Speleofest! What’s that you ask? Why it’s a weekend of caving, hence the Speleo. And much campfire rejoicing to cover the Fest part. It has been a long standing tradition in the Syracuse University Outing Club (SUOC) that every fall we go camp at the Schoharie Cabin in Schoharie County, NY. Bottom line is that we go caving as much as possible the whole weekend, and have maximum fun back at the cabin around a campfire or in the nearby cave.
This year’s turnout was rather small, with only 4 people going. But we still managed to have a great time. Past Speleofests have had 15-20 people and legends tell of a 60 person trip over 20 years ago. After I got out of work Friday I met up at the Eroom (SUOC’s Equipment Room) with my 3 companions; Heather, Kara, and Siddhesh, all brand new to SUOC and caving as well.
(Heather, Kara, and Siddesh)
We piled the tents, sleeping bags, and caving gear into my VW Jetta wagon (Der Cavewagen) and hit the road. It was a nice three-hour drive out to the cabin. When we got there we found a geology class trip from Keystone College had already setup a campfire, how convenient. We pitched our tents and then hung out a bit. A few hours later we went in our first cave which was 100 feet from the campsite. This cave, Schoharie Cavern, is a super easy time. It is a 2,000 foot long, walking stream canyon passage lined with all sorts of stalactites/mites, flowstone, mudbanks, and a couple waist deep pools. After 2,000 feet, the passage goes completely underwater (sump) and doesn’t surface again for another 700 feet. Not being trained cave divers, this is where we turned around. When we surfaced there was no one awake so we went to bed for the night.
Next morning we got a leisurely start out of camp at 10:00 A.M. and headed over to Gage Cavern for another trip. Gage has been known for over 200 years and was formerly called Ball’s Cave. After putting on our caving clothes and notifying our callout (the person that will contact the right people if we don’t come back on time), we hiked off through the woods to the entrance. The cave entrance is a 50 foot vertical pit with a wooden ladder going down. I rigged up an anchor on a tree root and belayed Kara, Heather, and Sid down the ladder, then rappelled in using my usual vertical setup.
Once off ladder we headed down into the depths. After a few short climbs down, you hit a stream passage. Upstream is a swim in 43-degree water to a section called “The Lost Passage.” The Lost Passage is beyond a spot where the water comes within a few inches of the ceiling. This section is quite nice with no vandalism or removed formations due to its difficulty of access. We didn’t bring wetsuits so to the dry, downstream end it was. A quick belly crawl over cobbles and you end up in an 8 foot diameter tube. After a few turns you pop out into a larger room with a 20 foot ceiling and an old lantern on the floor. Up to the right we climbed some boulders into an even bigger room, about 40 feet wide and high and 100 feet long, with a mud slope going up both sides. Someone years ago thought this would be a great sledding spot, and there are two sleds left in the room…
After a bit of sledding fun I showed the newbies an awesome hole in the floor you can slide through, back to the adjacent room. After we all went through and Sid lost his pants for a bit, we went on up to the mud sculpture room. Over the years people have crafted dozens of mud sculptures of all sorts of bizarre things.
Past the mud room the cave goes down into the Spring Room which has a big wall of fallen rock that looks almost like people stacked it up. From here the cave divides into many small crawling tubes that end in sand plugs. One tube goes down to the stream passage again. We took this route and crawled for a bit before the ceiling gets low and you have to belly crawl in the water. That’s where we turned around and headed out. To get back to the mud sculpture room we took a side loop that involves crawling in holes between the rock piles and up some small tubes for fun, then it was back to the entrance pit.
I climbed up the ladder first and then belayed the newbies up. We surfaced to a warm sunny day and headed into town for some dinner and then another caving trip. Our second cave of the day was Ella Armstrong, a small cave close to the more popular Knox Cave. You arrive at the entrance, a small slot in the ground you go into feet first and sideways, after a quick walk through the woods. Upon a few body lengths of descending, you are brought to a 23-foot drop into bigger cave passage. No ladder at this one, so I brought a cable ladder along and belayed the newbies up and down. Cable ladders are not the usual vertical technique in caving anymore but they can be useful on small drops as an alternative to single rope technique.
Once off rope we admired some nice yellow flowstone formations and some old signature carvings from the 1870’s (carving or writing on cave walls is now considered vandalism and will get you ostracized from the caving community). The cave goes as a walking passage up over breakdown and intersects a room with a 30-foot ceiling, with tree roots coming down from a few cracks. We turned around to head out, making a little stop at an alcove on the way. I climbed up to grab a loose calcite crystal on the floor to show off a little trick. Certain calcite crystals will glow yellow or green for a few seconds after shining a really bright light on it. After showing that bit of sorcery I put the crystal back up where it came from and we climbed on out of the cave.
We drove on back to the campsite and found a considerable crowd had shown up, a few other college outing clubs and a few other cavers I knew. After spending a few hours around the campfire and hearing some scary cow noises from the woods we went to bed. The next morning we got another civilized slow start, partly due to a friendly dog coming to the campsite. We did eventually get on the road to do a fourth caving trip for the weekend to Clarksville Cave. Our group made a little stop in East Berne to check out a hole I saw in the town park. I went in a bit and saw it got too tight, but still counts as a cave. Once at Clarksville we did the usual suit up and callout, then headed in the easiest of the three entrances to the cave. The Ward entrance is a hole between some boulders going down into a medium sized room that goes upstream to a lake. We followed this way, walking in the water, crawling on mud banks above it, and wading waist deep through a water tube.
At the Lake Room we climbed around the lake and into a side passage with a few formations, and then took a dip in the 47-degree water. A little slip through a narrow slot takes you to a small chamber with a really nice echo and some fossilized coral. After this we headed back downstream to the entrance room and off a side passage into the downstream half of the cave. We went to the Pixie Passages where the ceiling is about 15 feet high and huge tree roots dangle from the ceiling. After this was the corkscrew, a fun little headfirst slide down a winding tube into a lower stream passage. Kara & Heather didn’t go through so Sid & I went back upstream through a pool and past a slickenside block to guide them through the way around. What is a slickenside you ask? This cave formed along a thrust fault, and the slickenside is where the fault had moved and scraped the rocks against each other. The cave dissolved out and a large boulder fell from the ceiling years ago. You can see scratches on the rock from the fault movement. Heading downstream we passed over a bunch of rimstone dams, which are like small terraced bathtubs formed by calcite building in the passage. A bit later is a slide down into the water where you have to get chest deep with less than a foot of airspace to pass through. Beyond this the cave becomes a 15-foot diameter tube for a few hundred feet until you reach the downstream Gregory entrance. We surface to another warm sunny day and drove on back to Syracuse after a long great weekend of caving.