Thursday, July 05, 2018

Lewis and Clark Caverns (June 26)

We left quite early on Tuesday morning so that we could make it up to Lewis and Clark Caverns with enough time to go on a tour and make the drive to Great Falls (where we had a hotel booked). The children were really wonderful little travelers. I mean, sure, we may have plied Zoë with fruit snacks and screen time...but she didn't scream the whole way so it was well worth it!

The other kids had their fair share of treats and screens as well, but we also played some car games and read books and looked out the window. But, man, those screens are as good as having a divider between the children. No fights broke out in the backseat at all!

When I wasn't tossing snacks at the kids in the backseat, I mostly busied myself by watching the prairies and mountains roll by my windows. I always bring a book to read but am also always far too fascinated by the scenery to do so. 

We were stopped for a while, waiting for a pilot car to lead us through some one-way construction mess, and all these birds started congregating on the fence (having watched Hitchcock's The Birds, we were all a little worried.
I've been up and down this stretch of I-15 so many times I've lost count. I love the familiarity of the drive—knowing that I'm coming up on my favourite rock formation or what have you—but I also liked delving into the unexplored a bit, as we did this time.

We got off I-15 at Dillon and headed up towards Whitehall on MT-41, which was new to all of us. There was some pretty crazy construction going on, so we were crawling along gravel roads for a while. At Whitehall there was a welcome sign that said, "Our children are not angels. Please keep them that way. Drive safely." We thought that was kind of funny; there was a lot of small town charm in the small towns we passed through!

When we turned down MT-2 towards the Lewis and Clark Caverns we all gasped in amazement. The Jefferson River ran alongside us and slanting hills* rose all around us. It was mesmerizing. 

* Maybe the London Hills West? I can't really find the name of the range the Lewis and Clark Caverns is on/in. This says it's the Tobacco Root Mountains, but that seems to be south of the caves on the map...

The visitor's center for the park itself is at the bottom of the mountain. We ran in to pay our $6 fee, use the restrooms, and snap some pictures of the children pretending to be wild west criminals:

Then we drove up to the cavern visitor's center, which was comprised of a series of hairpin turns. The sign for them looked like a U-turn. 

Once at the top we were able to purchase our tickets for a spelunking tour. While we waited for our appointed time, I fed Alexander while Andrew wandered around with the kids and took a few pictures.


Soon we started on the hike up to the entrance of the cave. Andrew dawdled along with Zoë while I kept up a somewhat zippy pace with Benjamin (and Alexander). Rachel and Miriam wandered between our two parties at will.


It was obviously a beautiful day

Zoë and Andrew walking up the trail
Due to a colony of Western Big-Eared bats, we were supposed to be very quiet while we waited for our entire company to reach the entrance to the cave. This was rather difficult for some of our party, but we managed to mostly keep quiet. We were also supposed to be quiet and not use the flash of our camera for the first half of the tour since we were tromping through the bats' home. Alexander was so awed with his new surroundings that he kept making screeching baby noises, which echoed through the cave. I did my best to shush him but he simply would not be quiet until we'd about reached the halfway point of the tour and could be loud again. At this point he promptly fell asleep and didn't make a peep until we had already exited the cave. Silly boy!

We only saw one bat, and the rest of the kids did really well at following the rules, even if they were rather timid spelunkers. I had to basically drag poor Rachel into the cave (and she was quite happy when the tour was over), but she eventually resigned herself to our two-hour tour.

Her fear of caves is only slightly irrational. I'm not quite sure when it started, but she's been afraid of caves for most of her life. When we went to Florida with Andrew's parents, she hated every ride at Disney World and/or Universal Studios where the line weaved through a cave or a mine (so ET at Universal Studios, for example).

Perhaps she simply had bad memories from her first cave tour, at the tender age of four. All I know is she did fine at Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns but has pitched a fit at the mere mention of a cave ever since. She only agreed to go on this tour with us after we promised her (for the thousandth time) that the cave was in no immediate danger of collapsing.

Rachel looking brave, but also concerned, while clutching the railing with all of her might (other kids in the background, obviously)
Caves are otherworldly, or at least under-worldly. They're disorienting and completely foreign. This makes them intriguing but also dangerous, so I can't say that I blame Rachel for being afraid.

In October 2002, my cousin Eric (with four of his friends) were trapped in Gargantua Cave** overnight when they'd repelled down to the waterfall exit of the cave only to find it impenetrably frozen over. My aunt was very happy that she'd convinced Eric to take extra granola bars and an emergency blanket on his little adventure. He'd rolled his eyes at her and insisted they wouldn't need extra supplies, but she insisted that they were only small things and it wouldn't hurt to have them along.

