Coon Cave Closing

By Kim Metzgar

Every year the MAKC helps the Forbes State Forest with management of Coon Cave, Lemon Hole and Barton Cave. These are gated caves. The DCNR’s mission is different than that of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and actually includes recreation. So, in exchange for allowing the caves to be open from Memorial Day to the end of September each year, the DCNR asks us to go in and “clear the caves.” This means we lock ourselves in (or station an entrance guard), check the passages to make sure no one else is inside, then close the cave for the year.
A DCNR employee, Don Stiffler, meets me every year, actually hand-delivering the keys to my place of work. I then take the keys back to the forestry office in Laughlintown.
Anyway, we scheduled Coon Cave for the first closing of the year, on Saturday, September 30. I had just “met” via Facebook, Kevin Yurik, a new caver from Ellwood City, who brought his son and daughter. A cousin of mine, Doug Lingsch, was going to take his daughter and some young Mennonites who were in the Johnstown area to volunteer at a Mennonite School, to Bear Cave. We emailed, and I told him that we’d be at the parking lot at 10 a.m. for the Coon trip and would be happy to give them a lift up the hill. Once we described the cave to him, the five decided to join us instead. Dennis Melko showed up to assist, while Tom Metzgar and Mark Doyle did some surface hiking. Kerry Speelman joined Mark for hiking later.
I have always enjoyed Coon Cave. But after making a LOT of trips there to do the map, even though it was years ago, sometimes it takes a while for me to be able to actually enjoy going back to a cave again for purely recreational purposes.
My trip report to the state says Dennis and I escorted ten new cavers. But now, a little over two months later, as I write this, I cannot remember if Dennis and I were in that ten or if there are two people whom I have forgotten to name. I apologize if so.
We assisted everyone down the entrance drops and Dennis and Kevin worked to get the bar of the gate in place to “close” it behind us. Of course there happened to be some poop just on the other side of the gate. Dennis thoughtfully placed the removable bar from the gate overtop the poop so that when we crawled through the gate we did not have to crawl in the poop.
I had assured everyone that just a few years ago, during a very dry fall, the cave had been bone dry (honest, it had), and that it was likely, as dry as it had been this past year, that we may experience low water levels again. The gauge is how close to the gate the first pool gets. The sloshing I heard as I crawled through the opening was not a good sign. Of course, it was the usual knee deep wading.
I don’t mind water caves, but since we had a good many new cavers with us, it took a little coaching to get everyone through. Kevin’s son was a big help, as was Kevin, as well as Doug and Dennis.
I once again forgot to take a cave register book for the empty cave register. While the program is pretty much out of commission, we still have a few books and the state likes to keep track of visitation. But the tube is empty.
We scanned the cave for any sign of bats, or, sadly, BAT, but found not a single one. Generally at this time of year the bats are preparing for hibernation. But Coon Cave had been heavily hit with White Nose Syndrome. A few years ago the entrance passage was filled with the tiny skeletons of bats who didn’t make it.
With its water passages, the cave is a little bit cooler than most Loyalhanna Limestone caves, and thus is (or was) an excellent hibernaculum.
While waiting for everyone to slowly negotiate the deepest part of the water passage, I told everyone about the bear wallows we were about to crawl through. We made it through those uneventfully, with no bears in sight.
Once through, into the Pendant Room area, the paleo stream had a bit of water in it. The cave was pretty clean, except for a few places where visitors over the summer had made handprints on the walls in one area, and written their names in mud. I wiped those smooth to discourage others from doing so. A few years ago when a group was doing that in Bear Cave, the dead skin from their hands had caused fungus to grow in the grooves caused by their fingers. So it’s always a good idea to wear gloves, to prevent such instances. There was no litter in the cave. That always makes me happy.
Since there were a lot of young, energetic cavers on the trip, I took my time as we entered the Big Room, and encouraged them to scramble through the room any way they liked: over the big rocks, on the right side, on the left, and to poke in some of the side passages. It was nice to see the entire room lit up with the lights of the explorers. Some members of the group were a bit timid at first. But then they really started to have fun. I sat down on a bank and chatted with Dennis.
Eventually the group gathered to prepare to go the Back Room. They had had so much fun exploring around the Big Room I decided to let them lead to the Back Room, and followed at a leisurely distance, just enjoying the cave without having to rush.
I lingered just within earshot, listening to their comments about what they were finding. They slowly made their way back out of the Back Room to where I had been poking around.
Once the group gathered in the Big Room again, I told them we were going to do a little side exploration, wanting to share the formation area with them.
We moved through some crawlways and dropped into more walking passage. I showed them the column, then we proceeded to the bacon. Cameras came out and everyone took their time, relaxing and laying on the ground in order to look up and see what was on the ceiling.
After taking our time in this beautiful area, we slowly made our way back. Kevin’s son Dominick stuck around to help everyone up the entrance climbs Kevin and Dennis had removed the bar to allow for our exit, and then put it back into place, closing everything up for the season. The area above the entrance is tramped down a bit, so there is some use, and there was a pile of wood for someone who had wanted a fire. We didn’t have time to scatter it. Given how remote the area is, a fire in the dry woods would not be a good idea. We enjoyed a truck ride down, serenaded by the beautiful voices of the Mennonites.