Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vacation Adventures: It's A Good Beginner Cave!

The second cave on our itinerary was Monteagle Saltpeter Cave. As the name suggests, it was used during the civil war to gather saltpeter (one of the primary ingredients of gunpowder). The cave itself is a dry, winding, two-level labyrinth. It's not complicated enough that there's any danger of getting really lost, it's dry enough that staying warm is easy, and the main passages are large enough for adults to walk comfortably. In other words, it would have been an ideal follow-up to Dry Cave, and in theory we wouldn't even need to hike to get to it.

Unfortunately, well... the cave itself is on public land. The easiest ways to get to the cave, however, require crossing private land. The route we used in my youth has been closed for years (the landowner doesn't want people hiking through his place), but there's an alternate route just a little ways away that involves driving through a quarry. Our plan was to stop at the quarry, get their permission to drive up to the cave, and go. This proved unexpectedly problematic, because the fellow who runs the quarry no longer owns the land -- as of fairly recently, he's just leasing it. As a result, the workers and the company owners don't have the authority to give people permission to drive through. The actual landowner does, though, and he has a little place just a bit further back up the road... only he wasn't home when we tried to find him, and he still wasn't home when we came back after going to get lunch.

During this time, we'd been texting and telephoning with people from various local outing clubs, and one of them suggested that we try Bible Springs Cave, instead. Bible Springs Cave wasn't one I'd been in before (or even heard of, for that matter) but it was widely considered "a good beginner cave", it didn't require any hiking to get to, and it wasn't all that far from where we were.

Now, my brother and I had spent most of the middle of the day scouting for a way to get to Monteagle Saltpeter Cave, while our wives and parents had stayed up at the house with the boys. By the time we'd decided to switch over to Bible Springs Cave, Secondborn had gone into full meltdown mode. (He's four, and he has molars coming in, so his moods are... erratic.) My wife ended up staying behind with him, while my brother's wife came down with the two older boys and their grandfather. Once we had everyone together, we caravaned over and (with only a little searching) found the entrance to Bible Springs Cave.

It's a crack in the rock. I suspect, at a less... August... time of year, that it usually has water flowing out of it. We took a quick survey, and decided to go for it. My father and my brother squeezed down through the crack, and we passed the two boys down to them. They immediately found themselves knee deep in fifty-four degree water, with a strong breeze blowing out of the cave. "Beginner cave my left buttock," observed my brother.

To be fair, it probably is a good beginner cave... for a group of fit, outdoorsy twenty-somethings with the proper equipment. Our group consisted of a grandfather in his seventies, three parents in their late thirties/early forties, and a pair of boys aged seven and eight; and we'd come equipped for a dry, winding cave. We forged boldly ahead anyway.

On the plus side, it was basically impossible to get lost. There was only one side passage that we encountered, and it reached a dead end almost immediately. Also, if there was any doubt, you could follow the wind towards the entrance: it was a constant, steady presence. On the minus side, after slogging through the cold water, we hit a waterfall about twenty feet in. The only way to go was up. It wasn't terribly high - maybe six feet, six and a half feet to the point where it started to level out again. So we sent my brother up to the top, and then I positioned myself so that my back was against the far wall and my foot was planted beside the waterfall, and we passed the two boys up to my brother. His wife went next, I followed, and Granddaddy came up behind us on his own.

This section of the cave was kind of a tight scrabble, and went to a crawl just beyond that. My brother's wife considered this, and said that with her claustrophobia she didn't want to try going any farther unless it opened up further ahead. So my brother went forward to scout, and found that while it did open up from a crawl, it was still a fairly constricted tunnel; there didn't seem to be any open rooms coming up any time soon. So his wife waited, and the rest of us went on.

Bible Springs Cave had one interesting feature that I don't think I'd run into before: rather than stalactites or stalagmites, it had bridges:

The boys were intrepid, undaunted by the cold water, the steady breeze, or the relatively tight confines. (Admittedly, it was a lot less tight for them...) So, while we were snaking our way back, I made them stop so I could get a picture:

Cousins. Intrepid. Undaunted.

We continued on, passing the boys around a corner which happened to feature a deeper spot of water, and then continued a bit further... to the point where the water got really deep. By then we were a bit out of our original marching order, so my son ended up lying on my brother's back, while my nephew ended up riding on mine. The idea was that we, the adults, would do the cold, wet slogging, while the boys would remain reasonably warm and dry by riding on top of us.

So there I was, hunched over in waist-deep water (at fifty-four degrees fahrenheit, mind you) with a steady breeze blowing into my face and a seven-year-old on my back, following my brother. (He apologized for the view.) I had a mess of glow sticks in the side pocket of my cargo pants; now that they were two feet underwater, they promptly floated out. My nephew had a good time grabbing them out of the water. My camera, by the way, was a gift from my brother and his wife. They bought it after my original camera died a horrible death on a playground, and it was designed to be impact resistant and waterproof to a depth of sixteen feet. I don't know about the "sixteen feet" part, but it survived a decent trek under a good eight inches of water.

Then, perhaps inevitably, the cave narrowed again. We could probably have gotten through it, but not without getting the boys (and ourselves) all the way into the water. I could already feel the water sucking away my body heat and my energy, so there was no way we were going to put the boys into that. I have a lot more... um... padding... Well, okay, fat... than either of those boys do; if the water was doing this to me, they'd have been shivering and miserable immediately. So, instead, we turned back. Well, not turned, exactly. We more sort of backed up until we finally could turn around.

Then we retraced our steps, lowered everyone back down the waterfall, and squeezed back out the entrance. At that point, we declared victory and went back to the house.

So at this point, all three boys have been inside a large cavern with no running water, and the older two have been in a tight, twisty, crawly cave with a stream running through it. That was, quite frankly, a bit more of an Authentic Caving Experience than I'd had in mind for them, but they handled it beautifully.


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