only to a certain point and stabilize. After it reaches the point, any additional water will simply run off because the bedrock will be too saturated to let any more water seep into the cave. Therefore, in rainy weather, there is not much danger of one of the spelunker's worst nightmares--a flash flood inside the cave. For us the prolonged rain means only mud which makes the going a little harder. However, if the cave has a lot of sinkholes in its watershed, there is still the chance of fast rising water
The situation is different in late spring and early summer. The bedrock is much drier and the weather much more unpredictable. A light blue morning sky can become grey and heavy with clouds by noon. And if it starts raining hard, like two inches in hours, the water can go through the bedrock like flour through a sieve. This can cause some caves in the area to fill up completely in only a few minutes. Obviously, this would be very hard for anyone caught in the back of a cave when it starts to fill up. Therefore, we keep careful watch on the weather and if conditions look favorable for this situation to arise, we cancel our trip.
In addition to checking weather reports and maps, it is important to get permission from the land owner for all caves on private property. If we are allowed to go in, we are careful to close gates, respect all property and refrain from littering.
A fundamental rule in cave exploring is never go alone. We are always sure to have a partner along, for the danger of mishaps are greatly reduced when going in groups. For example, if someone falls and injures himself while descending into a sinkhole, the rope around the waist wouldn't help if there is no partner above to pull him up and go for help. In muddy caves it is especially necesary to have a partner. If someone happens to get mired in a mud hole, he can always call on his partner to pull him out. Or, if one gets separated from the rest of the group, they could be able to locate him much easier if they had several people to help look. Another advantage of caving in a group is that if everyone gets trapped or lost together in a cave, the chance of panic spreading is greatly reduced. The greater the number in the group in case of accident, the more likely someone will start looking quickly.
This leads to another important safeguard. Before going into any kind of a cave, large or small, it is important to notify someone, giving them an approximate time of returning. George made this part clear. "One of the first rules of safety is, be sure someone knows where you are going--exactly where. And if you anticipate making any changes in the plan during the day, let someone know. You say you're going down to Twin Bridges. Well, in the Twin Bridges area there are close to a good dozen major caves. Counting some of the smaller one, you've got close to thirty-five caves. If someone should get lost or hurt and you don't come home, someone will come down and try to find you. Where do they start looking? Course they'll look in those obvious ones first where people tend to go, but suppose you're off in one of those little jobbies somewhere?"
To reach most of the caves we visit we have to walk at least one-half mile, so we need packs to carry our food and equipment. Although a few of us use large hiking packs, we do not like them because of their bulkiness in a cave. Instead, we favor smaller packs that are more mobile. However, their size limits what we can put in them. For those who have cameras, this means leaving some equipment at home. Our photographers usually limit themselves to one camera body, two lenses, and a flash. Sometimes we take a tripod, but it makes the going much more difficult. Along with the camera equipment, we put in extra lights in the pack and an extra change of clothes--shirt, pants, shoes and socks. The remaining space is stuffed full of high energy food that doesn't take up too much space, such as candy bars, canned soft drinks and sandwiches.
Once all the preliminaries are out of the way, we are ready to go. When we arrive at the site of a cave, we usually have no trouble finding the mouth, especially when George is with us. However, if the undergrowth has grown up, if some landmarks have changed slightly, or if the area is covered with a new snow, then it is necessary to relocate the exact position of the opening. The fastest and simplest way of doing this is to disperse and walk through the woods until someone finds a small stream of water crossing the trail. Since water runs out from the openings of many caves in this area, all we have to do then is follow the stream toward the bluff to walk right into the opening.
George has another way of locating new caves. Many caves breathe. That is, a current of air is always moving in and then coming out again. A cave with a fairly large mouth will expel air hundreds of yards outward. Cave air doesn't feel or smell like other air; it feels damp and cool and smells of bat guano and mold. Since this air is carried out from the entrance of a cave, it is actually possible to "smell out" a cave. We all thought this sounded incredible, but George insisted it was possible. In fact, he said that he has smelled out caves from as far as three hundred yards. He would drive down country roads in areas that have bluffs, rock outcroppings and other evidence of cave formation, stick his head out the window and sniff. If he caught the scent, he would follow his nose to the mouth of a new cave. It takes an experienced person with a gifted nose to be able to do this, but it is an accurate and interesting way to find new caves.
