Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wind Cave, South Dakota

Dakotas Day 3 - Sunday July 31, 2011 (Part 2)

8:40am - We arrive at the outdoor pavilion that is the meeting place for the "Natural Entrance Tour" of Wind Cave in Wind Cave National Park. As I have said before, at this point I am a bit apprehensive at the prospect of an hour and fifteen minutes underground. I am not overly claustrophobic per se, but don't relish the prospect of terribly closed-in spaces. Having read the descriptions of this tour in the guidebooks, I am convinced that it will not be anything too strenuous or confining. Hopefully this will prove to be true. I did read one of the other tour descriptions that sent a chill down my spine - 4 hours underground on a tour that will have you crawling most of the time and squeezing through narrow openings. That is precisely what I am not looking for. I am all for adventure of the right kind, but for me that is absolutely not the right kind.

Natural entrance
There seem to be about a dozen people waiting for the ranger to show up, and the final count will end up being 14. This is a great number, as we are told that the normal size for this tour later in the day (this is the first of the morning) is closer to 40 people. After a short wait the ranger shows up and gives us some general background. All the important factual stuff can be found on the National Park Service website here, but the highlights are that Wind Cave is the fifth largest cave in the world (at the moment), with over 130 miles of explored and mapped passages and rooms, all of which are located under one square mile of the park. The amazing part is that scientists estimate that as little as 5% or so of the cave has been explored thus far. They apparently arrive at this estimate by volumetric analysis of the air movements, working backwards to how large they think the cave complex must be, and how much is known at this time. If this is true, there could be over 2,500 miles of cave down there. Which is hard to imagine.

The cave is a "breathing" cave with only one known natural entrance. By breathing, they mean that air does not go in at one place and out another, passing through the cave, but rather only goes in and out through the one opening. When the air pressure inside is higher than the pressure outside, air rushes out of the cave. When the pressure inside is lower, air rushes in. Winds in excess of 40 mph have been recorded at the opening. It is not yet 9:00am, and it is already getting hot, but at least for the first part of the day we will be nice and cool; the constant temperature in the cave is 53 degrees F year 'round. We will be longing for any shade or cool later in the day (and not finding it), but that is a story for the next post.

The actual tour itself begins with a walk past the modern man-made entrance to the one natural entrance. In the picture, it is the dark spot about the size of the rim of a cowboy hat. Perhaps 12 by 16 inches. My shadow gives a good indication of the size. Or lack of size. Which leads me back to my fear of cramped spaces... what possessed someone to wiggle down through that opening into the unknown is beyond me, but explore they did. By candle light, with no modern conveniences. Yikes. On this particular day, the pressure inside was a little bit higher, as a ribbon held at the opening by the ranger blew outward, but not excessively so.

After visiting the natural entrance, we went back the man made entrance, which a revolving door (to keep from affecting the air pressure inside), and a couple of hundred stairs down. We had what would turn out to be a very nice malfunction at this point, as the lights inside the cave were out. The ranger handed out flashlights, and down we went. And down some more.

One of the scenic highlights of the cave, and the thing for which this cave is famous, is the boxwork. Boxwork is a cave formation of crosshatched lines (shown in the picture) which are believed to form from harder mineral deposits forming in fissures in the limestone. The softer limestone erodes away, leaving only the mineral deposits. However it forms, the majority of the world's known boxwork formations are in this one cave.

The ranger told us that Wind Cave is not a wet cave, as many are, and this turned out to be true. The walk we had was mostly dry, and was entirely on a poured concrete path with ramps and stairs where needed. I guess this may have made the tour seem over-sterilized to some, but I was enough in awe of the sights that it didn't detract from the experience for me at all. Not having the electric lighting for the first half of the tour lent a much more intimate and natural feel to things. In retrospect, I wouldn't have had it any other way. They run a candlelight tour, and based on our experience, I think I would recommend that tour sight-unseen. Call it ambience or whatever, but being down in the cave with a candle or a flashlight is definitely better than being there with the whole array of "mood lighting" that the NPS has set up for the tourists.

Dave, Leo and Eric
The flashlights did also provide a running joke for the rest of the trip. Our ranger was a young lady who took the behavior of her tour members very seriously. One little boy had a habit of shining his flashlight in places that she asked him multiple times not to, like in her face and other guests' faces. By the time the flashlights were no longer necessary, she seemed about ready to stuff one up his nose. Sideways. (Personally, I think we would have stuffed it up the nose of the parents who were completely oblivious to the misbehavior of their child, but maybe that was just us...). Anyway, for the rest of the trip, any questionable behavior was met with a comment along the lines of "don't make me do horrible things to you with this flashlight, little boy".

9:50am - All too soon, we had reached the conclusion of the tour, which ended rather abruptly with our arrival at the elevator lobby that would take us back to the surface. And out we go.

I am very glad that things worked out such that all four of us were able to take this cave tour, and we weren't forced by time constraints to choose one or the other and split up. I for one would have chosen to hike a trail above ground rather than do this, and if so I would have missed something special. I am also very glad that I did not give in to my instinct to bail out and not do this tour regardless of having the time. I admit I came fairly close to doing so. I really don't like overly cramped spaces...

Next...Hiking in a much hotter place.

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