Trip to Bear Cave with Scout Troop 186 (Birdville) from Natrona Heights

This is a guest post by Steve Kovack who is a long time member of Loyalhanna Grotto.
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The weather was predicted to be low 90’s with a 40% chance of thundershowers, but the morning dawned hazy but cloudy and at 9am it was only 72 degrees. We met near our Troop meeting area in Natrona Heights at 8:15 and drove to Blairsville, only stopping for a brief stocking up at the famous Sheetz in New Alexandria where Steelers kicker Jeff Reed had his misunderstanding with the towel dispenser. We stocked up on Corn Nuts and hit the road, arriving in the parking area at 9:20. There were no other visitors today and I had the Scouts retrieve the log book and sign us in. We noticed that there have not been many visitors in June other than a group called “Outbound Adventures” who have visited about once a week. Jason checked out the information board and noted that each of the four pamphlet boxes seemed to have a healthy nest of paper wasps, but no pamphlets.

courtesy of Steve Kovack

I provided the coveralls and hard hats, each with two sources of reliable light. The coveralls were an amazing stroke of luck – I’d found a bunch of them on Craigslist – they were from a man who had worked for West Penn Power and who had passed away. He loved helping kids, had served as an Assistant Scoutmaster some 15 years ago and enjoyed occasional caving although he hadn’t belonged to any grotto. I like to think Frank’s spirit went along with us on this trip; his wife was delighted that I planned to use the coveralls for caving with a Scout group, and instead of charging $10 for each pair; she gave me eight pairs for $10 total. I’ve always said that Scouting opens doors and hearts.

We began the one mile uphill trek to the cave, arriving uneventfully at around 10:45am. On the way up I told the local story of the battle with Tasman Resources Ltd., and the history of both the cave and this part of Chestnut Ridge. It’s a true story where the little guy won for a change. We saw two millipedes on the way up to the cave, and noted that one had red bands while the other had yellow bands. We also discovered a Red Eft, which is a newt that lives as a salamander during its juvenile period. Reaching the entrance, we suited up, took the obligatory “clean” photograph and entered at 11. We notified our top cover that we would exit at 4pm, and Noah volunteered to serve as our timekeeper – we’d turn around at 2:30.

I used a Canon Powershot D10 kept in a Ziploc bag for taking photos on this trip. This is a great camera for this kind of work – it’s waterproof to 10 meters, 12 megapixel, shockproof to a 4 foot drop and very tough. I’ve taken it to the beach and we’ve even used it underwater while snorkeling. At home, a rinse under the kitchen tap with a little dish soap restores it to use again. Wish I’d had cameras like this back in the 1980’s.

We entered via the left most entrance and carefully stepped around a salamander and a few crawfish within 20 feet of the surface. I pointed out some of the spiders and crickets and we talked briefly about the different zones in the cave and that these creatures were not “true” troglodytes but opportunistic, depending on insects that entered the cave from the surface. Water levels were low due to the lack of rain and very hot (for Western PA) temperatures that have been prevalent in June.

I found what appeared to be an abandoned woodrat nest on a shelf and we discussed the habits of this creature and the fact that it’s endangered, and why. Dan and Noah leading, we continued on in a generally north-east direction and away from the water passage. We navigated Ledge Pass and worked our way down to Backbreaker, pausing to look for some of the formations in a few of the side passages. This was a good place to talk about cave conservation, and I was pleased to note that the Scouts had read the NSS booklets I’d provided to them prior to the trip. They were already aware of how fragile the formations are, and how long they took to grow. I like to feel that I have made conservationists of them, and we appreciated the tragedy of how many were long ago broken and carted off to shops and living rooms. We did note that in several areas, the formations are continuing to grow and someday may again approach the beauty of the original ones, if not in our life time. We had an opportunity to see several areas where the calcite was colored grey as well as pristine white, and the crystals sparkled in a few places. It was just enough of a tease to stimulate interest and suggest the beauty the cave once must have had.

