Mucking Through Marengo
"Just hit it!" Garry's words echo back to George.
"I can't. It's too tight," George moans.
"Then bang your helmet on the ceiling." We hear the smack and scrape on the limestone. Another echoing whack makes me shudder, thinking of a weakening ceiling, a collapsing wall.
I follow Garry's lead down a 6-foot pit and onto my belly again in the lower-level passage. I drag myself forward a few inches and meet the soles of Garry's bootsa constant comfort. While we wait for the others to drop down the hole, I ask about cave preservation.
"What you put into the earth ends up in your water," Garry says, paring the issue to its essence.
People use sinkholes as dumps, he explains. Later, we spy the evidence: reddish pools floating in the stream. Garry tells us the substance may give off hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas, and the goo probably spilled into the earth from a leaky septic tank. Luckily, we don't smell the telltale stench of rotten eggs. We also watch sudsy waterphosphate pollutionsplash and gather at the shore of the stream.
"There's a whole ecosystem down here," Garry says."There are a lot of creatures, and it's beautiful. It's like asking, 'Why preserve rainforests?'"
We slither about 50 feet more through the Blowing Bat Crawland land in a pool of 52-degree water. One hundred feet of limestone hangs to a few inches above our skulls. The others seem spent, but I can hardly sit still. I slosh from one side of the pool to the other. The water in the round room feels refreshing after so much exertion. I gaze at the sparkles on the ceiling.
"That's suspended water," Garry explains from where he rests on the pool's bank.
"They're not solid?" I don't touch the hanging round crystals.
George examines the mud a few feet from where he sits.
"Is that a golf tee?" George points.
"No. That's a broken soda straw," Garry says. The drops of water that sneak in through the cracks in the limestone ceiling leave behind calcite deposits. As more drops coat the same spot, a hollow pipea speleothem or "soda straw"forms. Speleothems, like stalactites (Greek for "oozing out in drops") and stalagmites (meaning "a dripping"), form in a similar ways. Stalactites hang from cave ceilings like thick icicles, and stalagmites sprout from water drops on the cave floor. Speleothems grow so slowlyonly a cubic inch every 100 yearsthat a human won't see much progress within a lifetime.
We exit the pool room and push through the waist-high water, ducking under several low ceilings. We land on a muddy shore, climb down a few rocks, and turn right. Mud Alley. Garry stops.
"Hear that?" he asks. My boots sink into the mud. Every few seconds, I yank them out, so they don't get cemented in. I can hear the rumble, but I want to keep moving. "That room ahead has the waterfalls." Garry shakes his head as if amazed. We're about a half-mile away, but the commotion ahead makes Mud Alley vibrate.
I follow Garry's footsteps as he storms out of Mud Alley and turns right. We can't yet see the falls; they drop maniacally around another bend. The walls tremble, guiding the defiant stream at our feet. The room roarsa warning call of the upcoming waterfalls. No doubt they're alive.
Garry stops, leaning toward my ear. I strain to hear his words above the loud echoes in the chamber. I think he tells me to wait. As his shadow disappears around the corner, Ed emerges from Mud Alley. George comes out next. My unease dilutes as the number of people in the room grows.
"Where's Garry?" Ed asks.
"He went to look at the falls," I shout.
The clamor of the falls silences us. Minutes later, Garry's headlamp flickers ahead. The light grows solid and bright until we see the mustache stretched down around his frown.
"How does it look?" I ask.
"I've never seen the falls like that." Garry shines his headlamp deep into the water, slowly waving it up and down the stream's body. He doesn't look me in the eye when he tells the news. It's not unusual. Cavers often talk through side-glances. More than once, I talked head on with Garry. After he winced painfully, I realized that the headlamp perched on my forehead blinded him. Garry considers it a "job hazard."
"Should we go through?" I ask.
Garry pauses longer than comfortable, still inspecting the river. "Yeah." His headlamp glows on our faces. "We'll go through."
Later as we wade through the stream near Beartooth passage, Garry tells us that the waterfall of Limestone River is usually little more than a trickle against the floor. Today, the falls are not highonly a few feetbut they stretch the length of several bodies to both walls. They fall with an echoing snap like a fast car folding against a tree.
"I really debated whether to take you through," Garry says. "I looked at the water, and it was clear. If it were muddy, I'd know that the water table was rising, and we better get the hell out of here."
After cautiously passing the thunderous waterfallsclimbing near the wall to avoid the crushing centerwe crawl 300 feet through the stream. My kneepads, now soaked, creep down to my calves. The shards of rock on the stream floor scratch and dent the skin beneath my jeans. At the water's end, Garry points to a thick rope that snakes its way up a mountain of rocks and out of sight. We're to follow the twine through the rest of the cave.
We each climb slabs of limestone the size of chests of drawers. They dropped from the ceiling perhaps thousands of years ago. The cave has nearly 100 percent humidity and a constant temperature of 52 degrees. The rocks we climb are damp with slick ooze, which resists the grip of our hiking boots. Garry warns us not to latch onto the rope when we lose our footing. The line is secured only to the same slippery mud.
Reaching the peak of the limestone rocks, we behold a room as massive as a football stadium. Stewart Hall. Caverns like this have been ritual sanctuaries since the Upper Paleolithic period (30,000 to 10,000 B.C.). In the book Man, Myth, and Magic, folklorists tell how the ancient Crete believed caves were the womb of the Earth Mothereven the birthplace of the god Zeus. The Christian savior, too, is said by some believers to have been born and resurrected in caves at Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Buddhists at Tun-Huang drew sacred images and worshipped in the caves of the Thousand Buddhas.
Stewart Hall glows as our headlamps massage the smooth contours of the walls. I expected death and burial grounds in this cave. I was wrong; the underworld lives. It creates life like the stalactite I see stretching down from the ceiling in exasperation as it strains to meet the stalagmite shooting up from the floor just inches out of reach. After hundreds of years of waiting, a single drip will slide down the stalactite and finally join together the two formations. A majestic column will be born.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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