Outdoor writers often refer to the “I was there” type story as a “Me and Joe” story. This is truly a “Me and Joe” story, except the Joe is a Jo and instead of the story being a “hook and bullet” type, it is the tale of a closet claustrophobe (me) going caving with a caver/geologist (Jo).
Several years ago, I had the pleasure, under the tutelage of Jo, of crawling through narrow passageways in an Ozarks cave near Sullivan, Missouri. She also accompanied a bunch of kids and me on another trip to a Missouri cave. Jo has been caving for years and brought the equipment. This particular cave (Sheep’s Cave) is classified as a beginner’s cave, and Jo knows it like the “basement of her house.”
The Journey into Sheep’s Cave
We fastened our chinstraps to the lighted helmets and I donned kneepads. While entering the cave, Jo described cave formations and the history of this particular cave.
She also said that cavers are a secretive lot. Although they will most likely be happy to guide the novice who is interested in caving, they will not announce to the world where the cave is located – much like the turkey hunter who does not like to give away his secret hunting spot, or the trout fisherman who knows of a little hidey hole on a special stream. She admonished the caving party to keep the location a secret.
The “Me and Jo” part really began when I realized that the ceiling of the cave kept getting closer to my head. Then it was time to do the gorilla walk, and finally, it was time to get down on our hands and knees and crawl through a nearly 300-foot tunnel that opened into another room.
We had been talking about the earlier sighting of a bear in this particular park. Jo told about her pal who often brings a pound of bologna in case he runs into a hungry bear.
I had no bologna on me, so I said, “Jo, I have a knife in this pack. I’ll put it at the top of the pile, okay?”
“Hey, if a bear comes through, Barb, we’re getting out of here.” I imagined us in fast motion backing through the tunnel. I shuddered and we continued.
Sheep’s Cave Crawl
Jo went first. The tunnel narrowed. Although Jo said this was a “dry cave,” it looked pretty wet to me. I crawled through puddles of water while my helmet scraped the top of the cave.
“Remember that you have to look up, too, while you’re crawling,” puffed Jo. I looked up and noticed that much like navigating a stream, you must also look ahead when crawling through a tunnel in order to avoid rock formations.
The only sounds I could hear were water drips and our breathing. I shifted my backpack to the side, as it was too high to allow me to keep going.
I kept pushing to the back of my mind the thought of being under all this rock. Finally, we crawled out and went back into a gorilla walk and then, upright. We were in another room. Water had cut deep gorges in the floor of the cave, and it was as important to look down as to look up.
“You lead this time,” said Jo, as we decided to press on to the last room in the cave. That meant going through another crawl space. This would be the ultimate test for me, a person who gets squeamish in crowded elevators and close quarters.
Again, I had to shift my backpack, but I got into a rhythm and the crawl didn’t seem so bad. We finally made it to the last room. I stood up and Jo said, “Barb, don’t move fast, but look above your head.” I shined my helmet light upward and saw a little bat hanging there. I shuddered again.
We left by the same path that we used to enter. The sweetest sight in the world was the mouth of the cave, with natural light beckoning to us.
The older I get, the more I think it’s important to face some of the fears that hold me back I may not have conquered the claustrophobia, but I realized that I can will myself to do a difficult task.
FYI on Caves
Caving can be dangerous if attempted without proper gear and knowledge. According to Jo, these are the basic rules of caving:
1. Check-in at the visitors’ center at a park so they can tell you which caves are open or closed. Some closed caves can net you a $50,000 fine if you are in them the wrong time of year.
2. Rule of Threes: Take 3 people minimum. Take 3 sources of light each. (One should be mounted on a helmet or hardhat, and one light should also serve as a source of heat.)
3. Always tell someone not on the trip where you going, when you will return and who to call if you are two or more hours overdue.