Underground wonders astonish visitors

In several places in the United States there are caves that attract people to come and see these natural wonders.

I have been to the Gardner Cave on the east edge of the state twice.

On the first visit, my husband and I were vacationing, and the cave was not “developed” for visitors. We had left our flashlight in the car, not anticipating the cave, and on peering into the black depths of the cave, preferred not to risk going into it.

The second visit came a number of years later, and by that time it was prepared for visitors. There were guides and lights and knowledge of what lay ahead.

There are astonishing places where seeping water can gut out great sections of the rock, which usually is limestone, a rock soluble in water. Given enough time, and geology loves to deal in great blocks of time, the seeping water can carve out huge caverns in the rock and deposit huge stalactites (hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (building up from the floor).

In another cavern, the Lewis and Clark Caverns, in Montana, the guides will cheerfully tell visitors that some of what they are seeing was multi-million years in growing to its size in that spot.

The Gardner Cave is smaller, I think, but still impressively large. I asked the guide at Lewis and Clark how big the caverns are. They didn’t know at that time. They were sure of 20 miles, but more still had to be explored.

We were led, at Lewis and Clark, through a series of halls and caverns, finally exiting through a passageway that had been constructed for that purpose.

Oddly, the caverns of natural origin all had an echo. The man-made passageway did not. The guides could not give the reason for the reason for the difference.

There had been a fight over the cavern area. A mining company wanted to mine the limestone.

Others felt that a natural wonder like this should be preserved. There were other limestone deposits in that greater area, and it was decided to maintain the caverns.

There are huge caverns in the Appalachians, which have been extensively developed.

Aside from my brief foray into the Gardner, I have not made it into any of them. But for those who like exploring caves and caverns, all within this nation, there is a great deal to be seen.

But there is a curious thing about them. The guide may invite people, when he turns off all the lights, to see if they can stand on one foot. That day no one could. The darkness inside a cave is total and overwhelming. It’s a relief when the lights come back on.

Caves are a world of their own, and there is much to learn about them. But most of us are creatures of the light and enter them to marvel.

Elizabeth Widel is a columnist for

The Chronicle. This is the 2,866th column in a series. She may be reached at 509-826-1110.

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