By M. Diane McCormick, Photography by Cassie Miller
So, I’m holding a 10-pound rock that happened to come off in my hands, accompanied by a rock-on-rock clatter that’s kind of terrifying when you’re standing at the bottom of an eight-foot pile of stones.
“I’m OK!” I yelled to the alarmed people shouting from above and below. No rock slide. Now, how do I keep this rock from tumbling down the cave and onto the helmeted but still vulnerably human head of our intrepid photographer, Cassie Miller?
Adventure Chick went caving. Other than that moment of slight terror, it was an exhilarating introduction to a netherworld of tiny tunnels and soaring vaults.
Everything I know about caves I learned in cavern tours on hot summer days. A recent trip to Indian Echo Caverns unveiled the mysteries below our feet. Narrow passageways worm through the earth before opening into cathedrals of stone. Wondrous formations loom, taking recognizable shapes as the guide swings her flashlight – a book, a bunny, a dragon.
As a Google check told us, a cavern is a type of cave. So, caving’s just caverning without a tour guide, right? Oh, silly me.
My hosts came from York Grotto, the local chapter of the National Speleological Society (yorkgrotto.org). Their enthusiastic member-at-large, Mike Shank, arranged a tour of what he called a horizontal “beginner’s cave,” a wonder of winding limestone and manganese under the idyllic hills of Mifflin County.
The caving community is understandably tight-lipped about cave locations. Many, like this one, are privately owned. Our tour today took us into a section known since at least the 19th Century, where many early explorers left their marks near the entrance. On August 30, 1897, visitors from Michigan named Maud Kinsel, Blanche Kinsel and Sarah Bassford presumably hiked their petticoats, ventured in by kerosene lamp and carved their names in an offshoot passage.
Fast forward to 2016. Cassie and I joined a mix of veterans and rookies. They included Mike, who discovered caving as a Boy Scout leader about eight years ago and wishes he’d started sooner; Troy Brown, a new father and a York Grotto member for a week and a half; and Karen Bange, owner with her husband, George Bange, of this precious site.
“It’s been a work of love over the last 20 years with lots of help from lots of cavers,” Karen told me before we started.
As we ducked through the square door built around the entrance, crickets and golden-hued salamanders greeted us. If someone tells you to freeze, do so and let them instruct your movements, Mike said, “before your helmet accidentally knocks off anything that’s gonna take 300 years to grow back again.”
By the way, thanks to Mike, I finally have a mnemonic for remembering the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. Stalactites cling “tight” to the ceiling. Stalagmites are “mighty” protrusions from the ground. Thank heaven. That one’s off my list of things to look up every time.
Mike shared that nugget in a beautiful cave room, beside a shimmering, platter-sized “rimstone pool,” created when minerals gradually layer into a sort of dam. We arrived there after gingerly descending a narrow passage’s slippery mud floor.
Wear old stuff that can get muddy, everyone had said. Wisely, I heeded their advice, pairing good boots with my painting-lawn-furniture jeans and a workout top that’s just too ugly to live anymore. Photog Cassie wore sneakers she intended to trash anyway. Caving – a great excuse to buy new clothes.
Another passage led to the breathtaking glories of a narrow, soaring vault, as if God’s hand had squeezed a cathedral down to the width of a dog kennel. Owner Karen told us that the entire excursion wound under the small field where we had parked our cars, and I understood why. This cave twisted and turned, introducing new wonders with each pivot or each Alice in Wonderland-style wriggle through a keyhole-shaped opening.
We clambered onto tall boulders and crab-walked down slopes. We maneuvered piles of encased rock by planting a foot here and getting a hand hold there and just hoisting.
“I’m glad I kept up on my yoga this summer,” I told Cassie.
We came to an eight-foot deep crevice Mike called a “head-turner,” narrower than the 13 inches needed to fit a helmet strapped with a headlight. Mike and fearless newbie Troy slithered down while the rest of us watched the earth swallow them up. We trekked back through a hairpin passage and met them on the other side.
Mike was taking a shortcut that he and owner George Bange had recently opened by moving some rocks and piling them in a shaft.
“Come down and see!” Mike called from the passage. “The ceiling’s got this beautiful scalloped pattern!”
Cassie and I looked at each other and did the “why not?” shrug. I slid past a protruding knob on a ledge, realizing only at the point of no return that my butt was perched on about six inches of overhanging rock. Nowhere to go but forward, right? Mike also hollered a warning to be careful of moving rock.
Remember that warning, because I would forget it. In my defense, it was 10 minutes later, after I’d crawled below the beautiful ceiling scalloped like a clamshell. We turned to go back. I stood at the bottom of the shaft. I put my hand on a rock – and off it came. You know the rest. After my heart rate came down from the stratosphere, Mike talked me into gently rolling the rock to a safe place.
“My bad,” he apologized later. That area should have been off limits until secured, he said. Seems that experienced cavers instinctually test every hand hold for instability. Lessons learned all around. For Mike, don’t let newbies near loose rock. For me, watch for loose rock.
I climbed out of the shaft via solid rock on the other side. Returning to that tiny ledge, I suddenly lost the nerve to dangle my unsecured feet over what Karen called “the sucking void.” Would I be the person whose panic brings the expedition to a halt?
Then, a thought. I flipped to hands and knees and crawled over the offending knob. Caving – not just an excuse to buy new clothes. Also an exercise in problem-solving.
All along, we had been hearing about “The Earth Room.” Must be worth seeing. With another “why not?” shrug, Cassie and I joined Mike and Troy on a plunge deeper into the earth.
The ceiling grew lower and lower, and soon, Mike was sliding feet first into a tunnel. Troy went next, head first. Try a modified plank position, he suggested. More yoga! Honestly, who knew?
We were climbing upward now.
“When’s the horizontal part of this cave start?” I wheezed to Mike. We found ourselves lying in a sideways V, like resting in a Pac-Man mouth. Nice spot for stopping to think about the fact that we were encased in a slice of rock under tons of mountainside. Oh, well. Onward.
My turn came to slither through an even narrower passage, grunting all the way, unable to lift my head, seeing nothing but the rock and mud I was passing over. Mike’s voice was calling from The Earth Room. I was getting closer. I’d soon be moving freely.
I lifted my head, and the whole slither became worth it. The Earth Room unfolded like a miniature tourist cavern. In a rising space were formations, fragile ledges and hefty arches. One formation looked like an owl perched on a log. Toward the back, a stalagmite and stalactite seemed like two giant carrots meeting tip-to-tip.
After wriggling back, catching my breath and rejoining the group, the trek took us upward and back to the entrance.
Above-ground again, I looked toward the slopes of a mountain across the valley. What wonders are beneath? Cavers are the ones who find out. I’m certainly not one of them, but Mike marveled over the feats that Cassie and I dared. For first-timers – not counting Cassie’s short, unfortunate childhood encounter with a cave full of spiders – we were pretty spiffy. Muddy, but spiffy.