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Just before a county committee met to discuss a change in the zoning that would allow a quarry in Beech Grove, two activists came in the office to share with us their information about how a quarry would affect the ecology of the region.

They spoke to the editor, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention (not that I wasn’t concerned, just busy with something else) until they mentioned something about taking Elena underground to show how fragile caves could be.

Ears perked, I held my tongue until they left. You can’t be too cautious.

But to the two’s credit, when I called them a couple of days later, they passed two vetting questions I really didn’t know enough to ask: 1) they insisted I keep the location of the cave we’d be exploring secret (a pillar of the caver’s ethos) and 2) they’d have all the gear I’d need (we’d be prepared and not just sticking our heads in a hole somewhere).

I’ve been to caves before; I’ve been wowed by the artificial lighting of Ruby Falls and “roughed it” at wonders cave as a kid, so I had a few of the basics down, have multiple light sources, wear a helmet and if it’s a wild cave don’t go in unless you know what you’re doing.

When the day came for my caving foray, I’ll admit, I was a little nervous. Not so much about going with two people I didn’t know, who were going to take me to an undisclosed underground location. Wait, isn’t that the storyline of a few horror movies?  

What worried me more than the depths and the dark was I had no idea what kind of environment we’d be getting into, moreover how to prepare for it. In the call they’d mentioned I’d get muddy, but did that mean crawling through two feet thick mud? And as for the equipment they’d provide, would that be a roping up for an extended rappel or even a dry suit for a submerged entrance.

My imagination got the better of me, because adventure-wise the cave was about as rigorous as a moderate scramble over some grade 3 terrain.

What the cave lacked in technical skill requirements, it made up for in beauty. Wild caves from my very limited experience have been, to be frank, visually dull. Rocks, mud and if lucky a few crystals that catch flashlight beam to make a star field of sparkles in the dark.    

This cave was different. Once through a really small concrete and steel gate that looked more like a vault than a doorway, the cave opened to living-room sized space that steeply fell off to the left and squeezed through a smallish passageway to the right. Most impressive was the cave formations that adorned that opening. Each and every rock face was dripping with stalactites.

Turns out the cave is pretty famous, especially for a secret location. It had lied sealed off from the world above until worker blasting a road cut unknowingly made an artificial opening. I can only image the blasting crew’s surprise, “hey look, there’s like the most formation rich cave that we’ve ever seen.”       

Word spread and people being people started exploiting nature. The local Esso station had a special table selling these wonderful formations to travelers, like those Made in China spoons and thimbles that pop up at every tourist trap and gift shop in the country.

Cavers were outraged, and soon a sort of war broke out. They’d put up a gate to keep people out, someone who happened to have a tow truck would rip it out. Eventually, the gate they built was strong enough (or the letters to the station’s parent company) and the pilfering stopped.

 This day, we had a key, so we had no trouble getting in. McKee, while still an amateur cave, she’s a member of several grottos (caving clubs) and gearing up, her experience shows.

The two are pleasantly chatty on the way up, and once in the cave, they are downright enthusiastic to the point of being giddy at seeing the formations.

I’m shown cave popcorn formations that indicate this is a wet cave, cave bacon (thin ribbon-like formations that look like saltwater taffy). More spectacular is halite, delicate white crystalline hairs that sprout from stalactites. We are literally submerged in things to see. It’s impossible for me to take it all in, and my guides seem to keep finding new things they’d never seen before.

They warned me that caving is inherently dangerous. The danger is a stealthy kind. On a cliff face, the danger is clear. The fear is there fighting to surface and control you.

In a cave like this, the danger is a slip and a twisted ankle that leaves you stranded a quarter mile in over rugged terrain or getting turned around through the twist and turns, or it could be the panic that tugs at you when the gate is locked behind you.

We immerge into the bright sun hours after entering. We’re muddy and tired, but feeling pretty good about it. McKee has been caving every day this week and plans to go to a cave clean up over the weekend. Her fellow guide Carol Sandstrom was hooked after her first trip. 

I see the appeal, the gear, the call to explore the unknown, but as far as caving goes, I’m going to leave those discoveries to the experts. Maybe, I just don’t like bats.  

 

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