After finding the cave entrance, we walk into the cave a few yards. Then we stash our packs in a hidden dry place where we can pick them up on the way out. Before going farther into the cave, we unload from our packs anything we want to take with us--cameras, film, lights, extra batteries and maybe a couple of candy bars. We do not carry our sandwiches and drinks back into a cave. Instead we usually come back to where we stash our packs to eat lunch.
In a cave you need light foods that give quick energy because of the constant physical exertion. Candy bars with their high sugar content give a quick energy boost to anyone who is tiring. Sandwiches are good when in a cave long enough to have to eat. Water in caves can not be depended on to drink. While some of it is clear and looks clean, in the Ozark karst formations, seepage from dumps and sewage systems can contaminate the water. Therefore, we carry all our liquids with us, preferring canned drinks to thermoses because a thermos is more likely to break.
We found out early how valid was George's insistance on safety and how important it was to be prepared. As we made our way into our first cave, each of us with just one light, we spread out too fast. We had a line of six people spread over two hundred feet. Even though we came in a group, it did not do anyone any good if we didn't stick together, as Robert found out.
"I sat alone in the pitch black passage wondering what would happen. The flashlight's once bright glow had quickly melted into the darkness of the cave when I had been stupid enough to drop it into a large pool of muddy water. That was the second mistake I made. The first was that I dropped back from the rest of the group to sneak in a few more pictures.
As a result, I was left behind in the dark when I dropped the light. At first, I had tried in vain to find my way out of the maze of rock and mud. But each direction I crawled yielded only another wall of coarse rock. Only after my futile attempt at escape and my initial panic subsided did I realize my helplessness. I was nothing without my light; I could see nothing--no shadows, no reflections, not even the smallest pinpoint of light. I couldn't even tell if my eyes were open or not. I lost my sense of direction and all sense of time. I was in a lost dimension. The absolute darkness made my mind wander as the seconds ran into minutes and then seemingly, into hours. Stifling the urge to panic, I forced myself to sit down and await the return of the others. After what seemed like hours but was actually only fifteen or twenty minutes, they returned and found me. This experience in the darkness made me realize that a light source is the most important single tool for a cave crawler."
From our experience, strong 3-cell flashlights are our first choice for light because of their compactness, reliability and availability. But even flashlights need some maintenance. Batteries in the 2-cell lights run low after about four hours. Since we are in some caves longer than this, it is necessary to take along several extra sets of batteries, as well as extra bulbs for the flashlights in case our bulbs either burn out or are broken. Through experience we have learned that nothing can be kept dry in a cave unless it is in a watertight container. Therefore, we put all our extra batteries and bulbs in plastic bags. The only major drawback to the flashlights is that their light is too directional. Since they do not spread light well, most of the caves would have existed only as small spots of light except that we corrected this by using a much better light source.
This other source is a gasoline lantern which spreads a bright light over a large area, enabling us to see small details more clearly and to focus our cameras more easily. A disadvantage to the lantern is its bulk and weight. It cannot be taken into some very small passages simply because there is not enough room for it and us. Another disadvantage of the lantern is the danger of falling and breaking a more expensive piece of equipment. Therefore, George is the one who carries the lantern since he is more sure-footed than the BITTERSWEET staff members.
Like the flashlight, the lantern will not burn without maintenance. On long expeditions, George always brings along extra gasoline. If we take the extra fuel into the cave with us, George is sure to have it in a tightly stoppered, unbreakable container to prevent spilling and contaminating the water.
Although we don't use carbide lights, George warned us of the precautions involved in using them. Since carbide combines chemically with water to give off light and heat, it is important that anyone using it should keep his extra carbide in completely watertight containers. George told us a story about a man who carried a small packet of carbide in his hip pocket while crawling through a cave. Forgetting the carbide's presence, he began to wade a small body of water. When the water reached his thigh level it contacted the carbide and of course, began to emit light and heat. George said, "It didn't take him long to get out of those pants!"
George also warned us about dumping used carbide in caves. Left in a cave, carbide can poison animals and eventually work its way into the water table. Used carbide should always be stored in a separate container and disposed of properly outside the cave.
A secondary light source is very important in a cave. If Robert had had an extra light source when he was trapped in the dark, he would have been in no danger. A small flashlight that fits in a pocket makes a good back up unit. However, if you are in a group that has several lights, a box of matches and some small candles serve well as emergency lights.
