Or “So, Rick, you think you’re not claustrophobic???”
Backstory – Why Go Caving? A living cave can be a wonderland of beautiful formations formed over thousands to millions of years by the interaction of water chemistry and rock. Formations include soda straw stalactites, columns, moonmilk, shields, totems, helictites, rimstone dams – innumerable and very cool. There are also animals – bats, spiders, salamanders – another long list that includes transient visitors like bats that come to the cave for only parts of their lives and permanent residents that have evolved to take advantage of the darkness, steady temperature – and to eat the transients or their leavings. Living caves can be very delicate – when people enter, enlarge openings, divert water flows on the surface, pump too much water or otherwise disturb the balance, the cave can die – meaning it dries up and formations stop growing. The best example of a living cave that Carol and I have had a chance to visit is Kartchner Caverns in Arizona. The discoverers of the cave, in their deal with the state to reveal the location, insisted that the state use the best possible methods of keeping the cave alive and preserved. What this means in practical terms is that people are not allowed in without escort, because of the few unthinking, uncaring people that can’t resist taking “souvenirs” that took thousands or millions of years to grow, leaving trash (cans, plastic, cigarette butts, food, excrement, you name it), breaking formations and generally vandalizing the place. The cave also gets the protection of double hermetically sealed doors between which visitors get misted to raise their humidity (a flood of dry people would tend to dry out the cave, and boom, it’s dead). There’s no flash photography and no wandering off. The end result is that you can still see where the discoverers crawled through the mud doing the original explorations, and gorgeous formations are still there for everyone to see and enjoy.
A dead cave is the underground equivalent of what your local park would look like after someone cut down all the trees leaving the stumps, diverted all the water, trashed all the buildings, littered the place with cans, bottles, butts, tires, food, sofas – you get the idea. Or, as in Carlsbad Caverns, you descend deep into the cavern to find – a hot dog stand – literally. And the formations have been lit with major floodlights, thus drying them and guaranteeing their death. All in the name of good ol’ American commerce – and because you never know when you’re going to need a hot dog and a Coke during your caving experience.
Most people confronted with the aspect of crawling through tight spaces in the water, mud and dark while deep underground would probably like the payoff that a living cave would bring. This is certainly the raison d’etre for why I would choose to do such a thing…
The Trip: It was a beautiful December morning, and Carol and I joined Stan along with Andrew, Jessica, Helen, Ryan, Krista, Shad and Steph at UC Santa Cruz and headed off across the rolling hills toward our first cave.
After about 20 minutes of hiking, we were at the first cave. There’s a ladder down into the ground, and in we all went. Clearly, this is not a living, pristine cave – it’s a party cave for the UCSC students and, I suppose, whomever else shows up and climbs down. What I see is a hole in the ground with plenty of trash and with every interesting formation broken, beaten and worn smooth by the passage of people. There were some neat moths that Stan said would glow in the dark and I saw a 2-3 inch millipede, and black widow spider.
OK, maybe the next cave will be even better. Off we went hiking through the woods down a creekbed. The sun was low, the trees were mossy and wet, making the hiking fun and pleasant. Stan stopped at another little hole in the ground and Andrew climbed in for a look – at about one person deep, the hole stops – ha ha.
Then we came to the next hole. As a few of the group entered ahead of Carol and me, I was kind of wondering about the peculiar structure that had been constructed over the entrance – why was it shaped like that? I went in headfirst, stopping so Carol could get a shot of me going down. Once I was in, there was room to turn upright and I greeted Carol soon after she entered. Down, down, down.
Um, this is really tight, and getting tighter. On the left is the last picture I took in the cave – I went down through this hole and the one you can see below it, and then I saw the next obstacle, which looked like my chest would not fit through (Carol went through it afterward and said she had to put her arms up over her head to slide through – yikes!) and about then the willies hit – I did not want to be there anymore. I turned around and climbed past the two people behind me and then saw the greatest thing ever. I’m not a big tree person – I know we need trees, I appreciate what they do for us, I live in a woodframe home, I breathe the oxygen they release, I love the animals that live in and around them – but, after an hour or so in the trees, I’m ready to be out in the open where I can see around me. In this case, as I crawled out of the ground, those trees were the most beautiful, welcoming thing in the world.
After a time, Carol emerged also, asked if I was OK – well sure, I’m not in the tight little hole in the ground anymore – and I found out the rest of the group would take about 3 hours to complete the cave and would come out somewhere else – a through hike. So we got our pack, hiked back to the car, got cleaned up and put on clean clothes and went down to the Santa Cruz wharf for our consolation prize of calamari, spinach salads, a view of the ocean and a brilliant Hefeweizen beer.
We wandered around the wharf and over on the beach. We get comments from our Midwestern and Northern friends and family that “you don’t really have winter there” – well, let me tell you, we suffer too – normally, the women beach volleyball players at Santa Cruz would be wearing bikinis; today they were wearing shirts. Now if that doesn’t harsh your mellow and make winter real, I don’t know what would. And Carol was a little chilly posing for me.
Aftermath: I don’t like to admit that there are too many things that I won’t do – setting aside stupid, meaningless, life-threatening activities – but for the rest of the day I wondered if I could have gone on. The cave was dead, so I didn’t have the rewards of a living cave to look forward to, maybe that would have helped. But last night as I was falling off to sleep, I thought about how I felt looking at that last little hole under my feet, and I physically shivered – in the safety of my bed – so maybe speleological expeditions into the tightest places aren’t my glass of Pinot Noir – but I’m sure I’ll try it again in the future – in a living cave…
P.S. Why was the entrance shaped like that? – because if you don’t fit through that hole, you’re not fitting through the cave…