It's been a while since I've been to a new cave. In fact it was back in December when I visited Big Bone Cave, which is Heff's favorite cave name of all time I believe. Joey called me earlier in the week and asked me if I wanted to go to Camps Gulf. I said yes of course, since this is a cave I've been wanting to visit for several years now.
Joey, Aimee, Joe, and Eve camped out at Rock Island State park the night before, and I met them there Saturday morning on May 12 around 9:30 am. We got everything loaded up and drove over to the cave, taking what seemed to be a "certuferous" route via Joey's fancy new talking GPS.
We got to the cave about 11am, and met a couple of cavers from the Dogwood City Grotto who had just come back down from the cave. They were going to hike some more in the park that day then head to Nashville since they had tickets for the Opry that night. After a brief chat we got all of our gear loaded up and started up the road towards the cave.
Until recently, you could drive up the road almost to the cave, but now a gate has been installed right at what is now the parking area. This has caused a lot of discussion among the cavers in the TAG area, with many seeming to be upset about this. The walk to the cave from the gate is 3/4 of a mile according to my trusty Omron pedometer, and it's completely flat until you get right up to the cave entrance. I'd have to say that if this hike causes you much trouble, you really have no business going into a cave in the first place.
After the quick hike, we got to the cave entrance. This entrance is really pretty. It's set in a bowl, the back of which is a bluff about 100 feet tall or so. The entrance passage goes almost straight in for several hundred feet, and you can see the light from the entrance for quite a ways back into the cave.
Every cave has a theme. The theme for Camps Gulf is big rooms and breakdown. At the end of the short walk down the entrance passage, you hit the first and worst pile of breakdown. Imagine if you will a large, domed room, about the size of the Nashville Arena. Now fill it up about halfway with a large pile of rocks, so that the pile is pressing against the sides. So to get into the first big room, you have to climb up this nearly vertical pile of rocks, squeezing through several tight areas.
I like to call some of these tight squeezes "cheese graters" since that's what my body looks like I've been through afterwards. The picture below is me emerging from a particularly difficult "L" shaped squeeze where I'm sure I left several layers of skin behind. Note that these are tight squeezes for me, who weighs 275 lbs. The skinny people on the trip went right through them.
There are also some climb-ups in this area that I was a little uncomfortable with. The hand and footholds weren't all that great, plus it's wet and muddy. The drop would have been less than 10 feet, but it wouldn't have been good to slip.
Eventually we made it up to the top and I had my first good look at a really large room in a cave. It's definitely impressive, and makes for some great echoes as well. We spent some time whooping and hollering to test it out, then started down the breakdown towards the register.
To get some scale perspective, imagine ants crawling down a 4 or 5 foot high pile of gravel, then scale the ants up to human size. I could be completely wrong on the size of the gravel pile, but it's a mongo pile of rocks, trust me. We eventually found the register, and took a break while a few people filled it out, then headed for the second room, with Joey in the lead.
After some path finding by our fearless leader, we made it into the second room, which is more impressive than the first. It's roughly the same size, but the dome is much more obvious, and there's not as much breakdown in it. At one end of this room, there is a large mostly flat area of dirt, and a stream runs down into a small lake. We stopped here for an extended break, resting on the soft dirt, but we found we were being swarmed by gnats. They were completely white, and really seemed to like the light from my Apex headlamp. They would gather so thick around it that it was hard to see more than a foot or so.
The rest of the group decided to push on to the third room, but I was approaching my limits at this point so I decided to stay behind in the 2nd room and rest and explore a bit. I went down to the water and found even more gnats, and collected a few in a ziplock bag to look at later. After a long rest by the water, I poked around the breakdown pile for a while, and then headed back up the passage to the first room and planted myself on a rock until the others got back.
They soon rejoined me, and we headed out. We got turned around a bit on the way out, and my legs were just about shot from the breakdown climbing, so it was slow going. That first breakdown climb on the way into the cave is also tricky on the way out, since the lack of good hand holds in a few places are perhaps even scarier on the way down than on the way up. We took it slow and careful though, and made it out of the cave around 3:30 pm.
On the hike back to the cars, we saw a small non-poisonous snake and then ran into a couple of cavers from Michigan named Jason and Tammy. They're students at MSU and were down in the area for the week to do some caving. They told us that the trunk was open on a blue Honda back in the parking area. Oops. Guess I didn't notice that. Fortunately, everything was still in the trunk when we got back.
We drove back to the campground and I left for Nashville. I could tell my legs were going to be sore, and my quads still ache right now on Monday afternoon, so it was definitely a great trip. Remember, if you don't feel like you were in a train wreck the next day, the cave wasn't hard enough. Heh.