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Eben Ice Cave

Eben Ice Cave.  The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes.  This cold winter was great for ice formation!

Eben Ice Cave. The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes. This cold winter was great for ice formation!

This winter, everyone was talking about the Lake Superior ice caves up in Bayfield, Wisconsin.  I thought about going, even tentatively planned to go, and then it got so popular that they were seeing crowds of 10,000 or more on the weekends!  I visited the Apostle Islands last summer, and had had the opportunity to kayak out to those “sea caves” in a small group.  I thought that it would be pretty neat to see them frozen, but that the huge crowds might detract from my enjoyment of wild nature.  Of course, if this weather keeps up, the big lake will stay frozen all summer and I’ll get to go see them in July…  just kidding!

Instead of making the three-hour drive to Bayfield, I took a 1.5-hour trip to Eben, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, south of Munising.  There is a rock overhang there surrounded by seeps which turns into an “ice cave” of its own every winter.  On the day we visited (slightly warmer than average for this winter), there were maybe 150 other people there while we were, including the half-mile hike in and out.  It was quite windy and lightly snowing, which meant that this 3/4 mile through the woods was infinitely more pleasant that a half mile out on the open ice of Lake Superior would have been!  The cave itself included spectacular formations, and was well worth the visit!

From the inside, looking out

From the inside, looking out

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

 

 

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

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The cave is on public land, but within a federally-designated wilderness area, which means no motorized use is allowed. The access is on private land, thanks to a generous landowner.  From the tiny town of Eben, small signs point the way to the parking lot.  Someone, perhaps the landowner or perhaps the Forest Service, had set up portable toilets for the crowds to use, and a donation box for them, and there was a small private concession stand in the parking area as well.  The first part of the walk parallels the snowmobile trail across an open farm field, and after that it enters the Hiawatha National Forest, Rock River Wilderness.

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

More ice forming...

More ice forming…

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

National Forest Wilderness Areas are intended to be managed free of human input, so no vegetation management (eg: timber harvest, trail clearing) is allowed, and there are no facilities for those recreating in the area.  For me, this makes for an ideal adventure.  There were plenty of down trees for my dog to jump over and under, side trails to explore (if the snow weren’t so deep…), steep ravines, and old-growth trees.  It is a beautiful hike, but will take some effort!  Snowshoes are likely to be unnecessary, since the trail is so well-packed, especially on weekends.  Ice cleats (or commercial ice-walking grips) are highly recommended… but we didn’t have them and didn’t feel that we needed them, either.  [Note to readers: three weeks ago I slipped on ice and broke my leg, so I advise that you do as I say, not as I do!]

Check out that slippery floor!  It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

Check out that slippery floor! It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

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A Delectable History Lesson

When planning this road trip to Tennessee, I soon came to the conclusion that a stop at a historic whisky distillery would have to be on the itinerary.   It turns out that one could plan an entire vacation around top-of-the-line bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.  I’m partial to bourbon, but Jack Daniels is…well…Jack. The trip wound up including two separate visits – one to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg TN and the other to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort KY.  Both were excellent, though different.  And I’m looking forward to that whisk(e)y-centric tour someday!

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IMG-20131026-00676_2The Jack Daniels distillery is located in historic Lynchburg, TN, at the south-eastern end of the farm country that extends between Nashville and the Cumberland Plateau. It is in Moore County, which was originally part of Lincoln County.  All of this geography matters more than you might think.  I won’t give everything away, just put it in context.  The fine whiskey produced by “Mr. Jack” was a result of having an excellent source of water from the limestone spring coming out of the hills, a ready source of grain nearby, white oak and sugar maple trees for the barrels and charcoal-filtering, and temperature fluctuations to mature (or “season!”) the spirits.  Of course, there were plenty of stills, legal and otherwise, in these hills, and they all used the “Lincoln County Process” of filtering the raw whisky through charcoal before barreling.  What really made JD into the brand it is today was the pride of its founder and subsequent owners and master distillers.  It all started in 1866 when Jack Daniels became the first man to register a distillery in the United States.

I had originally planned to visit Jack Daniels on a Sunday, but plans changed and I wound up arriving there late Saturday morning.  On a typical October weekend, this might not have been a problem, but this particular day was the annual meeting of the World Barbeque Invitational.  Everything took a little (or a lot) longer than would be typical.  Word to the wise: check the events calendar before you go!  I got registered for a “sampling” tour, then walked around the historic town square, fighting my way through crowds in the gift shops, for a while.  Moore County is a dry county.  According to the story we were told, the population of the county was too low to achieve the minimum number of votes needed to vote themselves “wet” after Prohibition ended.  When, a few years back, the law was changed to allow a percentage vote, residents decided to maintain the status quo, in order to keep Lynchburg and its surroundings a family-friendly environment (aka tourist trap).  Nonetheless, a small amount of whiskey may be consumed during the sampling tour, in the interest of educating visitors about the aging process.  Other stops included the fermenting vats (wow, that mash smells strong!), seeing the original stills, witnessing the filtration process, and a small barrel warehouse.  Most of these are also included on the standard tour, which probably would have been sufficiently informative.  In either case, it is definitely worth the trip.

