Author Archives: Owner

Memorable Cave Trips

For the first few years it’s easy to remember every cave visit. As time goes by some fade while other trips stand out. What makes a trip memorable? This seems to vary from caver to caver.

Beautiful caves that have special features stand out. Probably everyone who sits and contemplates the water splashing over the Rain Tree formation and into the pool at its base will remember that. Passages full of helictites, giant white stalagmites are hard to forget. Even non-formations like the smoothly fluted water passage in light blue-gray limestone is worth remembering.

Long trips are remembered with a different feel. Marathons of crawling, breakdown negotiation and hours underground. Several rests and meal breaks. Who forgets a cave trip when the exit time was 4:00 in the morning? These trips come with bragging rights, so stories are repeated and can become legends.

Special obstacles are similar. Most everyone remembers their first trip through the Birth Canal (not a metaphor, this is a named passage in a Buffalo River cave). Or going down the Manhole. Or crawling slowly along the Fuzzy Bunny Death Ledge. Or the chill of the wet exit.

Sometimes it is not the cave itself that inspires the memory. It’s the fellow cavers and incidents. Trips to a generic cave with close friends and lots of laughs are favorites. Or following experts and soaking in their knowledge.

Then the incidents both funny and not so funny. Everyone likely has a memory of a fellow caver getting temporarily stuck. Or falling into mud face first or the ever popular retrieving a boot sucked off in the mud. Singed hair events were common back in the carbide days. Messing with new cavers is fun as well. Sending them down dead ends, letting them get lost, etc.

More serious can be trips where a stress point was reached. Fatigue, claustrophobia attacks, panic on rope are hard to forget. Or injuries which unfortunately do happen.

Best of all though are the discovery trips. Digging into a new passage that goes. First time down a new pit. Climbing up to a new lead or pushing through a breakdown choke.

Regardless of why a trip is remembered, the best part is sharing the memories. Stories are told on the drive over, during rests in the cave, or around the campfire for all to enjoy.

Cave Maps

One aspect of caving I’ve considered sort of odd is the unspoken rule that if a cave exists it must be surveyed and mapped.  Sure, not all cavers are into mapping, but if you talking in a group of cavers and mention a new cave inevitably someone will ask whether it has been surveyed or when will the mapping start.

There are legitimate reasons for mapping:  to measure the length and depth, helping to figure where passage might connect, a guide for rescuers, etc.  Beyond that, some cavers just can’t sit idle until a survey is done and a map created.  Survey trips aren’t “fun” caving.  They can be long and slow, boring depending on your task and even frustrating.

Survey accuracy is often the metric for success.  Getting a one degree compass foresight/backsight agreement in an awkward muddy crawl can lead to tension.  And waiting for the sketcher to do all the bookwork while laying in a wet passage isn’t fun either.

At the end of the day, good data and sketching leads allows a good map to be created.  But here’s one of the secrects of cave maps:  you don’t see what went into it:  poor loop closures, passage wall sketches that don’t line up, poorly scaled features, etc.

It just looks pretty on paper.  As one long time caver in our area said “A cave map isn’t a literal representation, instead it’s the cartographer’s best interpretation of what the cave might be like.”

Mapping the Buffalo River

Today with satellite photos, LIDAR, GPS and all the other modern tools we take knowing exactly where something is located for granted.  I started caving years ago, and the standard was USGS topographic maps.  With a quadrangle, compass and some eyeball work, you could figure your location to within a few hundred feet.  We assumed that the contour map was 100% correct and any error was our lack of skills.

The internet has given us tremendous tools for today and has also brought to the surface tools from long ago:  old maps.  A couple of good sites have archives of maps dating back almost 2000 years.  I’ve downloaded many maps covering the Arkansas area going back 500 years.

1819 no Buffalo

Going backwards from today, it’s interesting to see what towns and railroads disappear and appear.  As you go far enough, rivers start to change.  The Buffalo River didn’t show up on maps prior to 1840 or so.

1833 no Buffalo

One map shows what I suspect is the upper section of the Buffalo, but sends it down to connect to the Red River.

1838 wrong Buffalo

A map in 1844 puts the Buffalo in place, but straightens out bends.

1844 Buffalo straightened

An 1855 map gets us pretty close to today.

Cavers and Secrets

Cavers are usually pretty friendly and eager to talk about caves.  But sometimes there will be a change in attitude or awkward moment of silence when certain caves are mentioned.  Long time cavers know this is a signal that a particular cave is sensitive and should only be mentioned in private.  Non-cavers may take the behaviour to be secretive or arrogant and be slightly annoyed.

Cavers often need to protect certain caves.  Gates are the ultimate protection, but require time, effort and money.  Obscurity is the next best option.  If no one knows how to get to a cave, then they can’t cause problems.

If a caver has a good reputation and history of ethical cave behavior then they will likely be considered trustworthy for cave locations and be let in on “secrets”.