Contributed by Jeanne Brennan
It is a good thing the batmen are breaking me in slowly.
This time I wasn't the new kid. (See Fruit Cave) We had a reporter and photographer join our bat survey in western Pennsylvania. And boy were they in for an adventure. Neither had caved before nor did they seem prepared for what they were getting themselves into. They were able to borrow coveralls, helmets, and lights, but there was not much we could do in terms of lending a caving attitude. You see, the reporter has experienced claustrophobia, and the fashion-conscious photographer, dirtophobia. He was carrying a very clean $2000 camera when a good caver knows that anything you carry into a cave is considered not only wreckable but dispensable. And neither were particularly fond of bats.
Another addition to our story are Mick and Foom, both Game Commission bat biologists. With John, Dave, and myself, a band of 7 crawled under a ledge into Mud Cave. The first room was full of cool creepy crawlees. Crickets and harvestmen clung to the ceiling in separate patches of hundreds. We found an Allegheny woodrat privy and crumpled food in pockets around the room. A silvery sheen of diamond-like condensation coated the ceiling in some areas. This cave had a flowing stream in it that in this room had eroded beneath the wall with about two feet of clearance. Suddenly Mick rolled out from under it. He had been back a few feet looking for bats.
Foom and I went down a walking passage counting bats as we went. He let me lead and taught me how to visually sweep the walls and crevices in order not to miss any bats. The floor terrain was hard for me to see throughout the entire cave. I was wearing my not-so-trusty headlamp and I think it was just altogether lousy at illuminating anything. So I staggered along and did what is affectionately called a "helmet check" several times. That means hitting your head so hard against an overhanging rock that it practically knocks you over backwards and makes a sound loud enough for everyone to yell out "helmet check!".
At the end we caught up to the others. Mick had just explored a tunnel that looked a bit too small for my taste. But it was dry, and I liked that. Plus I thought it would be a challenge and I wouldn't have a chance to get into a tight spot like that again (!). It was like crawling under a bed as a little kid, but with walls enclosing your body. It was so narrow that there was no chance of turning around. This was a bit unnerving to me, because I was pretty tired after dragging along on my stomach about 40 feet, and I still had another 40 to the end of the tunnel. At the end, Mick had informed me that I would be able to turn around and head back. But that was of little consolence right then when the fear started to grip me at the confinement of not being able to turn around until then. I kicked around for awhile to overcome the claustrophobia that was threatening me, called back for support, and Foom confirmed that he was there waiting for me. I made it to the end and back and enjoyed the adrenaline rush of overcoming my fear and getting out of there! Little did I know that the tunnel was great preparation for the belly crawl that was next.
We all had to go through it, even the journalist and the now very soiled and grumpy photographer. There was no other way to get to the other half of the cave where the rest of the bats were hanging out. And the belly crawl was forever long, maybe 200 feet. The passage averaged the length and width of my body, on its side. I started through like a frog swims, arms pulling and bent legs pushing as i shoved my bag along in front of me. When my arms and legs grew tired I employed Mick's rolling strategy where I could. The ceiling was often too low to roll and I tried walking along on my side because the passage was on a bit of a slant. A small, pebbly stream flowed through at one point sending cold chills to a couple spots of our bodies that couldn't avoid the water.
At the end Mick went off to explore and came back with a challenge for me. We climbed up through a 20 foot low flow waterfall to the very source, a rocky stream flowing through a three foot high tunnel. I was already cold, and used that as an excuse to decline on the challenge of getting inevitably soaked and royally bruised. But then we saw what looked like a human sized animal hole on the side. We shined our light down in and could only see about 6 feet before it took a turn. Mick let me go ahead of him and I dove in feet first. Once i got my whole body in except for my head, I tried to turn my headlamp to see down into where exactly I was going. There was not an inch to shine light down to see. So bombs away! down I went. I got the complement of the year from Mick when he asked if this was only my second cave. I think it was in reference to my thorough enjoyment of diving into dirt and unknown passageways when he said "you kick butt!" not exactly in those words.
After about 5 hours we left the cave thoroughly tired but in good spirits. Except the photographer, whose camera was a bit crusty. We had counted about 200 bats which was much lower than the previous year. In comparison to Fruit Hole, we were a lot less muddy but had much more of a workout.
Two days later I am now nursing bruised ribs and hips, knees and elbows, and sore leg muscles. And at the same time I am planning my next trip to one of the best and most physically strenuous of all Pennsylvania caves for the upcoming weekend.....
(See: Askon Hollow)