INTO THE DARK PAM Le­bLAnC Spelunk in the raw abyss of Kick­apoo Cav­ern

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE&ARTS - Pam Le­Blanc

Marcy Stell­fox and state parks ranger Seth Frerich walk along the rocky trail of Kick­apoo Cav­ern. It’s slow go­ing with­out handrails or built-in lights, and there are plenty of spi­ders to move around.

K ICKAPOO CAV­ERN STATE PARK — I’ve been scram­bling over tee­ter­ing rocks and clat­tery stones in this un­der­ground hidey-hole for the past hour, on a quest to dis­cover my in­ner spe­lunker. Now I’m plopped on a smooth, cool hunk of lime­stone in­side Kick­apoo Cav­ern, about to switch off the foot-long Maglite that’s been cut­ting a swath through the gloom.

This hasn’t been your typ­i­cal jaunt into a com­mer­cial­ized cave.

There is no rib­bon of smooth, wide side­walk to fol­low. No lights to il­lu­mi­nate for­ma­tions cre­ated by eons of drip­ping wa­ter. No el­e­va­tor to carry you back to ground zero when you’re done ex­plor­ing, à la Carls­bad Cav­erns in New Mex­ico. Not even a handrail.

In­stead, my friend Marcy Stell­fox and I dropped into a Volk­swa­gen-sized gap in the hard-baked Texas land­scape, ducked to avoid vi­brat­ing clus­ters of daddy lon­g­leg spi­ders, then forged our own paths as we fol­lowed park ranger Seth Frerich into the quar­ter­mile-long hole in the ground.

Kick­apoo Cav­ern is just one of 20 known caves in the park.

It takes time and a lim­ber body to ne­go­ti­ate its in­te­rior. There’s no belly crawl­ing re­quired, but the ter­rain is rugged, and the wild cave tour isn’t for ev­ery­one.

Vis­i­tors must sign a li­a­bil­ity re­lease. They also need proper hik­ing boots and two light sources.

So far, the trek has ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tions which, hon­estly, weren’t very high.

We picked our way over a jum­bled heap of stone blocks, or break­down, that was once part of the cave’s ceil­ing.

It was a test of bal­ance to nav­i­gate. We crept along, arms out­stretched, like we were

travers­ing a foot­ball field cov­ered by teeter tot­ters. Now and then I squat­ted low and grabbed a rock so I didn’t fall.

I vis­ited Carls­bad just last year, where I was wowed by tow­er­ing speleothems, for­ma­tions cre­ated by min­er­als in wa­ter that seeps through the cave. But Carls­bad is so touristy, so ac­ces­si­ble, so san­i­tized, that it feels a lit­tle like an un­der­ground Dis­ney­land. Not Kick­apoo. This cave’s col­lec­tion of sta­lag­mites, which grow from the ground up, and sta­lac­tites, which look like a tan­gle of tree roots cling­ing to the ceil­ing, are sur­pris­ingly im­pres­sive. The cave even has he­lic­tites, rarer for­ma­tions which don’t grow only up or down, but ev­ery which way, thanks to a lit­tle help from air cur­rents.

There’s also an 80-foot col­umn, thick as a red­wood tree trunk, in one of the cave’s vast rooms. It’s the largest such known for­ma­tion — cre­ated by the meet­ing of a sta­lag­mite and a sta­lac­tite — in a Texas cave.

En­list your imag­i­na­tion and you’ll see even more.

On the way back to our cur­rent perch at the back of the cave, Frerich pointed out fea­tures that re­sem­ble an ele­phant, strips of ba­con, a cas­tle, a gnome and Bob Mar­ley. That in­spired me and Stell­fox to dis­cover a few min­er­al­ized high­lights of our own, in­clud­ing what looked like a wet T-shirt slapped on the wall.

Old graf­fiti — some dat­ing as far back as the 1880s — is carved into rocks in the belly of the cave. Back then, vis­i­tors car­ried flam­ing torches to light their way. Black, soot-stained patches on the wall still mark where they stashed the torches while they ex­plored.

On the count of three, we turn off our flash­lights, and the place goes dark.

Even af­ter a minute, I can’t see my hand in front of my face — or any creepy crawlies that might be loi­ter­ing close at hand.

Col­lec­tively, we imag­ine what it would be like to try to find our way out in the dark.

It’s so quiet my ears tin­gle. And cool, too, even though tem­per­a­tures out­side are close to 90. Frerich tells us the cave stays at 68 de­grees year-round, with 90 per­cent hu­mid­ity.

The cav­ern is part of what was once the Seargeant Ranch, acquired by the state in 1986. The 6,368-acre par­cel was opened to the pub­lic on a limited ba­sis in 1991, but you had to call ahead to ar­range a visit, or sign up for a guided tour.

Ear­lier this sum­mer, Texas Parks and Wildlife launched the next phase of the park’s ex­is­tence, un­veil­ing new hik­ing trails, open­ing a camp­ground and pic­nic ar­eas and invit­ing the pub­lic to come ex­plore when­ever they want.

Be­sides the wild cave tours, which are of­fered by reser­va­tion only on Satur­days, the park is known for its bat pop­u­la­tion. From April through Septem­ber, a colony of more than half a mil­lion Brazil­ian free-tailed bats swoops out of Stu­art Bat Cave, which is slightly smaller than Kick­apoo Cav­ern, on a nightly mis­sion to feast on in­sects.

The bird watch­ing is good, too. Gray vireo, var­ied bunting and Montezuma quail are spot­ted here, and the park is home to the en­dan­gered black-capped vireo and golden cheeked war­bler.

We flick our lights back on, and the stony re­lief of the cave pops back into view.

We make our way back over the tippy floor, and in an­other 30 min­utes we see the shaft of light at the cave’s en­trance.

Feel­ing a lit­tle like Alice in Won­der­land, we crawl back through the hole, and Frerich locks the grate be­hind us.

Back up into re­al­ity.

Pam le­Blanc

State parks ranger Seth Frerich ex­its from the gate to Kick­apoo Cav­ern af­ter lead­ing a tour. Bring hik­ing boots and two light sources be­fore en­ter­ing the cave in the state park by the same name.

Kick­apoo Cav­ern pro­vides a va­ri­ety of cave for­ma­tions, in­clud­ing col­umns, sta­lac­tites and sta­lag­mites. One even looks like Bob Mar­ley.

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