Monday, May 27, 2013

Exploring the Underground World

Written by Karen.
A bit off Highway 50 in Nevada and close to the border of Utah, we drove into the Great Basin National Park to explore the underground world of the Lehman Caves.  

It's a bit funny - in that unusual sense of the word - as I can be a bit claustrophobic if I think about being in dark and closed-in places, and you would think that descending down hundreds of feet into the darkness would freak me out, but that was surprisingly not the case.   

There is much to be said about exploring/camping during the "off-peak season".  Of course, you have to become fairly self-sufficient as we are finding that water in many national and state campgrounds won't be turned on until at least the end of May. But, these minor inconveniences can be worked out to our satisfaction with a little problem solving and pale in comparison to the benefits of traveling before the crowds arrive.  

One of these benefits is that we were able to purchase our Lehman Caves tour passes without any difficulty.  The ranger told us that often people are very disappointed when they travel out to the Great Basin National Park and expect to visit the Lehman Caves, and only then discover that the cave tours are booked for weeks into the future. 

We did not experience that disappointment.  In fact, our group was relatively small, being 12 in number.  As we stood around our tour guide in a semi-circle, Ranger Tim asked us to share where we lived.  It turns out that 8 of us were from the Bay Area in Northern California!  It's a small world!  

With safety guidelines and cave viewing protocols out of the way, our newly-introduced group filed through the series of doors that led us into our first cavern.  Somehow, I always expect that caves are going to be cold, drippy and frightening places.  I was wrong on all three counts.  It is dark, but the beauty will take your breath away. 

We walk through the darkness with Ranger Tim showcasing key cave formations with his flashlight.  Ranger Tim narrates the history and the science of these limestone and marble caves as we wandered throughout the approximate quarter mile long tour. I stop trying to memorize what the names of these remarkable formations are and just allow myself to simply appreciate the color, formations, cliffs, water pools that took so many years to form. 

We were asked to not touch the living cave formations, although we pass within inches of ancient stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, flowstone, popcorn, shields and soda straws.  We duck, stoop, and sidle past the centuries-old underground architectural forms, trying to keep up with Ranger Tim and his flashlight, but not wanting to rush past the history, beauty and science too quickly.  

I am blown away with awe and respect for the science and history of these cave formations and by the sheer beauty that I am seeing throughout the underground caverns.  The colors and shapes of the cave formations at first appear unusual and otherworldly, but as I adjust to their unique beauty they  become simply beautiful. The twists and turns of the drips and drips carve intricate shapes and ripples wherever you look.  It's awesome that this type of beauty exists underground - how much undiscovered beauty lies hidden just under the surface?  

We see old river beds, water basins, cliffs and soaring roofs in addition to a number of cave shields that Lehman Caves are most famous for.  According to the tour brochure, 'shields are two roughly circular plates fastened like flattened clam shells, often with graceful stalactites and draperies hanging from their lower plate'.  To me, the shields often looked like delicate and flowing jelly fish frozen in the ocean of time.  

Since our group is small and Ranger Tim is a hands-on kinda tour guide, he passes around a piece of stalactite for us to feel.  It feels like a piece of petrified wood.  It is warm to the touch, and if you look closely you can see its history: drip by drip built up over the centuries, like a cross-section of a tree.  

Close to the end of our tour, Ranger Tim turns out the lights so we can hear and smell the life within the Lehman Caves in its natural state.  There is a limited ecosystem that thrives down here.  From bats, to albino shrimp, to various insects; everything has adjusted to live down below. No one moved a muscle for the few minutes we were in complete darkness. I couldn't see Adam, but can feel him two feet away.  

All twelve of us seem to breathe together in unison amidst the living spires and cave formations of this underground world.  We can't see each other, but we know where the other is. It takes our eyes a little while to adjust back to the single burst of flashlight, and we all smile at each other before we start making our way back to above ground in contemplative silence. We have just experienced something rather incredible together.

Note: It has been found that cave formations can grow approximately one inch between one hundred and two hundred years - depending on the current cave conditions. 

Peering through a set of cave formations and looking into another chamber off in the distance
An old waterway where water flooded this particular cavern an unknown number of years ago

The cave ceiling height dipped and soared - this picture shows how low the cave ceiling became.
An up-close view of a cave formation with little "popcorn" growing
Peering into another set of cavern "rooms"
Ranger Tim placed his flashlight on the end of a stalactite to show
how translucent the cave formation was.

Shields and cave formations that tower over us

Water pools at the bottom of the picture

These "jelly fish" like shields and cave formations are perhaps 20 feet tall.

Pools of water give an impression of walking through a watery forest

Pools of water provide habitat for the albino shrimp and other cave dwellers


Steve S (paraphrasing Tom Sawyer) said...

"Don't worry, Becky! Injun Joe won't find us--and we will get out somehow!"

Observers of Life said...

When we were walking around in the shadows, Ranger Tim's flashlight went a little dim. Visions of us wandering through the underground in complete darkness flashed through my head, and I thought, 'I hope he is carrying some spare D batteries!' He was!