T-rev's Blog


14 2004-12-23 15:17 cave craziness
stories

here's what i did last weekend. actually last summer, but it was interesting to me, being one of the more freaky things i've ever experienced. i blog it now because i just ran across the sheet of paper on which i documented it.

first, about bat cave. it's a public access cave in the buffalo national river wilderness management area (national park service), near boxley arkansas (which is a few miles upstream from ponca, the first common starting point for floats). the cave is open from may 15 to august 15 every year. the rest of the time it is closed (by a fence around the entrance) to protect the somewhat endangered grey bats that live there.

as a child, through high school, i would spend a week or two at ponca bible camp each summer. every afternoon we'd swim in the river. on wednesday we'd hike the lost valley (state park between ponca and boxley) trail and picnic. on thursday we'd go to bat cave.

we'd walk in through the large main passage--with very minor clambering in a couple spots but high ceilings everywhere--to the large chamber notable for a little dry (whenever we were there) stream bed running through the middle, and a manmade hole in the the floor about the size and depth of an open grave. after a few minutes of the kids exploring the slopes around the walls, we'd all turn off our flashlights and sing some worship songs before heading back out.

one summer i gained a bit of notoriety for "discovering" (certainly it had been discovered by many before, but none from our group) a tunnel that went up and over the ceiling of the room and opened up at a place above the far wall that would have been very difficult (and dangerous) to climb up to. thus some people, not knowing about the tunnel, were surprised to see me up there.

one year when i was old enough to go to high school week (1990 or thereabouts), somebody decided to take us through the birth canal. off the main passage into the large room there's a side passage, with a steep slope down to the entrance of a crawling size tunnel. this is the beginning of a route of tunnels and passages that eventually re-enters the main passage closer to the large room. the re-entering part is a narrow squeeze, and is therefore referred to as the "birth canal".

also, just inside the entrance to the cave, there is another side passage (which actually goes straight when the main passage turns right) that leads to a drop-off to a lower part of the cave. a couple spikes have been put in the floor near the edge, and people will rappel down. from there, they join the route to the birth canal more than half-way along it.

anyway the adventurous guys were going to do this route while the rest of the group waited for us. someone in the group i think had done it before. we started the first crawl, and just where i was partly submerged in rather chilly water we stopped--with people in front of and behind me--to decide whether we really had time to do the whole thing. we decided not. but i had learned where the beginning of the birth canal route was.

here's how i told the next part of the story in an email:

 

> From: Trevor Stilwell [mailto:t-rev@ccws.net] 
> Sent: Tuesday, May 16, 2000 1:20 PM
> To: Phil Swope
> Subject: birth canal
>
> well, we did it. we were pretty sure it existed, but we
> didn't know if it could be done without rope, or if we would
> be able to find the way, or if we would know the way out when
> we saw it, or how long it would take, or if we would have to
> go all the way back the way we came, i just knew where the
> start was. but we found it, and we made it, and let me tell
> you, they don't call it "the birth canal" for nothing. the
> last 1 ft took me about 4 minutes. we were in the cave ~3.5
> hours, about 2.5 of which was doing the birth canal journey.
> but now that we know the way, we could do it again faster.
> near the end we didn't know which way to go, but we found it
> eventually. i say it's pretty rad that we did it without
> knowing, without a guide. carl says he has no desire to ever
> do it again. ian says if he does it again, he wants to do the
> short way, which you would do by starting by rappelling down
> at that place where i lost my flashlight. it wouldn't take
> much more than a half hour to go that way, plus you might not
> get so wet. but you'd need a rope.... if you go the long
> way, you get quite wet... oh, and in the foyer to the little
> tunnel over the ceiling of the big room that you can just
> walk straight into (the one with the grave-looking hole in
> the floor and the little streambed flowing out of the wall),
> before we did the birth canal, we found a ziplock bag of
> fresh trail mix, which ian and i ate after we did the birth
> canal. (there was a large group of high school kids, with
> guides, one of whom had a bunch of rope, who had just come
> out of the cave when we arrived. so they must have left the
> trail mix for us...)