The tour started with a visit to the "Rickyard" where white oak is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The tour started with a visit to the “Rickyard” where sugar maple is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel's distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave.  The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel’s distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave. The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

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The Jack Daniel’s grounds are on a hill, with buildings on different levels, overseen by the Sugar Maples that give Tennessee whiskey its distinctive flavor.

Mammoth Cave

I found myself winding through the hill country south of Louisville as the sun began to set.  There was no need to get off onto side roads – the scenery was amazing from the highway (and the same was true on the trip back north through Lexington).  I was having trouble deciphering the Kentucky State Park campground information, so decided to spend the night at Mammoth Cave National Park.  After a sub-freezing night among the oaks in the campground, I decided to wake up early, pack up quickly, and get in line for the first cave tour of the day.  The second accidental detour of the trip was another wonderful experience!

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The park was busier than I would have expected for a weekday in October, and the tour I was hoping to take sold out with the customer in front of me.  After chatting with the very helpful park staff, I decided on the “Historic” tour, which was also enjoyable.  After my limited experience, I would recommend that you not visit the park as I did!  Plan to spend two full days, and include some above-ground hikes and maybe two different cave tours, one each day.  It really is an amazing natural wonder, and worth a little bit more attention!

The lobby at the park was lovely - a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture.  The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

The lobby at the park was lovely – a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture. The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

Mammoth Cave, unlike many of the other “show caves,” is largely a “dead,” or dry cave.  That is, in most of the cave there are no showy stalactites and stalagmites, no pretty colors with minerals trapped in the calcite, or water dripping into pools.  In fact, as the Historic tour showcases, the cave was dry enough to have had many uses throughout history.  The cave was carved as a channel of the Green River passed underground, eating away at the limestone in the process.  Over millennia, the above-ground river carved a deeper and deeper passage through its valley, and the altitude of the underground portion of the river decreased accordingly.  This created several layers of passages, connected by vertical tunnels, and in the lowest of these, the river continues to flow today (in the cave, they call it the River Styx).   As a result, Mammoth Cave is, with 365 miles of known passages, twice as long as any other cave in the world!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

It is possible to take a hike through the oak- and maple-dominated upland to the point where the River Styx comes out of the ground and re-joins the main Green.  I wish I would have taken that hike, as well as one to areas of the park which contain older-growth forest.  If you go, spend more time than I did, and tell me all about what I missed!

Just one more thing to see…

Nov 5, 2010

Miles 9071-9133

Silver Hill, AR – Mountain View, AR

The previous night, around the fire at the Buffalo River, someone had inquired whether I was going to “the Caverns” or not.

“Uh…,” I replied, “I hadn’t planned on it.  What is it?”

The group went on to explain to me that Blanchard Springs Caverns, within the Ozark National Forest, was an attraction not to be missed on any trip to the Ozarks, so I figured I’d stop by there on my way out the next morning.

When I pulled into the parking lot that morning, it was already full of cars and school busses, and I was told that it would be a while before I could get onto a shuttle to the cave’s entrance.  Pretty popular for a Friday in November.  I went to check out a small hiking area to the spring’s outlet while I was waiting, to keep from shivering in the frosty fall morning.  I nearly decided not to pay the $10 admission fee for the cave proper, but decided on one last splurge  – and it was certainly worth it!

A short waterfall at the outlet of Blanchard Springs

Ceiling of the cavern at the outlet

Blanchard Springs Caverns formed as a byproduct of the same geological forces that created the rest of the Ozarks.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, an inland sea covered the central United States, including Arkansas, and laid down millennia of sediment on the ocean floor, including tons of calcium deposits from decomposing shells and bones.  That sediment was compressed by the weight of the water above it, and when the ocean receded it became the newly-exposed bedrock, composed largely of limestone.  After that, but still hundreds of millions of years ago, the earth shifted and lifted up the crust of what is now northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.  This is known as uplift, and it is what created the Ozark Dome – see my previous posts for some pictures of relics of this.  As water rolled downhill from this plateau, it naturally sought out cracks in rocks, and wore away softer minerals from on top of and within the stone.  Millennia of this process created the steeply rolling topography of the Ozarks as we see them today.   Eventually, in much more recent geologic time (but still tens of thousands of years ago), the trickling water began wearing away the softer stone under the bedrock in what was to become the Caverns.  At this point, the water was able to tap into the source of a natural spring, which gave it a quick outlet from the interior of the rock.  This increased the speed and quantity of water coming through, and the water’s erosion of the limestone intensified as well.  Over time, the amount of water flowing through decreased, leaving empty cavernous rooms under the bedrock.  In places, the ceilings collapsed once the support of the water was removed; in others they became sturdier as the rock walls shored them up.  Small amounts of water continued to pass through, eroding and depositing minerals as it went, creating the Blanchard Springs Caverns as we know them today.

