We've had a string of days in the high 90's around here (and trust me, this is not a dry heat). Heat indices have been around 110. The heat wave broke two days ago, still it would take something pretty special to get my son and I to dress in long sleeve shirts and long pants in the middle of the afternoon. In this case is wasn't just special, it was cool ......about 58 degrees to be exact--the temperature of cave.
One of Missouri's nicknames is The Cave State, with over 3000 caves on the registers. There are several "show caves" like the one Mark Twain made famous in Tom Sawyer or Meramec Caverns with its ads painted on barn roofs as far away as Indiana. Fritz and I were going to a cave "open house" sponsored by the Dept. of Conservation, so no electric lights or paved walkways, In fact, here is the way the conservation newsletter describes it:
This hands-on exploration requires crawling on your stomach for several feet. Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and bring a flashlight. Helmets will be provided.
I had reservations as I was making reservations...lately Fritz has been afraid of dark hallways and the dark waterslide tunnel; what would he do when he experienced total darkness? Would we see bats and would they scare him? I read him the description and asked if he wanted to try this and he answered yes.
There were 14 of us fitting helmets and checking flashlight batteries at the conservation center. We followed a paved path for several hundred yards and then diverted across a dry creek bed and up a hill till we came to a rock wall with what appeared to be a cage sitting in front...but where was the opening?
As our guide fiddled with the padlock, he explained that this was a "bathtub entrance," so named because you had to sit down as if you were in a tub and then slide feet first "down the drain." He went on to say that no one had ever gotten physically stuck in the cave but getting an arm wedged or a helmet hitting the top of the opening can lead to people getting mentally stuck. I looked down at my son to see if there was any apprehension... Nope, as soon as our guide had disappeared Fritz hopped into the cage to pursue.
Having just seen my son swallowed up by a hole in the ground I realized that I was the one feeling apprehensive and projecting it on him. I approached the opening and here's what I saw:
The arrow marks the "bathtub drain"
At the bottom was just enough room to lean forward and switch from moving feet first to crawling on your belly at least ten feet and going around a corner. Fritz, at 57 pounds and 48 inches didn't even realize this was an obstacle. I felt a sudden thankfulness that I'd lost 20 pounds from walking the dog this year and wondered if 20 was enough. But eventually I was sitting beside Fritz in the "twilight zone" of the cave as we waited for the others.
The twilight zone, yes there really is such a place, describes the area of a cave where there is still some light from the entrance. You may be able to see the silhouette of your hand in front of your face. Here we got our lecture on the three types of animals we might find in the cave. 1) Trogloxenes (cave guests) are creatures that usually live outside caves but may take shelter in one. 2) Troglophiles (cave lovers) live part of their lives in the cave and part outside. Bats fall into this category. The troglophiles we saw today were a millipede and several salamanders.
A salamander wishing the trogloxene with the camera would move on
The third category is troglobites (cave dwellers). These are the creatures with no eyes and no pigment. The guide said he'd even seen some that were transparent and you could see their internal organs, but there weren't any in this cave.
We went through another passage, this one not as tight a squeeze but it was at a 45 degree angle. At times it was easier for me to roll across the rock formations, although Fritz was able to walk through bent over.
Now we were in the dark zone. As expected, the guide invited everyone to turn off their lights and experience total darkness. At the same time he had everyone move their hands forward and backward in front of their faces while making a "shh" sound. Although we couldn't see anything we could detect a change in sound as our hands moved. This was as close as we could come to experiencing the echolocation used by bats. Here's where we learned two things that Fritz remembered when retelling his experience to Daddy (why do boys always hone in on the "gross" stuff?)
First, in the outside world the bottom of the food chain starts with plants converting the sun's energy. But in caves there is no sun and no plants. The troglophiles, particularly bats, who go outside the caves to eat return to the caves and deposit guano (children ask your parents). This starts the cave food chain. Algae can form on the guano and insects may eat one or the other or both.
Second, bats are beneficial creatures that can eat up to 2000 mosquitoes in an hour. Some bats have better hunting nights than others. The ones that haven't done so well may actually have burned more energy in hunting than they were able to consume. This presents a problem when returning to a cool cave to wait until feeding time comes around again. So bats practice "Reciprocal Altruism." If a bat has had a good night and notices a neighbor's tummy rumbling, it will regurgitate some of its meal for the neighbor. The neighbor, having a good memory, will return the favor when the tables are turned.
With those two bits of information our cave tour was over. Our guide informed us that there were two paths back to the entrance. The first, the chute, was short and straight but the catch was it was designed for very skinny people. "Think Gwyneth Paltrow," he said. The second was the path we had taken to get in--slightly bigger but involving a lot of crawling and flexiblity. "Think pilates," he said. "Make your choice and I'll be the last one out." The words were still echoing in the cavern when Fritz announced he was heading down the chute.
Another salamander and "The Chute"
I shouted to his disappearing ankles "I can't follow you that way," thinking this would make him turn back. Nope, he yelled back "I'll see you at the top, Mama," and kept right on going. Two other boys were not going to be shown up by a six year old so they headed out the chute next. I sat there for a second waiting for a surprise option three--the one for middle-aged women who wished they had a better exercise regimen. When no other option was presented I headed towards the "pilates" path with all the other women who knew they were no Gwyneth Paltrow. At least we had the comfort of knowing we had all made it in this way and since we hadn't eaten in the cave, we should all fit on the way out.
It did seem harder--was that just the power of suggestion playing with our heads? I was stuck in a traffic jam as women tried to contort themselves back up the bathtub drain. I could hear Fritz outside sharing all his discoveries with a grandmother who stayed at the entrance.
So we both learned something today: Fritz learned about the ecosystem of a cave and I learned that my little boy is growing up and I need to let him.