Cave crawling can be safer and more comfortable if the caver is dressed properly. A hard hat is probably associated with caving more than any other item of clothing, and for good reason. Hard hats protect against low ceilings, hard falls and overhanging rocks difficult to see in the semi-darkness. They really do help insure for safety. However, many people who go cave crawling will not wear one. Their usual explanation is, "Oh, I'm always very careful, and besides, I can sense when my head is getting near the roof."
"I admit that I didn't think a hard hat was necessary," Robert said, "until a recent incident far back in a cave made a believer out of me.
"We had worked our way to the back of the cave some 800 yards from the entrance. As usual George made us find our way out without his help. He would always give us a five minute head start and then lag behind the group, never saying anything until we found our way out.
"Becoming impatient after a few minutes, two boys and I decided to go on ahead of the slow
moving group, searching for daylight on our own. After the sounds of the rest dimmed behind us,
we came to a fork in the passage. We scrambled up a large clay bank that leveled off on top rather
than wade the three foot deep waterway of the other channel. We walked on the slick mud about
a hundred feet when we heard the others behind us walking in the water passage below us to our
right. Evidently we had come the wrong way. Since we didn't want to back track to the fork, our
only way down was to climb down the fifteen foot, forty-five degree incline. The ceiling ran
parallel with the incline about four feet above it. By sitting on the edge of the incline and placing
my hands on the ceiling, I could, in theory, lower myself down to the bottom. It would not have
been feasible to try to slide to the bottom because I'd have hit the wall. So I sat on the edge
looking down the slick mud and dug my heels in at the same time my searching fingertips found
refuge in the gnarled ceiling. Slowly I began to let myself down. It was an agonizingly slow
process--find a hand hold, then drop my feet and dig in my heels, then lower myself. Each time I
did this I came a foot closer to success. But after four times, my fingers were beginning to tire.
With aching and almost numb fingers, I began to lower myself again. Then suddenly I was
shooting toward the bottom and the wall in a blur of speed. Instinctively I threw my hands in front
of me and waited for the crash. But my hands never touched rock! Instead my head was snapped
violently backwards. A projecting ceiling rock had knocked me flat on my back, sending my hard
hat and flashlight flying in different directions. I sat up slightly dazed, wondering if I was still
alive. My hat, upside down in the water, was floating out with the current while the flashlight was
giving off a dim glow three feet under the murky water. I gingerly examined my head. I wasn't
hurt. Feeling rather stupid, I retrieved my hat and my now dead flashlight, uninjured except for a
slightly bruised ego and a deformed hard hat.
"This incident made me realize the great importance of head protection in a cave. I for one will never go into a cave without one."
Choosing the right pants and shirt to wear in a cave is not too difficult but important. The main advice is don't wear anything you expect to keep clean. Most of us wear washable cotton shirts, preferably long sleeved to protect elbows and forearms when crawling into narrow passages lined with sharp deposits. We found after crawling into many wet places that flannel becomes very heavy when wet.
The trick in choosing pants is to get some that are not so new that they could be ruined, but not so old that they will fall apart. One of the girls had some bad luck. A quarter of a mile into one cave she suffered an embarrassing rip-out in her pants that hindered her mobility the rest of the day. The majority of our group select heavy denim jeans that take a lot of punishment without coming apart. Even more durable than jeans are the strong water repellant G.I. field pants.
In cold weather it is necessary to wear extra clothing to and from caves. -This extra clothing, which usually consists of a heavy coat and a cap, can be worn outside in the cold and wind until reaching the mouth of the cave. We then leave the extra coats with our packs in a dry place at the mouth, since coats are not needed in the 55° year round temperature of the cave.
Proper footwear is almost as important as proper head gear. Tennis shoes would seem like a logical choice but actually they are not for some caves. They do not offer enough protection from sharp rocks or hard falls and they don't always stay on your feet. There is nothing as disconcerting as stepping in mud and drawing out a shoeless foot. Boots are the answer. Besides staying on feet better, they offer added protection. Ankles are protected from bruising jolts and gravel cannot work its way into boots as easily as in shoes. Rubber boots are good because if they fill up with water the heat from your feet will warm the trapped water and therefore keep your feet warm. However, in some caves ordinary rubber boots are not enough. When the mud is waist deep and covered with six inches of water, fishing waders keep the spelunker moving. But when we use waders, we have to be very careful to keep from snagging them on the sharp rocks.
Gloves are optional. Some people feel naked without them, while others cannot stand to wear them. Gloves do protect against the rough cave environment, especially in the event of a fall; however, some of us do not like them because they take away our sense of touch, something we feel is necessary to enjoy a cave. If gloves are worn, though, they should be leather work gloves because cotton gloves become heavy and clumsy when wet.
