Hooked on Caving

by Kim Parks

When someone mentions they will be passing their Saturday by crawling through miles of narrow, underground passageways accompanied by quasi-strangers, the response is clear: me too! Answer as such and you find yourself in a minivan packed with fellow cavers, pouring over maps detailing a large network of below-grade paths with varying ceiling heights. Mark had graciously agreed to lead Alice, Jim, Ester, Andy, and me through Paxton’s cave, teaching a subset of us the basics of caving along the way. At this point I still (rather naively) believed both the map, that claimed that the lowest ceiling height would be a spacious 3 feet, and Mark, who asserted the only crawl would be a 10-foot stretch at the entrance. And here I was hoping to at least get a little muddy.

After catching some sleep in a hotel adorned with a fist-sized hole in the wall and filling up the energy reserves with some solid meals, we were suiting up at Paxton’s ready to venture behind the waterfall and into the cave. Once Paxton’s dog, Boomer, fully ‘christened’ Rob’s pack, and Alice finished the last touches on her impromptu belt made from duct tape, we were ready to go. Watching people disappear under a rock in front of you is not only exhilarating, but you know you are surrounded by like-minded adventurers when their first instinct is to follow suit. True to Mark’s promise, the first low section to reach the larger passage was indeed a fun crawl, and I was instantly hooked on caving.

Entering a few larger rooms, we found the first of many soda straws and helictites. You can’t help but be awed by the sight, especially considering the time needed for such beautiful formations to occur. Each room had many offshoots, and I was glad to be led someone who knew the way. Mark diligently bestowed the caver tenets: don’t trust the arrows or the elephant tracks, watch your head, and touch as little as possible, except for 3 points of contact. How reassuring to know these are no spelunkers, but instead responsible cavers. It was not long before we reached the incredible expanse of the Anthrodite Room, our throne room with Esther and Jim settled in as our king and queen.

After lunch, the adventuring continued. Our first surprise was some traces of cave wildlife. Wild, indeed, despite being inanimate. Some ambitious souls had trucked a few surprising items. Now, the Neanderthals of 50,000 years ago would have expressed their artistic side with cave drawings. Today’s humanity? Barbies, and a well-endowed Ken in compromising positions, watched by a power ranger and some dinosaurs. (….I’ll let you decide whether we have reached the apex of evolution yet.) Not long after we happened upon the elephant rock, (or horse, or ‘rock machine’, depending on who you asked), and we branched out from there to do some exploring, complete with some narrow squeezes. The most notable being one we had encountered earlier, dubbed the superman rock, given that in order to traverse this narrow crack, your body had to contort into flying-superman cave dive, at an awkward angle. This was followed later by a large tombstone rock, also a narrow squeeze.

Mark, with an eye on the time, suggested we travel back through the maze in order to trek in the general direction of the entrance. With three experienced cavers as part of the group, we were fortunate to have three compasses to consult to find north. Only… Mark pointed one way, Rob another, and Andy another. Hmm. It was about this time I thought it prudent to ask if Mark had ever gotten lost in this cave, and his answer was not reassuring (Hint: it wasn’t no). Interestingly, the more times we happened upon the same exact tombstone as before, the more we slowly transitioned to looking for survey tape, arrows, and elephant tracks.

It was about this time that ‘scouting trips’ became the norm, and during one time Mark ventured ahead to see what rooms he could uncover, we all extinguished our headlamps and laid back on the cool rock to let darkness envelope us. Having already covered the deeper icebreaker cave conversations of cow puns, death, God, and jokes about a small medium at large, we could sit back and enjoy the all-encompassing darkness. Mark reappeared with a route in mind, and if we followed enough of these said ways out, eventually one of them might not circle us back to a rock we had seen an hour prior. We started attempting some more challenging climbs, and some even tighter crawls (remember the 3-foot ceiling promise?), and this led us to the promising sign of leaves scattered at the bottom of the break down rooms.

It was with true disappointment that I finally heard the waterfall at the entrance, knowing that meant I wouldn’t get to spend the night in the throne room. Donned in mud from helmet to caving boots, our group emerged as a new round of cavers that had thoroughly enjoyed all the underworld had to offer. Was Paxton’s an excellent introduction to caving and the start to a new realm of adventure? To answer in Troglodyte fashion (per Andy’s suggestion): Good cave!