 

that email was written the day after the cave trip. we had gone on the first day the cave was open after the winter, and the trail mix had obviously not been there long, so it must have been dropped just that day. i remember a bit of exhilaration from successfully navigating the unknown. the other two guys hadn't even been in the cave before. see, it is not just a continuous tunnel, several times it opens out into rooms with multiple exits, so we didn't know if we were even going the right way until the very end. at one point, we chose which way to go based on some mud on the floor that looked out of place, presumably tracked there by the group that had just been through. i wanted to do it again soon, so as to remember the way, but that didn't happen.

the next time i did it was this year on my birthday, june 27, over four years after the first expedition. it did take us a while to figure out which was to go a couple times. here's the before picture, esther, me and laura. we didn't get an after picture because the camera stopped working when we got out. (it had taken a hard knock and sustained visible damage when my backpack got dropped, but my theory now is that the reason it stopped was condensation upon leaving the cool cave for the humid outdoors. it now works again. i took it apart and put it back together, but i'm not sure i actually fixed anything other than airing it out.)

anyway, we did it, and a few weeks later i returned with laura and lance and the route fresh in my memory. here's the before picture. this time we left the camera in the car, but i did take a compass and a piece of paper, and here's what i wrote (image. see the muddy messiness):

 

Aug. 14, 2004
Birth Canal
begin route
slide down slope E.
13:20 begin crawl ~25' S. then climb up
and W. climb down
13:31 SSW boulders then down
note graffiti
crawl SSW gradual curve E.
then sharper rt.
then bigger to E, then wet
then option drop and sitting room
then rt. (S) and down 13:46
wetter crawl
then tricky down then left
14:00
(W) up steep slick
easy big crawl W. then S,
then W and opens up standing
3 choices, turn rt. (N.W.)
up boulders. when opens up big,
option climb up on left to see
rappelling place. 14:16 rest 14:36
continue walk N.W.
crawl (small) NW then NE then U-turn
and other turns, then N. into
standing dome room. 14:53
again crawl very small NW then N into
another standing room then crawl NW
then right turn (CAVED IN)
backward crawl into
standing room 15:14 going back
the way we came in, out of
the last crawl 14:02. Think
the "cave-in" (not cave-in but dirt
and debris washed in, sticks, leaves,
small rocks etc.) was right before
the difficult pull-up (w/ no place
for feet) place, which leads into
a high ceiling room, then brief
crawl to standing slope up to
birth canal exit to main cave
massage (w/ volcano-like marking
on wall)

 

so we had entered the cave and i showed lance the rappelling spot from above. then i think before starting (certainly later if not then) i showed him the place where the birth canal re-enters the main passage. then we started the first crawl at 1:20pm. we took a break after about an hour when we got to the biggest chamber on the route, and lance and i climbed up to where we could see the rappelling spot (i think lance had left something hanging there). he found a glove and some rope (which stayed in the back of my truck all semester.) we were damp from a couple places where you have to crawl through standing water, by the time we resumed the hike i was getting chilly. (we had waited at the same place in june because we caught up with a larger group of guys in front of us, who were smoking cigarettes by the way.)

so three more crawls, with a couple little closet sized dome shaped rooms in between. the last crawl is the smallest yet, as in can't turn your head from right to left with the helmet on, and pretty slow going, centimeters per squirm. but we're getting close to the end, probably more than 90% through the whole route. and this is where it's about to get a bit freaky.

so we're in this tight tunnel and i turn a corner and the way is blocked. i look around, i must be missing something. but no, it's blocked, and newly so. i am in this little tunnel where i can barely move, and there is a bunch of dirt and little rocks, some of it right over my head. as in it could easily collapse and bury me. so i yell (but quietly...) back to lance and laura that we have to turn around. of course they think i'm kidding at first, but we back on out of there. probably less than 10 minutes before i'm back in the last standing room place, but it seemed longer. anyway, this is freaky not only because i was in this tight tunnel with loose sediment right over me, but also because we had just gone that way a few weeks before.

in retrospect i think that last tight tunnel was tighter in august than in june. the floor there is loose rocks like a stream bed, and maybe more had washed in. and i remember seeing several leaves and twigs on the floor in the little dome closets. of course water is what makes those tunnels. and apparently quite a bit of water had flowed through there quite recently to plug up the tunnel with all that crap. i sort of wish that after getting back to the main passage we had gone to the other end of the route and gone in to see the other side of that pile of stuff. anyway, a bit freaky, but a memorable experience. here's the after picture. and that's what i did last summer.


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