On three consecutive weekends volunteers from the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy closed Coon Cave, Lemon Hole and Barton Cave for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as specified in our closure proposal for 2014.
The first closure was Coon Cave. We took that opportunity to do a beginner Boy Scout trip with Mark Somers and his troop from Bolivar. There were several parents and an assistant scoutmaster along as well as eight boys from the troop, plenty of adults for every child. From MAKC, Tom and Kim Metzgar and Jared Snyder and Sunni Reitmyer and their dogs Reardon and Talia showed up. Mark Doyle accompanied us to the cave as well. He, Tom and Mark Somers (who has bad knees) stayed outside for most of the trip to guard against anyone else entering so we didn’t actually have to lock ourselves in. This helped out in case one of the scouts wanted to leave earlier than the group.
I was the second human in the cave. Sunni and Talia went in (Talia’s first cave trip) and waited at the end of the water passage. Reardon scooted in and out of the lower entrance numerous times. We tied a webbing handline outside the tree at the upper entrance and I went in to help the scouts down the first short drop. A few were nervous but we made it. One boy wanted to go out, so I escorted the first half of the group through to the first breakdown room where I instructed them to wait. I escorted the child who did not like it back out. At some point Jared entered the cave, but I don’t remember when.
As more boys entered the cave I called to the waiting group and they came back and took a look at a salamander that kept creeping out from under a ledge just past the gate. The cave was dry, but not quite as dry as it was two years ago when I helped close it. (Tom and Mark Doyle did it last year).
The boys caught up with Sunni and the dogs, and all played in the water passage a bit. I think the presence of the dogs helped calm some who might have been a bit nervous. They were beginning to have a good time. When the whole group caught up I took them through the bear wallows and we went to the big room. It had taken a long time because of the size of the group and because of the nervousness of some of the kids. We took a break and the kids looked around.
Jared and Sunni took most of the group to the back while I led a boy and his dad to the formation area and we slowly made our way out. (I had been recovering from a ten-day sinus infection/cold so I was taking it easy). We had a good time and the youngster was having a very good time. I think his dad was too.
We made it out. We had been going slowly and looking at things so most of the group eventually caught up with us. I helped assist the first half of the group out of the cave. Some boys decided to try the lower entrance. Jared and Sunni assisted the back half of the group out and we were down the mountain by about 6:30. It was a beautiful September day.
Kerry Speelman and I popped up to Lemon Hole after work on Friday, September 26. No incidents, although we heard a bear off in the distance.
On Saturday, October 4, Kerry Speelman and Johnny Motto helped to close Barton Cave. I went along, but I was late, so I didn’t get to see much of the cave. Kerry and Johnny checked out the Basement as well as the Pittsburgh Passage. I spent most of my time struggling with the heavy bar to lock myself in and was making my way back when I encountered them. We had some other things to look at so we moved on to closing the bar. (I should note that the Forbes State Forest staff chains and locks the bars to the gate so we do not have to carry the heavy things to the entrances, and a staff member even meets me to loan me the keys. It is nice to be appreciated.)
Anyway, as we were closing up, I noticed that there were a number of large rocks on the inside of the gate. It was obvious to me that they had been pushed in from one side of the gate, where someone has been clearing a ledge in order to bypass the gate. I shot some video. Kerry attempted to go from the inside out, but could not quite fit. Tired from caving, he opted not to try going from the outside in. If someone cannot fit now, a few more work sessions and they should be able to fit. I shot some video that I will send to the district forester and to other DCNR staff members.
Unlike other agency gated caves, the DCNR has agreed to keep these three major caves open to recreational caving during the summer months. They all were major bat caves before the onset of White Nose Syndrome. If and when the bat population recovers, it should not be disturbed during hibernation. I hope this breach and another small space on the top of the Barton gate can be repaired to prevent this disturbance. It goes to show the importance of monitoring of the gates by the caving community, and the importance of cooperation in order to protect caves and cave inhabitants.