Story contributed by Jeanne Brennan
Photos by John Chenger
I guess I passed the test with the other two caves (see Mud Cave and Fruit Hole) because I had the honor of being invited on a more exclusive bat survey - exclusively for thrill seekers. I barely counted bats on this trip, I was more concerned with survival.
Prior to going I asked my hard core caving boss whether at any point he felt the cave was too much for him. He said yes. Then I asked if he thought that I would be able to handle it. He wasn't so sure. So I was a little nervous.
The night before I left for my trip to western PA I went out swing dancing with several friends. I knew I had an early and long day ahead so I got myself home at midnight. After a long time trying to fall asleep somehow my bed managed to find it's way into the corner of the dance floor and as people danced by me in my flannel pj's, I tried to hide in embarassment. In my delirium I did not really sleep until a few hours before my alarm went off. Somehow I managed to get myself through the 200+ mile trip by dancing to Gipsy Kings to stay awake.
John and I and a daredevil kayak instructor friend of his went kayak shopping before caving. I was looking for a used, starter, basic kayak, something around $400 that I could paddle around minor whitewater streams and do some rolls if I must. I ended up with a $900 top-of-the line kayak that can jump large waterfalls, squirt up in the air like a dolphin and other such tricks that I have absolutely no intention of tackling in the near future. Did I mention that so far I've only white water kayaked once in my life?!
So we meet up in the falling snow with the batmen (Foom and Mick) and several new faces. Three National Speleological Society guys and an avid caving couple from penn state. I quietly started to sing "which one of these things is not like the other". John gathers us for a pep talk emphasizing safety in the back of the tunnel that consists of several waterfalls. "If you get hurt plan on dragging you broken leg with the femur torn through your skin because it will be several hours before a rescue will even be attempted and you will DIE here." Great.
Five of us cram into Foom's truck which I should have seriously reconsidered after I saw his new winch on the front. I am known for getting sick driving on rutted back roads at any speed. I've driven with too many people that race through streams and mud piles, along cliffs, into snow banks, and scraping the vehicle undercarriage along debris and uneven dirt roads. But this trip made all the others look easy. Foom drove through the forest like he was playing some video game where he and his passengers have 9 lives and his truck instantly becomes new after smashing it to pieces. Downhill, sometimes with the left 2 tires up on a high bank tipping us on our side, crashing through overhanging trees, pushing larger ones with the truck roof as if it were a military tank. Did I mention all of this at high speed and to blasting death metal music? Our mistake was saying things like, "Foom, you're crazy! I can't believe you just did that! Watch out for that.....ahhhhhhh!!!" I think he took it as a dare. Equipment falling everywhere in the truck and passengers being airborn and yelling and swearing.
At the end of the road John pointed out the adjacent steep washed out road that others once dared to ramble over but was now impassible. Big mistake. We sat there at the bottom of the hill looking at this "road" that had boulders all over it and areas where water had slumped the surface to the point where it would be like climbing a 2-3 foot sidewalk curb. There were downed trees all around it. I looked over at Foom and in horror saw a determined smirk forming on his face. He gunned it and we all hit the back of our seats. I didn't see any of it happen. I just looked out the side window and mentally yelled "God!God!God!God!" as we were tossed around like the inside of a dryer. Then we came back down the hill. I thought I was gonna die. Foom got out of the car and I pried my hands off the uh-oh bar that had permanant squeeze marks in it. I was totally wiped out. We got out of the truck, donned our gear, and trampled down the hill to the cave entrance.
I had just about enough energy to crawl into a warm bed and this was BEFORE entering the cave. This is not the best way to tackle a physically strenuous trip. Once inside the sound of rushing water made it very clear that this was going to be a wet exploration. I had on a wetsuit, neoprene socks and gloves in anticipation as did most of the others. It was tested immediately by the waterfall room. I guess the waterfall was about 11 feet high. I stood under the side of it to climb up an overhang and got the stunning sensation of cold water tricking down my neck and under the back of my wetsuit. The tunnel had a diamond white ceiling that is made from deposited calcite. It is a rare find because when it is touched a dirty layer forms over it. Sometimes just the presence of cavers can change the climate enough to darken the calcite. But because this was a gated cave, few ever had the chance to enjoy what we were seeing.
Then rest of the cave is one long path, maybe 1500 feet. The beginning is a tight fissure that may have been a sideways walking width, but there were shelves from 2 feet from the ground and up that made it too narrow. So we crawled through the rocky stream on our sides, elbow dragging the body along. It was endless and exhausting but well worth it because after about 150 feet we arrived at the first water chute. A 5 foot long, 1.5 foot diameter stalactite hung over the path leaving one foot of clearance. I laid on my back on the black, slippery rock and let the water push me under it and into the formation room. The room was about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide and had about 100 bacon strips/curtains about 6 feet long filling the room. The stream flowed through the width of the room but we stayed to the side to get under all the guillotine-like formations. At the end of the room we entered another chute to another room of beautiful formations and it continued with chutes leading to openings with formations, for about 100 feet.
Then we arrived in an area where the fissure was about 100 feet high and a little wider than our shoulders. We walked along thin and 2-3 inch narrow shelves about 8 feet above the rocky stream. We crossed over several waterfalls and then climbed down into the stream and in and out of pools up to our knees in water for a few hundred feet. On the way back we climbed the 6 waterfalls, the first being 8 feet high. After much searching I found a foothold behind the waterfall and grabbed a groove in the wall to hoist myself over the waterfall. After successfully ascending the first I revved up for the second. But I ate it bad. I didn't check my foothold and fell back down 3-4 feet into the pool. I was a bit shaky and weak after that and got hoisted by John only to twist my knee in the process. It took a long, arduous 8 minutes for me to overcome this one. After that I blew it on the next 4 waterfalls in terms of visually strategizing and quickly tackling them. I got stuck in several areas and emotionally and physically drained. But I still enjoyed every moment of it because it was a great challenge and I finally made it!
Returning up through the water chutes was fun. The person in front would inadvertently (or sometimes purposely) dam up all of the water and once through would release it at near flood stage. However, I was never submerged or swept backward. The hip crawl was not so fun going back through, and even though I had a centimeter thick wetsuit on, I could feel the bruises forming.
We emerged from the cave and never was I so happy to see daylight. Our wet coveralls were about 10 pounds heavier than before we entered the cave, and they started to freeze on our bodies as we made the 10 minute climb to the trucks.
Foom decided to take the ridiculously daring path back out, but this time I didn't care. My body lay limp in the back seat. Every time we bulldozed a boulder or cleared a 1 foot diameter fallen tree without flipping and toppling back down the hill I would lift my head and yell "yee-ha!". There was a 25 foot exposed natural gas pipe at which we paused and then Foom decided to use like a skater ramp with his two side tires. Needless to say we did not explode.
After the adventure we chilled over dinner and I headed back
to Harrisburg with the promise of another adventure some day soon.
Total: 76; little browns: 34; Eastern pipistrelles: 37; big browns: 4; Northern long eareds: 1