Strangford Cave Project 2007

For once, we had an MAKC project weekend scheduled which did not involve some type of disastrous event involving Mother Nature: i.e., a giant tree branch falling on one of our campers, hurricane, flood, or just a deluge of Harlansburg Cave-like mud on the campground roads once we got all settled in. Or so we thought.

Those attending this year’s event had a taste of something not seen since even before MAKC was formed a decade ago—the inside of Strangford Cave near Blairsville, courtesy of Greg Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The cave was gated by the PGC in 1993 and aside from one trip arranged by Bob Eppley in the early 1990s for a special program related to Indiana University of Pennsylvania (which took about 38 phone calls to engineer), there has been NO caver access.

When MAKC formed, one of our hopes was to regain access to some of these caves. So when Greg became the new wildlife biologist in charge of non-game mammals, we set up a meeting with him. He cautioned us that there would probably never be regular caver access to some of the caves which the PGC has gated and closed for wildlife purposes. However, he said, if there were some projects we could suggest, that might be a starting point.

We like projects, so we suggested Strangford Cave. It was once a trashed party cave. Since the gating it was no longer a party cave, but it was still trashed. Spray paint graffiti, carbide graffiti, old bottles and cans and other trash items were among the offending items in this cave. But it was mostly graffiti.

Additionally, since we like to document caves, we also offered to have a “staff photographer” for the day and to do a resurvey of the cave and a color map. We also intend to show the surface features of the quarry as well as surface features above the quarry, to tell us more about the geology of the area..

So, that was a lot on our plate for a one-day project—more like a third of a day project.

The easiest part was conning Dennis Melko into serving as staff photographer, a job he did with both gusto and talent.

We had plenty of volunteers to do cleanup work, and we conned a few people into participating in the survey. Talk about multi-tasking. Paul Damon, Jr., Paul Damon, Sr., Phil Gowaty, Walt Hamm, Jon Hamm, Jeff Jahn, Andrea Gillis, Ray Gillis, Vince Kappler, John Long, Dennis Melko, Tom Metzgar, Kim Metzgar, Sue Moore, Eric Motto, Johnny Motto, Kevin Patrick, Dan Peden, Dave Ruth, Mike Schirato, Mike Shorts, Dean Snyder, Kerry Speelman, Greg Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Megan Yost, Mike Zianni (and friend Larry) were among those helping with either the cleanup or the auction or both.

Some Cleveland Grotto members joined us for part of the day as they arrived too late for the cleanup and did a trip to Bear Cave. They included Alan Looney, Cynthia Norris, and a bunch of beginners.

After a long car caravan to the Sheetz in Blairsville, I led the way to the road which I thought I remembered as the way to the cave site. Greg hadn’t been to the cave yet, so I was appointed leader of the caravan. The road turned out to be a bit rough for some of the vans in the group, so the drivers pulled off about halfway back and we managed to get everyone back to the old quarry site. That’s about when Mother Nature came into play again.

We finally make it to the quarry for the first real caver trip to Strangford Cave since 1993 and we were greeted with a sea—no, an ocean—of shiny three leaved plants between us and the entrances. Just about that time Tom arrived shuttling Kevin Patrick (who was a little late) and Bart. The dog quickly bolted into the poison ivy patch, and was up and down the hillside, at the cave entrances, before we even remembered exactly where they were. Great, I thought, if I don’t get poison ivy from hiking through it, I’ll get it from the dog when he goes home and jumps on my bed. In a panic and itching already just looking at it, all of us who get poison ivy easily were beginning to worry. We all carefully picked our way up to the main entrance, once we did find it, and waited patiently as Greg worked at the lock.

Phil Gowaty, who is the Harlansburg Cave Preserve manager, makes it a point to do entrance gate maintenance a few times a year. It didn’t appear that anyone had been in Strangford Cave for a very long time, and, thinking of Phil’s good work, I wondered whether we would ever get to see the inside of the cave again. Finally, after much work, and with the help of the rock to jar the rust loose from the lock, the gate opened to a great cheer from all of us.

Bart chose that moment to run up the hillside again, and was poised to go into the cave first. Not wanting to touch him, I yelled at him, then yelled at Tom, to come get him. That’s the last thing we wanted, I thought, Bart to bolt into the cave and eat a woodrat or a bat before the project even begins. Tom and Bart were finally reunited and on the way back to the campground (with a diversion of a bath for both of them) as we started entering the cave.

