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Blanchard's Wild Cave Tour: A Surreal Adventure


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'Cave Bacon' seen on the Wild Cave Tour (A.C. Haralson)
'Cave Bacon' seen on the Wild Cave Tour (A.C. Haralson)
    Eating lunch at the Titans (A.C. Haralson)
Eating lunch at the Titans (A.C. Haralson)
       
 
Cavers admiring the Titans (A.C. Haralson)
Cavers admiring the Titans (A.C. Haralson)
    The Wild Cave Tour requires some crawling (A.C. Haralson)
The Wild Cave Tour requires some crawling (A.C. Haralson)
       
 
Author Jill Rohrbach (front) in the 'Subway' (A.C. Haralson)
Author Jill Rohrbach (front) in the 'Subway' (A.C. Haralson)
   
Blanchard's Wild Cave Tour: A Surreal Adventure
*****
By Jill M. Rohrbach

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. -- The massive rooms and intricate calcium carbonate formations found in Blanchard Springs Caverns have amazed me each time I've taken one of the regularly scheduled tours into the subterranean world beneath the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas. But as the lights would dim on the stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones in one area, I would catch myself looking into the shadows, wondering what sights awaited beyond the handrails.

Until a couple of years ago, that territory remained off limits to Blanchard's visitors. Then, however, the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the caverns, began offering guided hikes into the undeveloped reaches of the underground system. While not designed to meet the expectations of experienced cavers, it's a whopping adventure for amateur explorers.

On a Saturday morning, I meet six others and our guide, Phillip Dobbins. He hands out gear and I am transformed into a real spelunker -- or at least I look like one. His first tip: when talking to each other in the cave do not look each other in the eye, lest you blind others with your headlamp.

The Wild Cave Tour, as it is known, begins where the guided tours end. Excitement builds as I step off the concrete path onto the rocks and mud and release my grip on the handrail. My heart beats faster. I check my headlamp, tug at my kneepads, and pull at my gloves.

We walk about 40 yards and my legs begin to shake as I look down into the "Grand Canyon," shaped much like a skateboarders' half-pipe. But this terrain is clay and loose rock -- I definitely don't want wheels. Although I've been caving before, I still must tell myself to get a grip and remember to have fun.

Standing on the brink of a 50-foot drop, Phillip gives us a second set of instructions. "Yell 'rock, rock, rock' if you generate any landslides. And, if you're below the person yelling 'rock' -- don't look up." I drop to my derriere and begin sliding and crawling. I hear "rock, rock, rock," and stones and mud tumble toward the running water below.

Safe at the bottom, I realize I now must scramble up the other side. Slipping and sliding, I claw my way to the top using muscles that have been on sabbatical for years. The reward is an easy walk through the "subway," a natural tunnel with a high arching ceiling. My mind cannot grasp the eons of time it took for water to carve this passage. A few pieces of beautiful, orange-brown "cave bacon" adorn the walls. Shining a light through one side of the calcite, the marbled formation actually reminds me more of the pig ears I sometimes feed my dogs.

Halfway through the subway we encounter a hole 20 feet in diameter. I slip my foot toward the edge of the hole and then slowly shift my weight forward for an as-close-as-I-dare view. Phillip explains that we are standing on a false floor 50 feet above solid ground below. We laugh nervously at the thought and quickly move on. In the tunnel we find a bat to study. Then I see a formation that reminds me of biscuits covered in chocolate gravy. Maybe I'm just getting hungry from my workout.

At the end of the subway we encounter a tighter space with only a couple of feet of clearance at points. My kneepads come in handy as I drop to all fours.

After crawling for at least the length of two bowling lanes, I'm able to stand. It's the last leg of the journey to our ultimate goal -- The Titans. This section is as large as a movie theater, but shaped more like a light bulb. The path to The Titans is over a rocky crag. Phillip throws a rock. It takes several seconds for it to hit the water below. In the dim light and uneven terrain, I can't calculate the slope. I'm not sure I want to. I concentrate on hand and foot holds.

As I begin climbing over jutting rock, I find myself wishing I were a mountain goat or at least one of the longer-legged members of our group.

