Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Karst Topography...of California? There are more than 1,000 wild caves in California. Here's one of them

There is something special about exploring a wild cave, the kind without admission fees, guides, trails, and railings. There are a thousand limestone caves in California (and hundreds of lava tubes), and not even a dozen of them are show caves, i.e. open for business.There are usually reasons the wild caves do not become "tour caves". They may be too short, too inaccessible, maybe even too dangerous.
The wild caves have suffered varying levels of abuse and vandalism. Few of them are protected by any kind of legal authority and are rarely patrolled. They are mostly protected by secrecy, and small groups of serious spelunkers. I've been privileged with the opportunity to explore a couple of them, and as part of my miniseries on the karst terrain of California, I'd like to share one with you.
A nearly empty New Melones Reservoir and the gray marble of the Calaveras Complex.
Karst topography, as described in the previous posts, is a landscape underlain by cavern-filled marble or limestone. Cavern roofs can collapse, forming sinkholes, blind valleys and disappearing streams. The marble, a part of a metamorphic terrane called the Calaveras Complex (late Paleozoic-early Mesozoic), can be seen as gray slopes in the photo above. Many incredible caves were drowned by the waters of the reservoir in the foreground of the picture. Others open out into sheer cliffs above. Few are easily accessible. We had to walk a steep mile to get to the caves we're exploring in the post today.
Oak woodland in the vicinity of the caves
That's what makes these caves special. They are at the end of a pretty stiff hike, but they have accessibility, and are relatively undamaged (this concept is relative; some would call them heavily damaged, but many parts are in good shape). They're not crowded. Months may pass between visits.

When we have a group of newbies who have not explored wild caves before, we do some training on safety, both for the explorers, and for the caves themselves. We stress the importance of exploring in least intrusive way possible, not touching the rocks, and not disturbing any life if possible. We crawl through a short cave with a few narrow passages in preparation for entering the much larger cave to follow.
We finish our spelunking practice at the small cave, and move on towards the larger, more challenging cave. Accessing the cave requires first descending between huge fallen boulders. The cave had grown so large that portions of the roof had collapsed to form a sinkhole. We find a spot with good footholds and climb into the darkness.
The second challenge is getting into the main cave via a narrow passageway at the base of the rockfall. One has to push upwards and twist through the tight little space. Some of the explorers describe it as being "born again".
The entrance merges into a more open room that serves as the "subway" into the largest room in the cave. This passage is where most of the speleothem damage has occurred. It's not exactly the work of vandals, as the breaking of the formations was probably for the purpose of making an easier passageway into the room beyond. This kind of thing happened to many caves discovered in olden days. I don't know anything of the discovery and original exploration of this particular cave.
This passage leads into the main room of the cave, which more than 100 feet long, and 20-30 feet high in places. We come face to face with a spectacular wall of mostly unbroken stalactites (they were protected by being out of reach).
The room is richly decorated with all kinds of dripstone and flowstone features. Some are brown from torches of the early explorers, or from mud seeping through the cracks above. Other features show evidence of recovery from the "dirty early years". The adoption of clean caving techniques in the last few decades shows as some of the cave features are covered with a thin layer of pure white calcite. Some of the caves are being cleaned by volunteers as well. In some cases, people haul gallons of water down difficult trails, set up hoses into the caves, and then spray mud off of damaged speleothems.
There are all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore. There is a false floor in the cave that offers a loop crawl. There is a small passageway called the bedroom and another called the jail room. Openings high on the walls and ceiling hint at other passageways. In a side room, one can view a sinkhole from the underside, looking up at a mass of boulders that had collapsed down into the cave, but have since been cemented together by flowstone to form the ceiling of the room.
What about cave life? We've seen spiders near the entrance, and unusual looking snails. In previous trips we have seen six inch long centipedes, and Ensatina salamanders. There have been a couple of bats. The total darkness of caverns offers little in the way of food, so the biomass quantity of the cave is very low. The creatures that do exist are highly adapted to environment of the caves.

The wilderness caverns of the Sierra Nevada are a precious and irreplaceable resource. The breaking of any speleothem destroys the result of thousands, even tens of thousands of years of slow development. They can never be replaced in any kind of human lifetime.
It is a rare privilege to be able to explore this underground wilderness, and it is a privilege for me to introduce my students to this strange new world.
A cave is such a strange and alien world for a human being, at least the deeper parts away from the light. No wonder that some of our first art was scrawled on cavern walls as sort of drug-free hallucination of alternate worlds. Caves were portals to lower worlds, or were the avenues for emergence into our current world. Sitting in the darkness, I can feel a connection to my ancestors.

You have no doubt noted that I have not provided the names of the caves we explored. If you want to get involved in cave exploration, you should contact your local grotto of the National Speleological Society. They provide instruction and training, as well as chances to clean and rehabilitate caves that have been damaged by vandals and overuse. They are great people. And don't forget, the tourist caves in the Mother Lode are wonderful. They are safe and easy to explore. Check them out!

This post is a highly altered version of a post based on our trip in 2014. If you want to see how badly I plagiarized myself, check out the original post here:

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