JUNE 12, 2010
We hadn’t been in Harlansburg for a long time, due to the closure of the cave last year with all of that precautionary White Nose Syndrome prevention stuff. You haven’t done a real caving trip until you’ve been to Harlansburg. I’ll just leave it at that because you truly have to experience it to understand—cavers in a maze, a maze like no other, full of three-dimensional tunnels filled with mud, and breakdown covered with mud. Did I mention mud?
The cave was previously one whole big interconnected maze, albeit unexplored, until the Harlansburg-New Castle Road (Route 108) was put in, cutting down through the Vanport limestone and exposing the entrances, effectively splitting the cave in half. Only a few small passages were reported to exist, allowing one to go underground from north to south, or from south to north. But none had ever been surveyed.
On this particular day, I was meeting Mike Schirato, Phil Gowaty, Andrea and Ray Gillis and their friend Kara. When we left off in 2008, we had surveyed part of the under-the-road connection passage from the north side. We have over 1,000 feet on the north side, something the previous mappers never did. So, while we haven’t caught up to them mileage-wise on the south side, anything on the north side adds to the cave’s length. The cave is longer than 4 miles.
We had discovered a breakdown-floored crawlway shortly after finding the Never Make It Out Alive Room. We heard traffic. As we were in the crawlway we felt faint vibrations from traffic. So we pretty much knew we were under the road.
As we exited the crawlway, the vibrations and traffic noise ended and we knew we were on the south side. We just didn’t know how to find it from the south.
So, our plan for the day was to have me, Phil and Mike go in the north entrance, and go under the road. Andrea, Ray and Kara were to go in the south entrance and try to find us. Sort of like a giant Easter egg hunt and we were the eggs.
Our previous surveying in the south side consisted of going directly south or southeast, trying to define the eastern edge of the cave, since we knew it had an end at the edge of the hillside. Thus we had done very little on the southwestern side, other than one trip years ago to the fabled Ruby Room. I don’t remember much from that trip, which was recreational, other than Ray getting his boots so stuck in the mud that everyone on the trip almost lost control of their bowels when we heard his primal scream of frustration. Eerie, I tell you. And then there was Andrea on the Ruby Room trip. We were all moving through this waist-deep water with the consistency and look of butterscotch pudding before it set. And—I’ll leave it at this—our waist-deep was much higher on Andrea. (Although she did have two well-placed personal flotation devices).
Anyway, the scene is set for the connection survey trip because once we emerged from that under the road crawlway, the character of the cave immediately changed to butterscotch pudding passage.
Little did Andrea and Ray know what they were heading into, although I’m sure they suspected as they came prepared, wearing wetsuits.
Anyway, although I love to tease Andrea, and she’s a good sport about it, I would never do any kind of in-cave prank on her, especially in Harlansburg. But I was sensing a bit of unease with her group, almost as if they expected something unpleasant to happen. Or as if they thought I was going to play a joke on them. In the end they sucked it up and crawled into blackness on the south side, and our group entered the north side.
Mike and Phil were getting pretty good at knowing the northern route, which is to say that it was time for the Harlansburg gods to remind us how little we know about the cave. (Translation: they couldn’t find the route).
We finally got back on track, and managed to make it to the under the road crawl in about 20 minutes. I was going painfully slow in the crawlway because my trusty kneepads were around my ankles. I’m thinking on my next set of just getting them sewn to my actual knees.
As we were speculating on how long it would take Andrea’s group to find us, they found us, arriving just in time to see Mike Schirato’s boots get so bogged down in the mud he had to bend around sort of the way a dog can reach its tail, only Mike was going for his boot heels. He had elbow-length rubber gloves on, and was looking like he was playing an evil game of twister—only by himself—as he reached around to scoop mud and water to try to dig them out (this is important for the July 17 trip report, which will follow).
In any case, with Andrea’s crew going ahead and retracing the unflagged route, we managed to survey between the north and the south, or the south and the north, finally tying in—on paper—the connection. Even though countless people had done the under-the-road trip, it wasn’t really officially documented until it was officially documented, and now it was. So there!
HARLANSBURG JULY 17, 2010
After decontaminating all of my gear—which didn’t take a month, although it seemed like it—we were ready for another shot. My plotting showed a 15.5 feet loop closure error. I was pretty happy with that, given that we had come from the north side the whole way around, given the compass-deflecting iron ore common in the Vanport, and given the many, many loops we had had to close between north and south.
