TALES OF A FIRST TIME CAVER
AND BAT SURVEYOR....
Contributed by Jeanne Brennan
Recently I had one of the biggest adventures of my life....
Bats. you love them or you hate them. I happen to be one that loves them. Some call them rodents with wings. I think they are beautiful and mysterious creatures. last fall I gave the wildlife biologist a beanie-baby bat to remind him to include me on a winter bat survey. Not only did I really want to see bats, but very high on my list of things to do before I die is to go on a caving trip. last year for my birthday I came walking into my mom's house with my prized birthday gift - my first headlamp. and I was more fired up about that headlamp than most would be about gold jewelry.
So I get invited to go. and I do research after work for 2 days, collecting information on the species of bats at Fruit Hole Cave, caving equipment, maps of the cave, recorded expeditions, and talking to people who have been there. I'm warned that there is a 30 foot vertical drop at the entrance of the cave and that caving requires some physical endurance. As I'm flipping through a book of pictures of Fruit Hole, I see lovely pictures of the cave formations, historic graffiti, and happy cavers smiling at the camera. the next page has about 100 firemen gathered around the hole removing an injured man via litter and pulleys. The caption says that he was a first time caver. Oh boy.
In a caving book there is an unnerving description that guano (bat feces) can be piled several feet high in some caves in the southwestern us states. not to mention the overwhelming fumes of ammonia that are so strong that it can help biologists locate caves from way up above ground. A bat video showed bats swooping about the cave, releasing all sorts of excrement as they went. Hey, when your a bat, the world is your toilet (right dad?) So I had to think to myself - am I prepared for this???
I meet up with four guys and decide at that moment to tell them that I've never done this before. I come semi-prepared with a hardhat and headlamp (yeah!), rainsuit and camera. every caver knows that you need a light source minimum of three. But my brand new, never used, trusty headlamp was going to suffice without backup. So semi-equipped we decended into the hole. A 4" wide cable ladder was our means of entering the cave. Very tricky to find your footing in the dark. The entrance was about 3 foot wide shaft that brought you up close and personal with the limestone stratifications. I was awe-inspired, and I hadn't even gotten into the cave yet! At the bottom of the ladder I wandered off by myself to get accustomed to the headlamp lighting and slippery footing. There were no leveled, concrete poured paths in this cave. No electric lighting guiding your way. This was the real meal deal.
Everyone has entered the cave now and someone points at a crevice
and says "there's one". One what? You mean a real live
bat?! Not behind glass like at zoooamerica? I admit a little fear
and wonder at the realization of being in the bat's lair. Not
exactly like a lion's den, but not incomparable. I'm fully adjusted
to the light now, but try as I might, I can see no bat. "I'm
not going to do very well at this bat surveying stuff" I
thought. eventually i did see it, a little mouse sized ball of
fur, snoring loudly. ok, not exactly. But every bat in that cave
was asleep, maybe for months, hanging upside down from the rock
wall by two little finger nails (sorry biologists, I know I am
terminology). When shining the light around we start to see them everywhere, in little bunches. These are the little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) the most common of Pennsylvania bats. next to be seen are the Eastern pipestrelles (tiny little guys) and northern long eared (Myotis septentranious) (with ears about 2-3mm longer than the little browns - not particularly diagnostic for a beginning bat surveyor).
We walk on through the cave, being careful not to brush them off the wall as we squeeze through some areas. we stop and a faint shrill sound becomes eventually louder and more evident. The bats were waking up.
A little background from what I've learned before I continue. In the winter, when no insects are available, bats hibernate. Their heart rate slows to nearly nothing, and their body temperature is that of the cave. This is to conserve fat reserves so that they have enough energy to emerge in the spring. when disturbed by a caver, it normally takes about 15 minutes for them to get their heart rate to normal and still more time before they can fly. Conservation biologists don't want to waken the bats, for fear that it may lessen their chances of survival come spring. Unfortunately some disturbance is necessary (once every 2 years at annual monitoring sites) to get good data on species and populations in PA, and whether there is a decline, or what areas in particular need to be protected.
So Ron and I (Bureau of Forestry) get a bat anatomy lesson from Cal (PA Game Commission) as John and Dave (PA Game Commission) count bats. Cal plucks a little brown off the wall and starts stretching out the wings to show me all the diagnostic features.