The “Dripstone Tour” takes visitors past the most dazzling of the cave formations, or speleothems as they are technically known.   Blanchard Springs Caverns is an “active” cave, which means that the formations are still growing as water is still dripping through.  The $10 fee includes a shuttle to the

The "Curtains" formation was as thin as potato chips

cave entrance, a short lecture on cave formation and history, a self-guided tour recording, and the elevator back up to the top.  You can get through it in an hour or spend all day in the dark, humid, 58-degree depths.  In the summertime, two other, more extensive (and expensive) tours are offered, but the Dripstone was my only option in November.  While there were plenty of other people down there with me, it never felt really crowded – that might be different in the heavy tourist season, so I felt lucky in my timing.  I’m not going to both saying any more about the cave, because my photos can probably explain it better.  I don’t have equipment for fancy cave photography, but good theatrical lighting helped me out, and my photos turned out better than expected.  To get a really good look at the place, you’ll have to visit for yourself!

Baby stalactites grew from the ceiling until the water in this area stopped flowing and they became inactive.

The variety of formations in the cave was astounding!

The enormous cavern, before descending the stairs to walk among the formations.

These forked stalacmites looked just like saguaro cacti - not everyone is lucky enough to see them at Blanchard Springs less than a month after walking among the real thing!

The ceiling in the cave, where it hadn't collapsed, was almost perfectly flat - the underside of the Ozark bedrock I had seen at King's Bluff a few days before.

A visit to any cave these days requires some mention of the bats that inhabit it.  The Blanchard Springs Caverns is the only cave currently open to the public on any National Forest, and visitors who have visited another cave or expect to are required to sterilize their shoes and change clothing before entering this one.  The reason for all of this security is the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that is devastating bat populations across North America.  I’ve touched on it in a past post, and for more information on the latest research, the official web page is a great source: http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/.  I won’t say more about it now, but I have plans to devote an entire future post to the subject, so stay tuned.

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

October 18, 2010

Mile 6954

Carlsbad, NM

Twenty-four hours after strolling in shorts and a tank top in the hills of Tucson, I woke to a chilly morning in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, the crisp, near-freezing air and pine trees around me a welcome break from the hot deserts.  [Thanks Gordons!]  Within hours, however, I was back down in the dusty towns east of the mountains, on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

In the far southeastern corner of the state, on the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains, lies Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  First explored by Native American Indians over millennia ago, white settlers discovered a portion of the cavern in the 1800s, and investigated it in the early 20th century.  It became a National Monument in 1924 and a National Park in 1930.  I don’t have specific statistics on it, but I would bet that it is one of the most-visited parks, over time.  This is particularly impressive, given that the cave is largely in pretty good condition.  Visitors used to enter on a long, long staircase, but there are now elevators to the cave level, and hand-held tour narratives for the “Big Room.”  The alternative is to walk down a concrete ramp from the gaping “natural entrance” to the cave, which closes a few hours before sunset so as not to interfere with the bats that use it to enter and exit the cave.   I got lucky and arrived just in time to go through the Natural Entrance.  Since I was the last one in for the day, and mid-week October is a low season for tourism, I had the cave to myself for most of my descent from daylight to the dimly-lit formations of the caverns below.  As far as what I saw there, I’ll let the photos do the talking, even though my point-and-shoot camera can’t do justice to the sights! 



The National Park isn’t only about the below-ground attractions, and I was able to see some pretty interesting things even with my limited time on-site.  I was able to note where a flash flood had flattened vegetation and torn up brush, and beyond that was an overhang used as a rockshelter by Native Americans.  I wish I’d had more time to spend in the park, as the late Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Chihuahuan Desertfall flowers were in bloom and it would have been nice to explore the longer hiking trails and wilderness areas.

After touring the cave, though, I only had about 45 minutes to kill before the evening Bat Flight program began.  We visitors gathered in the outdoor amphitheater just above the Natural Entrance, and an interpretive ranger discussed bat facts and answered questions until the spectacle started: Mexican (sometimes known as Brazilian) Free-Tailed Bats began to pour from the cave and fly toward the valley and plains to the south.  I stuck around and watched for just under an hour – we were told that it might take hours for the million-plus bats to empty from the cave for their evening meal of flying insects from the fields below.  It was impressive to watch: at first glance, it seemed like a disorderly exodus, but, as I watched, order took shape in the flight patterns.  The bats flew out of the cave and turned to the right, circling counter-clockwise around the “roundabout” in front of the Entrance until there was a “lane” free to head up and over the lip of the mountain that separated the cave entrance from the vast plains of southeast New Mexico (and Texas beyond).  I was thoroughly impressed by the capabilities of bat sonar, as the Mexican Free-Tails consistently avoided even the thinnest grass and agave stems despite being crowded into a narrow area. Photography isn’t allowed in the amphitheater, but if you check out the links above, they have some photo and video of the Carlsbad bat flight.

Bats are truly amazing and unique creatures!  That is why the recent spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among hibernating bats is such a devastating issue.  Check a future post for more information on this disease!