** I edited this Wikipedia page, by the way! I don't think it's my first time. I'm pretty sure it is, in fact, my second time. The link to the news story was dead so I updated it with another source. So that's my claim to fame for the day.

The boys were all very happy when Eric whipped out his emergency blanket. They took turns wrapping up in it all night long to try to keep warm. I'm sure the extra granola bars came in handy, too.

That experience was terrifying enough for all of us spectators and they weren't even stuck in the cave for a full 24 hours! I can hardly imagine what the families of the twelve boys in Thailand are going through right now. It took nine days to find them (not nine hours, as it was for my cousin) and they're still sitting in the cave because rescuing them is proving to be rather difficult. With the caves currently flooded, they either have to wait for months before the waters recede enough, or they'll have to scuba dive out of the cave (which will mean they'll have to learn how to scuba dive). It's a very complicated and tense situation all around.


 So Rachel was right to be scared. Caves are scary. But our guide on this cave tour was great and there are lights installed all along the path and so we were just fine.

Hundreds of stairs are carved directly into the limestone floor of the cave itself, while others were crafted out of limestone concrete by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal. Each stair took days to complete, apparently.

The caverns have an interesting history of being "discovered" by a couple of hunters from Whitehall one winter day when they saw "smoke" rising from the mountain (aboriginal groups had known about the cave for some time previous to this). It was simply steam from the warmer interior of the cave, which maintains a relatively stable temperature year-round. Several years later they finally explored the caverns and then began giving tours, but the railway company claimed ownership, and then gave it to the federal government who passed it to the state government because no one really wanted to take care of it. For a while it was "operated" by Yellowstone, but since it was so far away they just locked it up. All this time the original discoverer had been giving under-the-table tours of the cave, cutting the locks to take crowds through. Eventually it was developed and now it's one of the most popular (and the oldest) state park in Montana.

 There was quite a lot of crouching and "duck-walking" that we had to do (and which I had to do with Alexander strapped to my front), but our favourite part was "the beaver slide." We actually had to sit down and slide through a little tunnel. It was pretty cool (though I had to basically push Rachel through it).

Here's Miriam heading down the slide, with Rachel waiting at the top:

And here's Zoë sliding down, with Andrew taking up the lead (Benjamin, you can rest assured, was clinging to my leg through most of this tour, so there aren't many pictures of him but he was definitely very much around):

Here's Rachel's I'm-so-proud-of-myself/I'm-never-doing-that-again face:

We have so many pictures from inside the cave. I'm not really sure which ones to include...

Our guide was rather funny and rather observant. He made some joke about something terrible happening in the cave, but only to visitors wearing "Gap Girl" hoodies. Miriam was wearing a Gap Girl hoodie.

He also noticed when someone got dripped on and quipped, "You can never leave. You're part of the cave now." Because, you know, dripping water is how stalactites and stalagmites are formed. The average growth rate of limestone stalactites is a mere 0.13 mm (0.0051 inches) a year, so that one misplaced drip could have really set back whatever growth that speleothem was trying to make!

The guide chatted a lot with Benjamin, fielding all of his hows, whys, and what-ifs with phenomenal patience. Everyone in our tour group very kindly let Benjamin (and me and Alexander and the rest of our crew) follow right behind the guide because we had the smallest people with us. I don't remember anything particular that he said to Benjamin (except for the fact that stingrays can grow bigger than people (because stingrays are a totally normal conversation topic deep inside a cave)).

This is the Bridal Veil formation (I remember that much)
 At the end of the cave, in the Paradise Room, there's a formation cream...something. I can't remember. But it's brown on one side and white on the other side. So our guide said something about how a little girl named Zoë had been siting on top of the column, eating a chocolate-vanilla ice cream twist but she couldn't eat it fast enough and it dribbled all down the sides.

Zoë, who is always quick to express her indignation, gasped and said, "But I am Zoë!"

That made everyone laugh, which made her feel rather embarrassed.

When the cave was being used for illicit tours, people would toss pennies into one of the pools in the cave and the copper in the pennies turned the water green. Even though they've cleaned out the pennies, the water is still exhibiting verdigris and they can't figure out how to "degreenify" it.

Lewis and Clark never explored this cave, though the cave does overlook miles upon miles of the route they travelled. That's the sole reason the name of the cave was changed from "Limespur Caverns" to "Lewis and Clark Caverns." The name is a little misleading these days because everyone hears it and assumes Lewis and Clark discovered it. I understand the sentiment behind naming the caverns after Lewis and Clark, I guess, but I personally feel the cave could benefit from another name.

First of all, Lewis and Clark didn't discover or explore the cave. In fact, they didn't even know about it. Second of all, everything is named after Lewis and/or Clark along their trail in Montana and Idaho, and if it isn't named after them it was named by them. Meriwether this. Camp Disappointment that. Lewiston. Clarkton. Clark's nutcracker. Lewis' woodpecker.

