Saturday, October 24, 2009

System's Key Cave

Okay, one more big cave trip before I take a long break! (At least that's the plan.) 

At the bottom of this limestone cliff pictured above is a little hole that leads into System's Key Cave.

Here are Ben and Meg checking the map. Our goal was to go into the passage that goes underneath the nearby creek. Sounds crazy, right? Where is our cave diving gear with tanks and masks and fins and string? Well, the passage was reported to be mostly dry, but we wanted to take a look for ourselves, along with noting cave biota and installing a datalogger.

We entered through a gate. We had gotten a permit so we had a key to get in.

Near the entrance we found several land snail shells. These are terrestrial snails that usually give birth to live young. They prefer limestone habitats and are generally only active in the spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate.

Some of the ceiling in the cave was a little unsettling--a conglomerate of boulders held together by dirt and sand. We went though that part quickly. 

Here's a heliomyzid fly. They seem to like caves and will hang out even far into them.

This neat looking creature is related to Daddy-Longlegs. It's called a harvestman, and it is a top predator in the cave ecosystem, looking for little springtails to eat. We were amazed by how many harvestmen were in the cave--there were places where you could see six at one time within a couple square feet.

My camera does okay with closeups in caves, but distant photos get a bit spotty. This photo is of Meg crawling through a low passage, with her pack attached to her ankle.

Pack rats had used the cave, and here is one of the more recent nests. They bring in lots of material from outside the cave, then cement it together with their urine and excrement. Over time it becomes huge. Climate change scientists can dissect pack rat middens to find out what vegetation the pack rats brought in (the pack rats usually stay within a fairly close radius of their midden). The different vegetation types allow them to reconstruct past histories.

Here's another cool cave creature, one that is totally cave adapted, meaning it isn't found outside caves. This is a millipede, and it is white because it has lost all its pigment. It doesn't have real eyes anymore, and it's appendages are probably slightly longer than some of its cousins up on the surface because it gets around by feeling its way. And it has a slower metabolism than millipedes on the surface, taking longer to get to reproductive age. Can you imagine how many thousands of years it took to evolve to these conditions?

Here's Meg, getting ready to get on rope. After going through the mazy part at the beginning, we reached the 25 foot drop. We put on our rappeling/ascending gear and inched down the passage to the edge.

Here's Meg starting on her way down.

And she's about to go to the part where it's a free hang. 

There were some nice views of cave formations on the way down.

These are some soda straws, stalactites, and draperies.

While I was busy taking pictures, Ben and Meg were checking out the cave register. No one had signed in since 2002.

Next we got to belly crawl through a miserable passage with lots of cobble rocks that kept poking me in uncomfortable places. Finally the passage got a little larger, allowing us to crawl, and then even stoop walk.

And then we got to the part of the cave under the creek, where a small stream of water falls into a seat-like part of the rock. This is called the Waterfall Room.

Ben checked the map again, because he spotted a lead that didn't appear on the map. He disappeared for a few minutes, checking it out.

Meanwhile, I installed a datalogger to collect temperature data every few hours. We'll see if there are seasonal changes in temperature. Most caves have relatively steady temperatures, but if they have more than one opening, or are influenced by surface water, the temperatures can fluctuate more.

We then kept going down the passage and basically climbed up on the other side of the creek. But alas, there was not a human-sized entrance. We found lots of pack rat sign, so there are  probably smaller entrances. We had to retrace our steps and belly wiggles and climb up the rope to get out of the cave.

Meg's smile shows that it was all worth it. Sometime next summer we'll go back to get the datalogger, and see if anything looks different in the cave. 

3 comments:

The Incredible Woody said...

Awesome!

A said...

What an amazing trip. It looks like so much fun. Makes suburban life seem rather dull....We keep talking about taking the kids caving somewhere, anywhere. Might be a while before I get to do any vertical, though.

Chris said...

I was hoping for some photos of you in the caving gear and wondering how the belly crawling was going.

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