It has been a while since I have been in a Florida cave. No particular reason, just haven’t. Dave L invited me to join a few adventurers at Warrens Cave on Friday evening, so I was thankfully able to get a speleofix and end my speleodrought. The six of us actually comprised two teams: Alex, Mike and Chris wanted to zip back to the Sand Room and Dave, another Mike and I to go a little more slowly to the Sand Room. Bill Oldacre, the property manager and fellow that is responsible for Warrens Cave being under caver management, met us at the gate on the dirt entrance road with the two keys to the road and cave gates. It is always good to visit with Bill, but this time it was especially gratifying as he presented me with a couple of gifts in recognition of my small contributions to the NSS Nature Preserves (Warrens is one of thirteen) as former Chairman of the Nature Preserves Committee.
The zip team, a young crew ranging 18 to maybe 24 yo, scooted off ahead, unlocked the cave gate and disappeared. Dave, Mike and I, the more mature (in years only, I hasten to add) team, progressed a little more slowly. Alex is working with Sarah C and Corey B to try to set up a far camp beyond Agony Alley in the very back of the cave in order to extend the known reaches of this, the longest known air-filled cave in Florida. They are all slender, athletic, hard-core(y) cavers, and if anyone can do it, it is they. For those unfamiliar with the situation: Agony Alley is 600 ft of body tube that most of us cannot turn around in, so tight that you must tie your pack to your foot and push your helmet ahead of you, take at least a gallon of drinking water and hope to Oztotl that you don’t get “corked in” by an expiring caver between you and the entrance. I have been back there only once, at a time that I was out of shape, dehydrated, improperly bulked up carbohydratedly and not yet having taken up stamina pills (foxglove). I will never return to those far reaches, but I can proudly say, duh, that I have surveyed passage back there (with Keith S and Bob N). The trip back there is through the Sand Room, noted for its sandpaper-like sediments that can rub your elbows raw, and takes 4 – 6 hours one-way depending on your abilities and physical condition. Alex, Sarah and Corey plan to spend several days on their expedition, and it could go down in Florida caving annals as one of the most grueling ever.
Along the way, we eyed a bunch of small traps that a graduate student has emplaced to capture a tiny species of cave beetle. This beetle is appx 2-3 mm long, less than 1 mm wide and is typically found in the cave on feces deposited by cotton mice (Peromyscus gossypinus). The mice are found almost anywhere cavers frequently go in the cave, eating crumbs left by snackers and probably other types of food washed into the cave during rain events. Cotton mice will also gnaw on ropes and rope backup straps if salty sweat is left on them by riggers, so we must be careful when rigging and using the ropes.
I counted 31 bats in the Historic Section, more than I have ever seen in Warrens at a single time, say hallelujah! They were mostly the Southeastern myotis (Myotis austroriparius) and a few tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflaveus) (formerly called the pipistrelle, Pipistrellus subflaveus). They occurred on walls, typically immediately below minor horizontal rock ridges or small overhangs, in ones and twos, although I spotted one foursome and one sixsome. In warmer months the cave gate serves as a perch for yellow rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata), from which they snag and eat bats flying to and from the cave. I would like to see the existing cave gate replaced with one that is more bat-friendly. Although in winters past I have seen rat snakes up to a couple hundred feet inside the cave staying warm, we saw none this time. That’s a good thing for the bats, but last night it was a good thing for the snakes, too, as I had already decided that, henceforth, I am going to capture and relocate all rat snakes I find in this cave. This is not ordinarily considered a cool thing to do, but bats are under many serious threats, especially at Warrens, whereas the yellow rat snake may be Florida’s most common large snake. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a homing snake, but I bet they will be hard pressed to re-find Warrens after being relocated to the trees beside Orange Lake.
I found myself commenting twice during the trip that the most important rule about caving is to know your own limitations, not in lecture but because it was already ingrained in my companions and they knew when to exercise the rule. Kudos!