Not that I don't appreciate the Lewis and Clark Expedition, because I do. I just think it would be well-served by a more unique name. I don't know what the original name was for the cave (beyond Limespur Caverns) but I think having a name unto itself would be a good thing.

 Guys, we took way too many pictures of the cave. This is just a drop in the bucket.

But here are some more with some people in it!

When the cave was developed they did a lot of blasting to connect chambers that hadn't been connected naturally (to make it easier to exit the cave because before all they had was one rickety spiral staircase (and they once had a man fall off of it, about 100 feet, and then they hauled him up the side of the staircase sandwiched between two mattresses—insane! He later died at the hospital, but that's been the only death in the cave (or one of very few; I can't remember)). Walking through these manmade tunnels was quite easy compared with ducking and squatting and slipping through the actual cave!

Here we are getting ready to enter the Paradise Room; it's the biggest, wettest, fastest-growing, most immaculate chamber in the caverns:

We had to walk up a ton of stairs to get there. One of the stairs was marked with a "1 mile high" sign, marking where we were 1 mile above sea level (and still deep inside the cave).

Here's a rather stately column: 

And a less impressive one:

Here are the kids enjoying the sights:

Here is Andrew taking a few pictures:

And a view of part of the Paradise Room:

I think this is my favourite picture of the whole excursion:

This one would have been a close second had the camera focused on Miriam and Rachel rather than Zoë:

Our guide gave us a pop quiz to "exit" of the caverns. Rachel answered one question correctly—that the growth of the speleothems is only about a quarter of an inch every century—but our whole group bombed the other questions, so we were told we would have to stay in the cave forever . That idea made some of the kids start fussing, so our guide gave us a few extra credit questions. If we could guess the height and distance of a certain column called "the candlestick," he'd still let us out.

Someone managed to guess the height correctly (6 ft) but no one guessed the distance correctly. The guide told us that's due to the fact that our brains use sunlight and shadows to measure distance and devoid of natural light our brains simply get confused (which, I imagine, is why even our own houses seem so disorienting in the semi-dark). He told us that once a man had broken into the cave to steal some souvenirs (quite a long time ago) and got lost for so long that he ran out of matches, and thus was left alone in the pitch black darkness of the cave.

When he was finally found, he was lying on his side but he thought he was standing upright. The guide even turned off the lights for us so that we could experience the pitch blackness of the cave, warning us to brace ourselves and hold onto our children because being in such extreme darkness is so dizzying to our senses that people have actually fallen over, just standing there in the dark.

Oh, and then he showed us the phosphorescence of the cave! He shined his flashlight on the wall of the cave and then clicked it off and it really glowed for a few seconds. It was pretty cool. But very dark. The children did not like it at all.

Here's a somewhat blurry view of Miriam and Benjamin heading toward the exit of the cave:

It was blasted through with dynamite and they managed to make the tunnel so straight that you can stand on one end and look through the keyhole on the other end! Rachel was particularly nervous in this section of our tour because there was a door on either end of the tunnel, creating a sort of airlock. Wind comes rushing through the tunnel when the doors are open (at some mind-boggling number of miles per hour) so they only ever open one door at a time. Rachel was terrified that we'd run out of oxygen (even though it was quite a long tunnel) but we were fine.

The kids were happy to step, blinking and dazed, into the warm sunshine.

Benjamin was so confused that the first thing he said was, "What happened to our jackets?"

"We're still wearing them, buddy," I told him.

He felt pretty silly, but for whatever reason he momentarily had no idea where his jacket was.

Here's Andrew pointing out the entrance to the caverns (and you can see how muddy Zoë got inside the cave; she was jumping in puddles at the end (but only the ones on the path, don't worry)):

Here's Zoë and Benjamin standing on the exit path, with the entrance to the caverns looming high above them:

We had some pretty spectacular views!


Andrew again walked with the girls:

While I raced ahead with the boys (Benjamin needed to find the restrooms quite desperately after holding it in the cave for two hours (though not so desperate that he couldn't stop to smell the thistles)):

Once we were all fed, watered, pottied, and back in the van, we took to the road again.

We didn't get to our hotel in Great Falls until quite late and then the kids were so excited to be in a hotel room that it took quite a while to get them all settled down to sleep. Andrew fell asleep right away, but it was a pretty rough night for me! I was up with Alexander and Zoë a few times and then when I finally had them sleeping soundly, Rachel fell out of bed and scraped her chin on the nightstand and bonked her head on the floor. So I was up with her, trying to quiet her sobs before she woke anyone up, and then digging around to find a bandaid for her chin. But we were all on the road again nice and early (good thing I wasn't driving)!

Here are a few sunset pictures to end with. Enjoy!