Since we only had one shot at a survey, we let the graffiti scrubbers go first, then the survey crew divided into three groups. Walt Hamm, his son Jon, and Mike Schirato surveyed the entrance passage and its side passages, all the way up to the “T” intersection. Kevin Patrick, Andrea Gillis and I started at the “T” and took the right-hand passage. Kerry Speelman and Jeff Jahn started at the “T” and took the left-hand passage.

Many of the graffiti scrubbers worked in the entrance passage, and another large group worked at the “T” intersection, where it was really bad. Greg and Dennis each took before and after photos, as the walls were scraped clean.

Kevin, the author of Pennsylvania Caves and Other Rocky Roadside Wonders, particularly wanted to come on this trip to see this cave in his backyard, and to see exactly how we mapped caves. So he learned about the dumb end of the tape and watched over my shoulder as I sketched and took down data. We had a relatively easy survey, as most of the cave is walking passage, though there was plenty of detail to sketch in. The most complicated part of the passage I did was the breakdown room at the upper end, where the stream enters the cave, and where many cavers before us have looked for additional passage.

We squeezed and surveyed underneath the breakdown, over the breakdown, and even peeked in between the rocks when we could, but didn’t see an easy way on. It will be very interesting to try to correlate this feature of the cave with something on the surface. I remember some preliminary surface hikes years ago and don’t recall seeing surface drainage in the cave at all.

Kerry and Jeff surveyed the Tubes, which was a loop, and began the scalloped passage leading to the lower entrance. The connection between upper entrance and lower entrance has usually been written about as being too tight to traverse. Dennis took a picture from the lower passage showing stream passage no bigger than his foot, and, from the upper passage no bigger than a child’s foot, so it’s easy to see why few trip reports indicate a “thru” trip.

I finished my survey leg first and went to check on Kerry and Jeff. They had completed the Tubes part, but were busy in the stream passage. Walt was still working in the entrance passage. I knew I’d be getting wet as we exited to go outside and down to the lower entrance through the lush crop of poison ivy. Megan Yost, Kevin Patrick, Ray and Andrea Gillis, Dennis and myself took turns working to try to open the lock to the lower entrance. We were getting ready to give up when Ray finally managed to get it open. We let those going in see this part of the cave go first, then began the survey of the lower passage. And somewhere along the line we lost Andrea to the cars.

This quickly turned into belly crawl. Kevin, who had been going great guns on the survey, took one look at the belly crawl in stream and said “I’m outta here.” Fortunately, Dennis was up ahead taking pictures of the “connection,” and of a small flowstone formation. So he came back and we wrapped it up.

By then, pretty much everyone was out of the cave except for Walt’s crew. Most people were heading back to the campsite. Greg gave me the key for Little Wood Pussy Cave, but there was no way we were meant to get into that cave. I’m betting that gate had not been opened in more than a decade, and if it hadn’t opened in that long, it wasn’t opening now. However, one of the most interesting experiences of the day occurred while we were trying to get the gate open. Mike Schirato tried for a while, then I tried, then other people tried. While I was taking a turn waiting out by the edge of the outcrop, I heard a rustling noise, but didn’t see anything. A little while later I saw it—a nice-sized woodrat steathily creeping beyond the gate’s bars and along the edge of the outcrop to peer at us wondering what we were doing. It could fit between the bars. Why couldn’t we?

I didn’t have a camera, but I had a camera phone, which was in the Jeep, of course. Greg had a camera, but he was waiting to lock up Strangford Cave. When he finally arrived at Little Wood Pussy our woodrat friend was nowhere to be seen, probably settling back into his nest, behind locked gates. All in all, it was a very successful trip. Greg sent his thanks to everyone who participated in an email, and we quickly worked out a project for 2008 (see photo and caption at right). Those of us who get poison ivy badly went back to my place to shower while Dennis did us a favor and picked up the 10 pizzas we ordered at Pizza Barn. Tom did a good job with the auction, and the rest of the weekend was uneventful. Thanks should also go to Greg Turner for spearheading this effort, and for his willingness to let us help the Game Commission with another cleanup project next year.

By Kim Metzgar