When leaving the cave, especially in cold weather, or any other time to be more comfortable and to protect car seats from cave mud, we change into clean dry clothes, wrapping the clay-covered wet ones in plastic bags. We pack everything back in our packs and put on our jackets, ready to trek back up the bluff to our cars. We check once more to be sure we have carried out all empty cans, dead batteries and all our trash.
We leave the dark world just as we enter it, stealing only a few pictures to explain and document
the beauty, excitement and personal growth each of us experience in the limestone caves of the Ozarks.
- get as much information about the cave as possible before entering by looking at a map of the cave (if available) before going and marking all unstable passages, sinkholes and other dangers.
- obtain permission before going into a private cave. Also obtain permission to cross land to get to the cave.
- take sufficient food and drink.
- leave word of your whereabouts.
- take proper lighting equipment. This should include three separate sources of light, for example, lantern, small flashlight, matches.
- wear proper clothing.
- wear a hard hat.
- mark all passages that fork by placing a rock at the entrance of the passage that you are not exploring. Therefore, when you are crawling back, every passage that has a rock in front of it should be avoided. DO NOT use spray paint to mark passages.
- look back frequently to familiarize yourself with the cave as it will look when you come out.
- vandalize caves. This includes not carrying out what is already broken off since it is still part of the cave environment.
- wander away from a group.
- go alone.
- go if there is a danger of flooding.
- explore complicated or unexplored caves without an experienced cave crawler along.
- walk fast and do a lot of jumping in a cave to insure good footing and to avoid falls.
- drink cave water.
- disturb animal life.
by Teresa Reed Photography by Stephen Hough
Sinking into a sinkhole has a very literal meaning to me. In my .case I think I sank a little further than was required, but it was all very exciting. In fact, I think that descending into that deep, dark unknown was one of the greatest experiences I've known.
The field where the sink was located was flat. Groups of bare trees dotted the grass covered field. Enclosing the sink in one group of trees was an old, partially fallen-down barbed wire fence. The sink dropped off abruptly down.., down ...down for thirty-five feet. I felt as if the hole was trying to swallow me.
The steep opposite side of the sink was covered with thick, green moss--like carpeting of a plush castle. The side I was standing by was a sloping wall of rocks, red clay earth and brown leaves. My side, shaped like a horseshoe, connected to the mossy side so that the sink seemed to have only two sides, and far down...a bottom which had a rounded pile of dirt and debris about eight feet high.
Three-fourths the way down the slope there was a leveled-off spot. To get to that spot we used a "climbing down fence," a piece of woven wire fence anchored into the ground-at the top. We were to hang onto it until we came to the level spot, using it to back down the slope by crawling.
When we reached the level spot, we were to put on the rope harness George made earlier. There was a loop for each leg and one for the chest. The rope was three-fourths inch thick and long enough to easily reach the bottom of the sink. George had made a variety of knots, which were changed to fit each person by untying each knot, making it easy to fit anyone. (see diagram #1) A leg loop was secured by a large square knot. A slip knot fastened the square knot tightly in place to reduce the chance of slipping. The second leg loop was obtained by making a granny knot (see diagram #2) , then securing the loose end by braiding it into the knots. This brings the leg loops together and prevents sliding. The chest loop is fashioned in the same manner. (see diagram #3)
Too soon it was my turn. I wiped my sweating palms on my jeans and shoved my hair away from my eyes. I climbed over the rusty protecting fence and backed onto the woven fence ladder which would take me to the ropes for the rest
of the trip down. I took long, sliding, groping steps. Very slowly, it seemed to me, I made my way down the gradual slope of the ledge. The gravel slid down the slope making dull thumping sounds on the bottom far below. I knew not to look down.
At the little ledge I picked up the rough rope harness, thrust my legs into the loops and put it over my head. I looked up to see Ronnie holding the rope which was wrapped once around a tree and supported by a branch. He was supposed to loosen it up when I gave the word to lower me. I nodded. The rope loosened and I was on my way down to the pile of dirt where some of the others were waiting. As Ronnie loosened the rope, I took a long step and a short one. On the next step as I placed my foot against the wall of the sink, the gravel gave way beneath it. I gasped and held back a scream. I kept slipping. The people down in the sink grabbed for me, but they couldn't reach out far enough. I slipped all the way and was left hanging over a twenty foot drop-off, clutching with clenched fingers the lifesaving rope that Ronnie held taut. I swung in a five foot arch too far below the others for them to reach me.