When cavers who have not been there imagine maze, they can’t really imagine maze until they’ve been there. Survey shots run short in this cave, primarily due to the fact that just when you think you’re getting somewhere, you reach another intersection. Or should I say, another six-way intersection. On an early survey trip, I remember Tom making fun of me for popping out of a hole and saying, “Look, there’s flagging tape. Someone has surveyed this.” And he said, “Yeah, you, about an hour ago.”
Even though this day it was only Mike and I, I had high hopes for good footage. I had only made a preliminary hand-plot of the previous month’s survey because it had all been linear. I like to close loops and close loops and close loops to help keep the survey tight. But we were focused on making the connection, so we had done a virtual straight-line shot from north to south—or as straight as it can get in the Burg. And although on the last trip we had tied into a survey station, we couldn’t read the complete station name on the flagging tape. It seemed like AL24, but then again it could have been 14. I so wanted to confirm that it was indeed AL24 because that meant we had the 15.5 foot loop closure error and nothing greater.
We found the station fairly easily, even though this time we came from the south.
I said to Mike: “How about you go ahead and scout around and find other survey stations, so we can close a few loops, tighten up the survey, and make sure we’re good?”
He was okay with that and I handed him a small-scale sketch I had drawn up that morning indicating where the other station names and locations should be. He took the flagging tape and a Sharpie. I won’t brag on Mike’s station-setting abilities, or the fact that he set them on one of my highest-footage surveys in the cave. Bragging on Mike’s abilities would mean other people might want him on their survey trips. And I’d rather have him on mine. So, forget I ever mentioned it.
My plan was to spend some time sketching in details off the survey we had done last month, and fine-tuning my sketch. I figured if I could begin sketching passages adjacent to the survey, I wouldn’t have to touch compass, clino or tape, thus keeping my hands clean until the end. If Mike marked things out while I sketched, all I would need to do is take down data and mark the stations on my sketch. I could save that until the end, keeping my hands clean until the last bit of the survey trip.
In theory it was a good idea. I spent some time refining my sketch in a small room that had at least six passages emanating from it. I sketched what would be a long shot (30 or more feet) passage with no intersections, heading north. I was so proud that my hands were relatively clean. I had on two mismatched gloves, but they were doing the job when I wasn’t sketching.
I did some more work in the room. I refined my sketch from the VD survey, the one coming from the north side (station letters were assigned A-M on the south side and N-Z on the north side, working backward from Z. We had used up single letters, so we were now on double letters, so there was nothing risqué about the station labels).
We had ended last time at VD14, so Mike was continuing the VD series, tying in those legs with the AL survey. He had set about a half-dozen stations, more than 100 feet of passage. I had sketched or resketched probably as much already, and had begun sketching and marking the areas he had been working in. As I made the loop around the area he had set, we were trying to determine the tag on another station, AL18, which I had mislabeled on the sketch I had given him. We would be tying into it from VD19. Still with clean hands and a clean book, I worked my way around from AL18 to VD19, sketching in calf-deep muck. As I turned the corner to head back to VD16, where we had left our packs (as it was “dry land”) I turned around to view the passage from whence I had just come, pausing for a moment to sketch. That pause is where the trip went to hell. In a handbasket. A very large handbasket.
I rotated my body to say something to Mike, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I had on a new set of Cabela’s boots (3 or 4 caving trips), that I was going to dedicate to Harlansburg, so I wouldn’t have to waste time decontaminating them each trip. The cave gods apparently thought I meant dedicate literally, because no matter what I did my feet wouldn’t move. Did I mention they were from Cabela’s?
I tried Mike’s twister-by-myself-dog-getting-its-tail move from last month and discovered I was not nearly as flexible as either Mike or my dog. The sounds emanating from my muck-stuck boots were indescribably embarrassing, and I mentioned to Mike numerous times that those noises were not emanating from any part of any nuclei related to my living, breathing, cussing soul. It was the boots, and the boots alone.
After more than 15 minutes of struggling, I gave up, first pulling my left foot out of my left boot, then—after untying my right boot—pulling my right foot out of my right boot. Given the constraints of the passage, and the fact that I didn’t want to move forward and get my actual feet stuck, I kept going backward, toward Mike and “dry land” at VD16. The only thought in my head was: “I made fun of Andrea for losing both boots on a survey trip. I even named a passage on the map for it—the Size 5 Boot Passage. I have to get them back, or everyone will know my shoe size. And they’re from Cabela’s.”