After negotiating backbreaker pass, we traveled up to Serpent’s Sanctum and signed the register. We noted that of the two pens in the ammo box, only one still worked and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking to bring a few pens or pencils. The remaining pen worked well enough for us to sign in and I signed for our group. We enjoyed reading the entries from the other folks who have passed through the cave, and noted with humor, the first entry in the book which was from Tom Metzgar who put as an answer to the question, “How did you hear of this cave?” Tom made up his own box and checked it - “I own it”. I made up my own box to answer the same question and checked “My friends Tom and Kim own it.”

We continued to Garden of the Gods, and then to Mary’s Room where we paused to have our lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and Corn Nuts. I explained that Corn Nuts were a traditional snack when I started caving in the 1980’s because if you got cave fill on your food, you wouldn’t notice. Yikes! We turned off the lights and I retold the Ballad of Cascade Cave which illustrates several of the “commandments” of caving, never cave alone, always make sure someone knows where you are, and carry multiple sources of dependable light.

Lunch completed, Dan found the route to the Table Rocks and Sand Room. We paused here and looked for Larimer Tunnel, but did not find the entrance. We didn’t look all that hard since there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a 1.5 foot crawl so we went through Propeller Pass and followed the water course to Harvey’s Tunnel. We did not continue here but instead backtracked and located the crawl to Coffin Rock. After exiting Coffin Rock we navigated back to the other side of Harvey’s Tunnel and continued through the 1 foot peephole to an area I called the hall of the floor pendants. We continued to the Keyhole, where the group turned around. I noted that we reached approximately 60 feet below the surface here, the deepest as well as the furthest we penetrated on this trip. We noted a great deal of graffiti here, none of which seemed very new and much of it scratched into the mud. I explained that prior to the conservation movement, it was acceptable and even commonplace for cavers to scratch their name and NSS number onto the walls of the cave.

We noted a surprising number of insects this deep in the cave, but given we also noted a large amount of surface debris (leaves, sticks) in the water passage; we reasoned that these insects must have been carried into the cave by the water passage.
courtesy of Steve Kovack
We retraced our steps, only deviating to try and locate the area east of the “hall of the floor pendants” which we thought might have a greater possibility of formations, being much less explored. The multilevel character of the area defeated us and we were unable to locate any of the other passages leading north from this area although I reasoned we would probably have to navigate down to the floor level to find these from reading the map. The area was too narrow for more than one caver at a time to explore, and our turn around time of 2:30pm caused us to begin to navigate back to the Table Rock room. We paused for more stories where I told of my first caving experience. In 1987 I took my first trip to a tectonic cave called Wind Cave which is located south of Harrisburg, PA. I was very young and extremely foolish, caving with a friend and taking only one cheap radio shack flashlight and no spare batteries. Nobody knew we were going caving and deep into the cave we broke one flashlight and the other one had to be continually slapped to get it to light. As it faded out we saw a sliver of daylight and one of the cave exits. We were extremely grateful for our luck when we exited the cave. It was an extremely close call. I have no qualms or reservations admitting to my early stupidity because I know that in sharing my stories and my very real panic of being stuck in that cave will hopefully prevent it from happening to anyone else. Told in the absolute dark in a real cave only enhances the tale.

We reached the entrance around 3:30 so we used our remaining time to explore some of the side passages as well as the water passage near the entrance. We counted four salamanders, and seven crayfish. No bats were observed in the cave although we found what may have been bat feces on several shelves in the cave, but I’m not enough of a bat expert to know for sure. We talked about WNS and each person in the group promised to properly disinfect and clean their equipment. (Since I provided coveralls and hard hats, I know my equipment will be properly disinfected.) Cave crickets were seen in several areas, but not in abundance. Spiders were seen with webs in several areas including one who was making a meal of an unlucky cave cricket. We picked up litter where we found it including a few old candy wrappers, an old comb and some unidentifiable bits of plastic. Other litter was observed, particularly near the Keyhole area, but was not retrievable.

After taking our “muddy” photo and changing out of our caving gear, we notified our top cover we’d exited right around 4pm. We hiked back to the car noting in the log that we’d been the only visitors today. We were still the only car in the parking area. After a quick look around the parking lot for litter, we went to Dean’s Diner for a much needed recharging of our stomach batteries. In ordering breakfast I’m pretty sure I consumed the entire daily output of a small Western Pennsylvania farm. We returned to the Scout meeting location in Natrona Heights around 7pm.


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