"Just lean to the right, away from the drop-off on the left," says Phillip. I lean so hard I could fuse myself to the rock. At a precarious point Phillip stands as a barrier between us and the rock below. The "miss-independent-I-can-do-this-by-myself" woman is suddenly replaced by a girl searching for Phillip's hand.

Then, there stand The Titans. Relief and awe replaces any lingering trepidation.

The Titans are two towering stalagmites, rising 80 to 100 feet from the floor like totem poles symbolizing a mysterious place. One almost touches the ceiling. In hues of white, amber and blue-gray, their beauty is indescribable. I feel privileged to be one of the few people to make the trip to see this secret of the earth.

I can see my breath, not from cold but the high humidity. I hadn't noticed the humidity elsewhere in the cave as I do now at The Titans.

We each find a comfortable rock and eagerly sit down. Then my favorite part -- eating lunch in the recesses of the earth. It is only my second time to do so. Perhaps I find it fun because it seems so unnatural and surreal. I suddenly feel strangely connected to my caveman ancestors.

While resting, my perspiring body begins to cool down and I become aware that it's about 58 degrees. We all turn off our headlamps and sit in total darkness. I realize that at 31, I'm still afraid of the dark. Phillip says, "Imagine trying to climb out of the cave without lights and encountering the hole in the subway." I try not to think about it.

Eventually, we head back the way we came -- with lights on.

As the low ceiling opens up to a large room, I bang my helmet. I look up to make sure I didn't hit any of the stalactites or small soda straws hanging from the ceiling. My close inspection of the straws reveals they are hollow. Very slowly water drips from their blunt tips.

Back at the steep slopes of the Grand Canyon, I take a deep breath, drop and become a lizard slithering my way down. I look behind me and realize the last half of the group is standing -- walking down. Immediately I'm empowered.

I rise to my feet, take several steps and feel proud that I'm now one of the mountain goats -- except, wait! Oh, I'm a lizard again sliding on the floor. "Rock!" I yell a little too timidly, just as a golf-ball sized stone hits the teenager in front of me square in the back.

"Sorry," I say meekly. We laugh and work our way up the other side. In the distance, my headlamp gleams off the handrail I last held about three and one-half hours ago. Exhilaration and pride override fatigue.

I clutch the handrail and step onto the concrete path. My weary legs carry me to the surface. My transformation into a caver feels complete.

The Wild Cave Tour at Blanchard Springs is available year-round and is limited to at least three but no more than 12 people accompanied by a guide. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 1-888-757-2246. Cost is $65 per person and a $25 non-refundable deposit is required. In addition to being in good physical condition, participants must be at least 10 years of age and an adult must accompany those 10 to 12 years old. Sturdy hiking shoes and long pants are a must. More information on the Wild Cave Tour and other tours at Blanchard can be found at www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/recreation/caverns.

*****


Nearby Attractions

Blanchard Springs Recreation Area
is home to picturesque bluffs, a large flowing spring that feeds a lake stocked with trout, 32 RV/tent campsites, numerous picnic sites, an ideal swimming hole on Sylamore Creek, and the 13.7-mile Sylamore Creek Hiking Trail. (870) 269-3228 or (870) 757-2211.

Mountain View, a small town only 15 miles from Blanchard Springs, is the home of the only park in America devoted to the preservation of Southern mountain folkways and music. The Ozark Folk Center State Park is a "living museum" of traditional pioneer skills, such as furniture making, quilting, blacksmithing, woodcarving and 15 other craft demonstrations. Concerts, performed in a 1,000-seat theater, feature songs and instruments from America's past. The park also has a restaurant, lodge, visitor center and gift shop. The town of Mountain View has a variety of music shows, shops and restaurants, plus impromptu folk music gatherings on the downtown square and yearly festivals. Folk Center: (870) 269-3851; www.ozarkfolkcenter.com. Mountain View: 1-888-679-2859; www.mountainviewcc.org.

White River trout fishing is nationally renowned, and the river is only eight miles from Blanchard Springs. The current and previous world-record German brown trout were pulled from Arkansas Ozark Mountain rivers. Several outfitters and guides service the White River. www.arkansas.com/outdoors_sports.

Information on other attractions and lodging and dining options in the Mountain View area can be found at www.mountainviewcc.org or at www.arkansas.com.

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