Mud by any other name would still smell as sweet

By Jeff Jahn

Finally, a little bit of luck as Kim’s scheduled survey trip to Harlansburg Cave for Saturday March 7th was a go and I did not have any conflicts for that date. I’ve missed a few of these trips, but Kim Metzgar is on a mission to continue this project and I was eager to tag along and assist on the ongoing re-mapping of this complex mazy cave. Besides Kim and myself, there were four others on the trip including Phil Gowaty and Jared Snyder from MAKC and Hope Brooks and Eric Pelkey from Nittany Grotto.

The weather was still quite cold and the remnants of ice and snow piles were evident as we arrived at the meeting place near the Scott Township VFD facility. This was my first time here so it was quite interesting that we suited up in the parking lot and then proceeded to walk down along the side of highway 108 to the gated entrance that literally looked so much like an overgrown storm drain. And saying we walked along the side of the road is a misnomer as the ice and snow pretty much covered the berm and as a result we used the road as our walkway. We must have looked pretty odd to those that drove by us that day.

Two teams of three were formed as we proceeded into the cave. Kim’s plan for the day was to continue to do some loop surveys with a goal of approaching an area known as the “Big Room”. Kim felt certain we could avoid any significant water and mud by maneuvering around and keeping on some of the higher ground passages.

We did some initial reconnaissance and the feeling was the water levels were less than usual ….. a good sign. Soon the decision was made to head to the Glow Room which is a nice size room off the main passage into the cave. The name comes from the reflective algae/fungal growth that line the ceiling of this room and kind of glows when light is put on it. From the Glow Room we crawled through some tight passages and then entered another room. Kim laid out a nice size working map for reference and then we began to search and locate some station markers to get oriented. This was a challenge in such an active cave because even if you could locate a station marker chances were more than likely it would be illegible to read.

After a bit of trial and error, we did locate a station on a nub of a sidewall near where we wanted to pick up the survey. Both teams started surveying from this point, one upstream and one downstream, each with intent of mapping loops which is typical of this mazy passage system where the joints and cross cuts all co-mingle together.

I was on the team with Hope, our sketcher, and Eric. Eric set stations and I read the instruments. No need to do back sights here as we were going to tie in by closing loops as we surveyed. Unfortunately we soon realized our team did not have a protractor or scale for sketching and instead Hope had to settle for using a Suunto instrument to plot the sketch. Not sure how she did it but somehow she managed to sketch using what amounted to using a sledge hammer to pound finish nails in a picture frame.

Now I knew Harlansburg has a reputation for mud and while everyone was saying things looked pretty dry today, that comfort didn’t last long as we headed to survey our first loop. The mud was boot sucking sticky and while at first we could avoid the worst of it, it soon became apparent that being in up to knee deep oozing mud was the norm rather the exception. But we proceeded along just fine enjoying the ambiance of mud and occasionally hearing Hope yell out as she wrangled with the Suunto protractor.

After a couple of hours, we looped back to a point and hooked up with the other team. Turns out we both had surveyed a couple of hundred feet of passage. At this point, we decided to call it a day. We ended up being close to the Big Room and after finishing up the final shots and sketching headed out of the cave at the same time picking up various trash, mainly in the form of string and other markers left by cavers wanting to avoid getting lost in the mazy juggle gym. And sure enough, we even got turned around a couple of times on the way out, despite the fact that Phil, Jared and Kim all had plenty of experience with these cave passages.

Phil and Jared went about locking the gates while the rest of us started back to the cars. Locking the gate proved quite a challenge too as the cold weather had everything frozen over good.
The temperature had warmed up a bit since we entered the cave so the walk back up the cars ended up being more a walk on muddy slop running along the side of the road as the snow and ice started melting ….. not a whole lot different than the slop in the cave come to think of it.

It was a great trip and I felt good about having finally experienced some of the best that Harlansburg Cave has to offer. And while everyone assured me that the mud we saw today was nothing like mud in other sections of the cave where it exceeds waist level, I now know what to expect and look forward to coming back to continue the survey work and embrace the sweet smell of mud. Only request I have is that we wait until the outside temperature at least gets above freezing.