12 March 2009

Sleeping in a Cave

07 March 2009 -- comprised from my field notes

Image: Hiking out of the side canyon at night. Credit: Jon Kalman.

Last night we slept in a cave. It was quite a surreal experience. I realized with the exception of two other people, there haven’t been folks sleeping in this cave since the Native Americans. There was a yucca cord protruding from the ground less than 20 feet from where we were sleeping. This yucca chord was placed here hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Image: Starting the day with a majestic view. Michael, Jon and I eating breakfast. Credit: John Cassidy.

Sleeping in the cave was peaceful to say the least. We had planned to sleep under the stars again last night, but the clouds moved in and we thought it may rain. The winds also picked up. So, we opted to sleep in the cave.

Today, we have one cave left to trap. Today, we worked this cave using two smaller teams, Doc and Cassidy and Michael and I worked together. This was the largest of the three caves on the bench. It was over 1800 ft. in length.

Image: Loxosceles sp. from Packrat's Cave.

Last year, Kyle, Luke Hanna (an NAU undergraduate that I am working with) and I went to these caves. We encountered a maternity roost of Myotis bats in this cave. As a result, we prompted left the cave. Upon our return to this cave, it was amazing to see the extent of bat use in this cave. Bats have been using this cave extensively for quite a while – perhaps hundreds of years. Guano was found in thick deposition throughout the main truck passage of this cave and the acrid smell of guano was overpowering. However, oddly enough, I really like this smell. For the cave scientist, the smell is that of life. Bat guano can serve the life blood of a cave ecosystem. So, this smell tells me there could be a lot of critters using this cave.

Image: Ringtail cat. This image was poached from the following website: http://www.abilenetx.com/Zoo/Ringtail.htm

I also observed scat, which I believe to be ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) scat. Ringtails often enter caves to hunt bats. Given this cave is extensively used by bats, periodic visits from a hungry ringtail is not unlikely.

We had also collected AnaBat data at this cave last night. Because it is still rather early in the season, we suspect there may not be much bat activity in these caves yet. However, we did observe bats while eating dinner last night, so we shall see.

Image: I'm just about to negotiate Mammillary Drop. This is a 20 ft deep pit with additional passage below. One has to chimney down to get to the lower passage. Credit: Jon Kalman.

We didn’t collect many arthropods in this cave. Michael and I collected several spiders and a cricket, but that was about it. Doc and Cassidy didn’t collect anything at this cave.

This cave was also extensively used by Native Americans. We found dry laid stone walls and cleared sleeping platforms in the entrance, and there were numerous torches, reeds and yucca cord throughout this cave. There are also the remnants of a yucca sandal within this cave. Additionally, Michael found a bone that looks really old. I think it may be part of a human scapula.

Image: Old bone fragment. This fragment may be part of a scapula or pelvis. We're not certain if it is human or not.

Once we finished this cave, we went back to our camping cave to grab the rest of our gear. It was time to hike off the bench and back down base camp. With several routes now bolted, it should be much easier, safer (and quicker) for us to get down. We started our descent at 1700hr.

Image: This old pine cone was found near the back of Bat Cave. Due to the extensive human activity in this cave, it is likely humans brought this into the cave. However, there is also evidence of a rather long occupation by packrats. So, either vector for deposition is possible. There are no longer pine trees within a ~50 mile radius of this cave. So, this pine cone is rather old.

However, we had difficulties in locating several of the bolts along this route. So, Michael and I had to improvise to get the team down safely.

Image: Cartographer Bob Richards mapping River Styx Cave. Credit: Ty Spatta.

We had to traverse the edge of a dry fall with an exposed area that dropped approximately 50 feet. If anyone fell there, they wouldn’t make it home at the end of the day. So, it took us a while to rig this route. Michael traversed the route, and I belayed him with Cassidy as a back-up anchor. We got him across safely, and then Michael found a rock to anchor off of and then he belayed us across. I went across twice because I ported Doc’s backpack across this route. We then had to rig and belay the team down another steep incline before we could start hiking down canyon.

Image: Kyle staring contemplatively into the abyss of River Styx Cave. Credit: Ty Spatta.

Once we lowered packs and got the team down safely we could start hiking down canyon. Then we got to a really cool section, which involved a rappel. We were a able to find the anchor for this route. It was a 15 foot gently sloping wall. Michael went down first. I remained up top to get the other two guys down. I lowered packs down, and then Michael brought Doc and Cassidy down via a fireman’s belay. Once down, I rapped down the wall. Michael then pointed out that I left a sling and carabineer on our anchor, so I had to go back up to get it. Because it was a gently sloping wall, I did a “batman climb” up the wall. It was a lot of fun and took me less than 10 seconds to get back to the anchor. I then pulled the gear, treaded the rope through the anchor and double-rope rappelled back down.

Image: Michael and Doc having dinner after the descent out of the side canyon. Credit: Ty Spatta.

By this time it was getting dark, we still had two technical sections to traverse before we were out of the canyon. We did these in the dark. Canyoneering at night and caving are the same. You're traversing rock exposures via the illumination of your headlamp. It was a lot of fun canyoneering at night. I realized my team was getting tired, so I had to be extra vigilant for everyone. Ultimately, it took us quite a while to get down. We didn’t get out of the side canyon until 2030hr. We took 3.5hr to hike out of this side canyon.

Kyle’s team did really well today. They finished mapping the big cave. This cave is over 3000 feet in length. We plan to trap it tomorrow.

Sleeping in the main canyon would be cold tonight, but it was nice to finally get down off the bench. However, we return in two days to start pulling the traps.

Image: Doc and I preparing dinner and filtering water after our safe return from the bench caves. Credit: Ty Spatta.

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