George carefully crept down the hill's incline on which he was standing. I didn't want to pull him in with me, but I was surely grateful to him when I felt him grasp the rope above me and pull me to him. I felt Ronnie's grip on the rope slacken a bit as I crawled up to the others. I knew I owed my life to Ronnie holding on and George's insistance on safety. When I regained my balance and looked up I noticed the looks of horror on everyone's face. I removed the rope harness and Ronnie hoisted it back to the level spot for the next.
It didn't take me long to stop trembling and notice the new world I'd entered. I looked around the cool, musty damp sink which resembled an upside down mushroom. I was so glad I had worn my soft, warm flannel shirt as I was shivering in the damp air. I looked up at the blue sky and wished that the warm sun could reach these depths.
I explored the part of the sink not visible from above. A wail of chalk-white rocks sloped up to
meet the fifteen foot ceiling. The sound of the water dripping from the ceiling and the noise we
made echoed hollowly against the walls. I looked uneasily at the ceiling wondering if it might fall
in on all of us at any second.
George said that this sink hadn't always been here. A farmer once plowed right over us in the field. One day while he was working extra hard, he hurried to the house for dinner, leaving his team in the field. He returned to find his horses trying to keep the plow from falling into the sink which had fallen while he was eating.
George also told a story of a man with a ball of binder twine, a thin rope-like material, who had
walked through the cave to the end of the twine and still hadn't found an end to it. He told us that
there was a series of sinkholes here, running in a northerly direction. An underground river also
flowing through this series of sinkholes formed the cave. Seeing my apprehension, he teasingly
added that the hole might decide to settle again at any time. He explained the sink had settled in
just the last ten years. The small lake that had developed on one dark side of the sink had not been
there in 1961. He told us since the Alaskan Earthquakes, many local sinks have become active. I
was the first one ready when it was time to leave.
I put on the lifesaving rope in the same fashion as before. I had to take gigantic steps that stretched every leg muscle as I worked my way up, Ronnie staying extra alert this time for a fall. I watched carefully for solid footing. I pulled on the rope until my arms ached, pulling hand over hand to reach the level spot where I obtained my balance and slipped off the rope. I then took hold of the fence ladder. With each new grip I pulled myself closer to the top and the welcome warmth of the sun. Each step slipped a little as my groping hands and feet pulled me nearer the top. I took my last step, grabbed hold of the tree trunk and hoisted myself to the top again.
I looked around at the flat field with the clumps of trees. It was all very silent, clear and beautiful. Yet, it was nothing to compare with the unexpected beauty underground. I turned and took another look below. As I gazed, I found my thoughts sinking into those depths again and recalling my exciting experience beneath the ground.
by Jay Luthy
From early boyhood I have been fascinated by a large sinkhole behind my house. My sinkhole was the biggest, neatest place I'd ever found in which to play army, cowboys and Indians, or anything that could be played in a deep, bushy, overgrown, jungle-type setting.
When I was about eleven, I learned that sinkholes are actually part of large cave formations. Wow! This made my sinkhole even better than before! I just knew it had to have the entrance to a huge network of caves under it, because the whole area where I live is potted with sinkholes. I was just positive I was going to be the one to discover the connecting passage to all of them in my back yard and explore where no one else had ever been.
With visions of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, the Hardy Boys and other adventure books about caves, I started digging and searching in my sinkhole under all the large rocks and around tree roots and logs for any indication of a hole that might lead into a cave.
I really didn't expect to find a new Meramac Caverns on the first day of my search, but now after almost seven years, I must admit my hopes have dimmed a little.
Although not finding a cave entrance crushed my adventurous dreams, the worst blow to my budding spelunking career came from my mother who was afraid of caves. Every time she heard about someone losing his way in a cave, the chances of my going cave crawling got smaller and smaller. But when BITTERSWEET staff began to visit caves in connection with our features on Ozark caves, I saw my chance.
One early spring day I was one of the four in the car with George Kastler, probably the only person in the county my mother would trust to lead me safely in and out of a cave.