Now I've seen pictures of people crawling through narrow passageways that were carved out by historic submerged streams. And someday I thought I could even try that myself. But I was not prepared to do that yesterday. but in the name of science, and adventure, I crawled through. I left my gear and crew behind and crawled through over and under rock, pulling my weight sometimes with stalagmites (rock deposits)that had formed seemingly for this very purpose. I almost ate a bat that was minding his own business, peacefully sleeping right at heads level. at the end when I could go no further I saw what is called the "soda room". It was filled with soda straw shaped formations about a foot high, stretching from ceiling to floor. It was beautiful. As I returned the 50 or so feet to the others, my light began to dim. Then significantly dim. and then my trusty headlamp, well, it ran out of juice. John lent me his extra, much to his disgust soon later, when his headlamp also went out.
Next was the wall of terror, or temple of doom, or something like that. A 10-12 foot diagonal, semi-smooth slab of rock that we had to climb with a nearly identical slab above it. Close enough together that you could extend your feet while laying on your back, and wedge yourself up the wall. John made a big mistake. He mentioned a friend whose footing had slipped and she slid down the wall and painfully jammed her shoulder into the above rock on her way down. Halfway up the wall my footing began to slip and my legs began to shake uncontrollably. With much pep talking from all 4 guys, I eventually made it, slightly shaken up. Little did I know that the best adventure of all was saved for last.
I don't know how I got myself into this one. John asked dave if he would do the "mud slide" with him to get data (?!). Dave hesitated so I piped in "I'll do it!". Maybe it was all a set up. I'm not sure. I "bravely" led the way in (I can be so full of myself sometimes) not knowing exactly what all the fuss was about. The passage was another squirming on your stomach with no room to turn around type. It was about 3 feet wide in most places, with the right side, 1 foot, a flowing (?) stream. My boots were not waterproof and at this point in the trip I was dirty, but not muddy and still dry. so i tried to stay out of the water. Oh, man! one foot submerged! the 48 degree water trickling through my wool sock, and then the polypropelene liner sock and a small pond forming between my toes. After about 30-40 feet I realized that all my effort to stay out of the water was for naught if I was going to continue because it was a "mud slide" from here on out. After some serious hesitation and several comments from the no longer fearless leader (me) about how insane this was and "no human being could possibly be so stupid as to have gone through here before" we continued on. Imagine a mud wrestling pit. Imagine crawling through it with only enough clearance above your body to allow a few inches between you and the ceiling when laying prostrate. When I thought it couldn't get worse, standing water lay on top of the mud and I crawled around on knees and elbows to keep the water from flowing down my sleeves and up my pants. I had water flowing around my fingers inside my leather gloves. at this point, the only things that wasn't covered in mud was my face. and I planned to keep it that way.
There was a sharp turn where John, who had been talking me through all this craziness, would go no further. About 20 feet off there appeared what was called "the lake room". Not thinking much about the name but only of a higher ceiling, possible formations, and turn around space, onward I slithered. and you know what I found? Formations? NO. Nigher ceiling? NO. Just a WHOLE LOT OF WATER. And I gave john and the cave a piece of my mind. as I swam back I managed to dip my face in a pile of mud, much to john's delight. honestly though, it was the best part of the trip and stupid humans HAVE done it before.
Got back to the rest of the crew, showed off our inches of mud collected on every inch of our outfits, and after wringing out a few layers, we headed out. At this point most of the cave was awake and the shrill calls echoed throughout the cave. "get out! I was sleeping so peacefully until you came!", and another "I was even in the middle of a good dream!" a couple dive bombed us to drive the point home. but it confirmed the silliness of the hair tangle myth, bats having amazing sonar that senses your exact location and WILL NOT intentionally hit you. But a few inches away helped me get the point.
As the rest took turns slowly ascending the ladder, I crept back down into the cave and turned off my headlamp. Just to hear the sounds of the bats and dripping water somewhere far off, and feeling the complete darkness that at times can be eerie, but at this moment felt so peaceful. I prayed and thanked God for a great day, and the beautiful creation of the cave and its inhabitants. Then it was my turn to climb out, and we won't talk about how my rippling biceps and triceps could barely pull myself out of that cave, nor how long it took me to climb it. But the amazingly bright other world, whose sun was near gone and night was fast approaching, brought an end to our day and underworld adventure.
See Jeanne's second and third bat survey story...