Friday, July 17, 2015

The Bat Cave

Bat Cave Exit
I have a healthy respect for caves. What I mean when I say that, is the entire time I'm in one, all I can do is imagine one collapsing and being trapped in the dark for the rest of my life which would be about 30 days assuming I didn't die from bat guano contaminated water first. So when we decided to set off to prove that both caves were connected, I didn't make the vote a unanimous yes.

In a part of northwestern Arkansas that I consider a second home to me, there is a creek in a valley of the Buffalo River that has eroded a side valley down into one of the most spectacular hikes in the midwest. The creek falls over several thousand feet in less than a mile and the hike consists of several spectacular waterfalls, a place where the creek has eroded a hole into a rock wall blocking it's path and of course, the bat caves. One was right above a large waterfall and descended into the rock at a good clip as far as I had ventured inside it in the past. The lower cave was just downstream of the base of the waterfall and due to the difficulty of getting to it from below, I had never explored it, especially when water was flowing from the entrance making the rocks slippery as ice.

We had heard rumors that both caves were connected but didn't know if they were passable by human or just water. The four of us decided in a 3-1 vote, to see once and for all if a human could make the journey. The problem was we only had two flashlights between the four of us which made navigating the pitch blackness of the cave particularly difficult. We entered the upper cave and descended a series of downward pitches over steep rock with the lead and rear persons holding the flashlights. I being third in line, sometimes had a flashlight showing me where to step and many times was left walking on the memory of where a nice solid rock had appeared to be.

Eventually the cave began to level out but the walking became harder because the floor was replaced with a stream of moving water. Picking out rocks to get across the water was becoming harder to do. At one point, we were deciding whether to just splash through a section that looked about six inches deep when someone decided to test the depth with a walking stick. It sank down the full four feet of its height and never did hit bottom. The water was just so clear that it gave the illusion of being shallow. We ended up putting our backs to one wall and feet to the other and shuffling over that section, not caring to test how deep it actually was.

Shortly after we got past that section, the first flashlight died and we were down to just one flashlight. We shut it off and stood in the darkness discussing options. Should we start hiking back now or continue on. We judged that the remaining flashlight didn't have enough juice to make it all the way back meaning depending how far we got, we would have to find our way out in complete blackness. We didn't know how much further we had to go to reach the lower entrance or even for sure that the way we were going lead to it for sure. Finally, we decided that we had to take the chance to proceed on for just a few more minutes to see if we could see some light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.

We went another three or four minutes when the remaining flashlight began to dim. We quickly shut it off to conserve energy to get us over the difficult obstacles on the way back like the shuffle over the water and scaling the vertical pitches. Fortunately, when our eyes adjusted, we could see the faint glow of light coming from the direction we had been heading. The lower entrance, we hoped. We turned on the flashlight and a few minutes later we were standing at the entrance of the poor slide photo I took years ago at the top of this post. Only this time there was a cascade of water flowing out of the entrance making is slippery as ice and still twenty feet up from the creek bed below.

At this point, we were still very much in trouble. We didn't have the light to safely make it back to the upper cave entrance and there was no safe way of getting out of the cave. If a broken bone should happen from a slip and a fall, there wouldn't be any helicopter rescue down in the gorge we were in. It would require some of us to hike out, still a half day of effort from where we were and get help which wouldn't probably happen until the same time on the following day. Then it would be a group effort to carry the hurt person down the gorge to where it leveled out enough to get a helicopter hoist in, which due to the steepness, might require another day of effort.

We did have a rope so we tied it to a rock inside the cave and one at a time, we hugged the cliff on the left side of the opening and shuffled from one narrow ledge to another until we came to a large boulder below which we could drop down too and climb the rest of the way down. The rope was just long enough that we could get to the boulder drop before it ran out. Fortunately, all four of us made it down safely and we were able to make our way down to the Buffalo River and shortly there after our vehicle home.

That was the last time I ventured through the bat cave and although it would have been by my choice, other forces intervened. Even though there was a sign posted in the upper entrance listing the months of the year when going into the cave was forbidden so not to disturb the endangered bats that made it a home, and which we always obeyed, others apparently didn't. The park service fashioned a heavy iron gate with a padlocked door to close up the upper entrance all year round.

The last time I was there was over a decade ago on my honeymoon. I was back in the area six months after the birth or our oldest daughter but since it really isn't wise to take babies on such a rugged hike, we never made it down the creek. Since then life and another daughter have intervened but this year, nine years after my last visit to that neck of the woods, we may make it down there. I don't know if we will make it down that creek or not but if we do, I won't be taking the bat cave route even if the door is flung wide open.


Vince said...

From what I understand caving is second only to base-jumping for killing people so any misgivings you have is really sensible.

Ed said...

Vince - I've read that too but as far as caves go, despite my version of events, this one is quite tame. There are no off shoots and only one route to go. Had we lost our light in the middle, we would have made it out though maybe wet and chilled.