I can look back now and honestly say I loved every inch of my first real caving experiences. I still see Jim wading through the mud, sometimes stepping carefully in Steve's footholes and other times sinking over his waist in mud and water. I vividly recall Ronnie shouting, "Hurry up and take that picture," as he lay face down in ice cold water trying to look like he was having fun while Steve and George struggled to get the flash on the camera to work, as they also lay flat in the twelve inch high passage filled with four inches of water. (see p. 37)
This all seemed hilariously funny to me as I sat back cramped up on the rocks and watched, but when it was my turn to crawl through the water... Well, I certainly wasn't laughing. In fact, the temperature of the water took my breath away. I gasped and plunged on through the low passage bruising my elbows and knees as I crawled out a steady rhythm of clang--scrape--splash--splash until I numbly emerged into a small room where the others were waiting. Thank goodness for hard hats! If I hadn't been wearing one of George's extra hats, that first "clang" would have sounded more like "clunk" and someone would have had to drag me out of Mud Cave (I can just imagine trying to explain that to my mother!).
I enjoyed Mud Cave and I enjoyed even more our all day trip through another cave, thanks to George's careful planning and safety precautions. I guess I'm addicted to BITTERSWEET cave crawling. I wonder when George is going again... Better yet, I wonder if George is experienced at finding cave entrances in sinkholes.
by Robert McKenzie
My reactions to cave crawling are as varied as the cave terrain. I felt exhilarated and satisfied
when I made it through a particularly difficult section. But I was miserable when I was stuck in
mud that seemed as cold as the winter weather outside. In fact, sometimes I thought I could never
be as miserable again. But now in retrospect, I realize that while I thought I was discovering
caves, I was actually discovering myself.
I discovered I could climb the steepest rock or descend into the blackest hole if I wanted to badly enough. Each obstacle I overcame was not easy. Even though someone was behind me to give me a push if that bank was too steep, I had to put forth the extra effort to make it that last couple of feet. All of us learned this through experience. When we were wading waist deep mud that held everyone's pace to slow motion or when we were crawling along a two foot high passage lined with ragged rocks that scraped and clawed at elbows and knees and reached down at unwary backs and shoulders, we learned how much stamina we really had. None of us ever turned back. There were lots of complaints but no one ever turned back because once we learned our potential, we found that we were able to go back as far as the cave and our expertise would permit. And more importantly, no ledge was too high, no water too cold, and no passage too black--we could do what before had seemed impossible.
I discovered caves taught me to appreciate beauty. The age-old deposits, many of which were undisturbed by humans, suggested a majestic impenetrable beauty I had to learn to appreciate and respect. At first, they were nothing but large chunks of gnarled rock. But upon closer examination, they were precision works of nature; their rough surface was uniform in texture and indestructible in appearance, always ready to lash out at an unwary spelunker. The long vertical lines of the stalagmites impressed me with their strength and steadfastness. After seeing huge formations several feet across and others only fractions of an inch thick, I was awed at the force which could produce such extremes.
I discovered beauty in the feel of the cave. The awakening feel of the cool, damp air that flooded my lungs when we first entered a cave; the feel of gravel under my feet as I stepped where possibly no one else has ever stepped; the feel of fresh red clay between my fingers as I crawled along a passage; the feel of relief when I was finally able to stand up after a long hunched-over duck walk; or the feeling of accomplishment when I crawled into the blinding sunlight after hours in the darkness.
Being in caves has probed depths of my awareness beyond the sense of touch. Every sense was
sharpened to a greater degree than before. The darkness improved my observation by making me
look harder to catch distinguishing marks in caves. My hearing became acute to pick up the
almost silent sounds in a cave. Left behind were the sounds of birds, wind and rustling leaves. If I
listened carefully, I could hear water dripping from the ceiling into far away pools. Farther away
still, I could catch the sounds of it running into other pools. The only other sounds came from an
occasional salamander slipping into water or the beating of wings as a bat flew overhead. This
sharpening of the senses helped me enjoy and appreciate caves as I never had before.
The awesome beauty of caves made me feel humble in comparison. I felt very small standing in an 80 foot high entrance and very helpless struggling up a snow covered bank with the howling ten degree December wind biting my face and pulling at my fingers. And I felt overwhelmed when I entered my first big room, one large enough to hold my house. I was no one special in a cave--almost an alien at grips with nature--and whether I met success or not was decided only by physical prowess and caving ability.
I was forced to look inside myself for motivation to continue when I thought I was too tired. As a result, I found stamina and determination that I did not knowingly possess before. So while I was discovering caves in the inner depths of those great limestone bluffs, I was also discovering the depths of my inner self.
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