Caves offer access to odd world

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

ROOSEVELT, Utah (AP) -- Floyd Farnsworth is a patient man, but at this moment, the U.S. Forest Service employee is fighting an hour-long battle with a lock at the entrance to Whiterocks Cave.

Farnsworth and fellow USFS employee Steven Kreek are leading the first tour of the year to the cave, located in Whiterocks Canyon in the Ashley National Forest. During the winter, the cave was vandalized, so the Forest Service built a more formidable gate at the mouth, complete with two locks. Unfortunately, the guides have a key to only one of the locks.

MacGyver would solve this problem with gum and a paper clip. Farnsworth pops the lock using a chain, the lock he does have the key to, a small metal bar left over from the construction and a heavy rock.

Whiterocks Cave does not give up its secrets easily. To get there, you must ford the Whiterocks River six times, hike uphill for at least two hours and climb a few tricky spots with fixed ropes and belays.

There are only a handful of caves open to the public around Utah, though there are hundreds of caves available to more experienced cavers through caving groups known as grottos. Before you join a grotto, however, get your feet wet on a public tour at Whiterocks Cave, Timpanogos Cave National Monument in American Fork Canyon, the Lehman Cave at the Great Basin National Park in Nevada or Minnetonka Caves just north of Bear Lake in St. Charles Canyon, Idaho.

Between them, Farnsworth, 50, and Kreek, 44, have been giving tours at Whiterocks Cave for more than 20 years. The rest of the year, they teach school in Vernal, with Farnsworth working with fourth-graders and Kreek instructing seventh-graders.

The cave is more interesting than a textbook.

As the group of seven enters Whiterocks Cave, the temperature immediately drops at least 30 degrees. To add to the suspense, a bat, a lone holdover from a group that winters there, flies out. There are other signs of animal habitation. A few feet from the entrance is a large nest made by pack rats. On the walls, what resembles streaks of iron are the remnants of hundreds of years of rat dung. The farther you get into the cave, however, the less earthy and more otherworldly the scenery becomes.

Most caves are created by erosion when rainwater, acidified by carbon dioxide in the soil, seeps through cracks and crevices in limestone. After the cave is created, slow-moving water containing calcium carbonate reacts with the limestone and hardens. This creates formations such as stalactites, which hang from the ceiling; stalagmites, which form on the bottom of a cave; or columns, when stalactites join with stalagmites.

The cave's most impressive formation is the organ room, a series of thin, red-tinged draperies that collectively resemble a giant church organ. Farnsworth taps the columns with a tiny flashlight and a tune reverberates. It's hard not to topple over while gazing up the organ. It's so massive and our lights are all trained on it, not our footing.

That's one of the first adjustments cavers must make is dealing with total blackness. You can't see beyond what your light shows and though the group handled tricky terrain easily on the climb to the cave, the wet walls and floors seem so much more sinister without proper lighting.

While nothing else is as massive as the organ room, there are several unique features of the cave. With the low light and odd shapes that abound, you can use your imagination, as if you were looking at clouds.

Kreek points out a formation that vaguely recalls Marilyn Monroe's famous pose in the ''Seven-Year Itch''. There are plenty of helicites, which look like hollowed soda straws through which water traveled and left a crystal deposit at the end. Kreek points out one that he says resembles Chuck Norris in a kickboxing pose. Other delicate formations abound, such as popcorn, a bumpy surface on the cave wall made by water entering rock's pores or seeping down walls.

The wedding cake, also known as the idol, takes very little imagination to figure out how it got its name. The stalagmite is more than 5 feet high, with each layer slightly smaller but just as circular as the one below it.

Whiterocks Cave, like any cave, is not for the claustrophobic. The air is heavy and sodden because there is little circulation. The ceiling is low enough that frequently we must walk sideways, tilting our heads along the way. We also climb through a series of small spaces, scrambling crablike on our hands and knees while taking care not to brush against the delicate formations or the odd dead bat.

Kreek and Farnsworth have us tour as far as we safely can. The closest we come to danger is a few skinned knees and one torn pair of jeans. We make our way back after the cave narrows into a small, wet tunnel. The sport comes shortly after we pass where, in the 1950s, a skeleton was found that dated to the late 1800s.

Coming out of the cave, the trip down takes less time but is a little trickier. The trail is steep and loose enough in spots to make wearing long pants a good choice.

''I'd rather be doing this than be anywhere else on the mountain,'' Farnsworth said on the way down.

Timpanogos Cave National Monument is a closer place to Salt Lake City to start caving. The monument, located in American Fork Canyon, features three small interconnected caves, Hansen Cave, Middle Cave and Timpanogos Cave.

You have two choices for tours. The first, which runs from $3 or $5 for children to $6 for adults, is led by park rangers through all three caves and follows a strict path. The other tour, called introduction to caving, costs $15 and thoroughly tours Hansen Cave all the way to Hansen Lake.

To get to either tour, you pay first, then hike 1 1/2 miles up a paved trail.

The introduction to caving tour is more like actual caving than the other tour. Shortly after the entrance, we slip down a smooth rock, holding onto a rope for guidance. There are several sections that are narrow enough that we crawl on all fours and the formations range from columns to popcorn, to soda straws and a little antique graffiti. Our guides, park rangers Brandon Kowallis and Brad Phillips, provide cave history, even a couple of ghost stories. The tour lasts about 1 1/2 hours.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)


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