I told Mike that we should survey for a while, since the mud didn’t feel too bad on my feet, and to ensure that we would accomplish something before my battle with the boots. So, survey we did. I ran tape while he kept book.
As we finished three tie-ins and loops and a dead-end passage, we had reached the end of his flagging, and completed 115 feet of survey. Not nearly my best trip, but not my worst either. Remember, this is Harlansburg.
“I’m going back,” I said. “Back for my boots. And it could get dirty.”
The cave gods couldn’t win. Those boots were from Cabela’s. I found the little oval openings that my boots had made as my feet exited them. I had lost a glove. But I wasn’t losing those boots. Kneeling in the muck, to help displace my weight, I began work, scooping with my gloved hand. The mud didn’t move back to the boots quite as quickly as I scooped it away, so they were beginning to reveal themselves. I inserted ungloved hand into the little tab on the back of the boots and tried pulling. No luck. More embarrassing sounds. Decided to give up on the clean hands concept and take to scooping with both. At least 15 minutes had passed. Periodically I would stand and move around to ensure that I was not sinking in the butterscotch pudding mud, that I was not becoming as permanently wedged as my Cabela’s boots were.
Finally, I got the heels uncovered and tugged, as gently as I could, with fingers in the tabs of the boots. The pressure was so great I heard small ripping sounds. After verifying that the sounds were coming from the backs of my boots and nowhere else, I continued scooping. Mike might have been laughing, but at least he wasn’t doing it out loud. Finally, finally, making sounds like no plunger I’ve ever heard, the boots came free.
A gob of mud just missed my eye. Rubbing my cheek only spread it around, since by now my hands had nearly doubled in bulk due to the clinging mud. I could not tell which hand had the glove on and which hand did not.
There was no way I was putting those boots back on in that mud, so I backtracked to Mike. The boots had nearly doubled in bulk too.
He turned to head back to the dry passage I had sketched before all of my boot mishaps. I put my boots on as best as I could and tried to follow. Sure, I was slimed, but I still had some survey left in me, as long as Mike did book. About half-way to the dry passage, the boots came off again. They weren’t in muck this time, just foot-deep water. I hurled my pack to the closest “dry” spot, told Mike what was happening and had the boots out in a mere five minutes this time.
“I can’t get the laces tight enough to fasten them,” I told him.
After a short conference, we decided to call the survey and head out. We had tied the connection survey into three existing south side stations, and confirmed that the initial tie-in had indeed been to AL24. And I had won the battle of the boots. I would carry them and cave in my socks until we got to the road.
We were, I estimated, half-way to the south side entrance when I hit real land. Pointy rock land. So I paused and put the boots on a third time. They couldn’t come off three times in one trip, could they? What would Andrea say to that?
By then Mike was approaching the Register Room, and I was only 30 feet away, 30 feet of knee deep butterscotch pudding water away.
“Damn!” They were off again and I had no place to put my pack without losing it in knee-deep water. I forged ahead and found a spot with six-inch deep muck where I put it down. Mike came back.
“They came off right here,” I said, pointing at the murk. “Andrea said the same thing to me, as I recall. Did I mention these boots were from Cabela’s?”
Mike began feeling around where the right boot had sunk, and I began working where the left boot had sunk.
“Wait—that’s my boot,” he said, first to himself, and then to me, as we each grasped what we thought were my boots. I felt a sole. Before I knew it, I had brought it to the surface. It was a sole all right, but not from my boots, and there was no boot attached to it. Some long-ago caver had also lost his or her sole to the cave—or was that soul?
Finally, Mike pulled out a boot, as did I. By now each one had to weigh at least 30 pounds, so filled and encased with mud were they. I triumphantly hoisted them roofward, or as high as I could get them considering their weight. This time I waited until dry land to put them on again.
Mike both opened and closed the gate, as there was no way I could do either, given my condition. My legs felt like fence posts with nothing attached, and my hands were so cold I didn’t think I could bend them—if I could find my fingers. And that was without considering how muddy I was.
I had just been augured, then flushed down the long, complicated drain that was Harlansburg Cave, sound effects and all, and emerged into hot, humid, blinding sunlight three hours later. We caused no traffic accidents—that we knew of—as motorists sped by, probably wondering what bowel of the earth we had just emerged from. And I could tell them, if they dared stop and ask. They didn’t. And I was even wearing Cabela’s boots. The snobs.