E is for Esslinger

It was a good weekend for alphabet caving, Dunham on Saturday, Esslinger on Sunday! It was a longer hike up than I anticipated, but the weather was pretty nice for it. We thought we had found it only to turn out we discovered a false little hole, apparently this confuses many. Eventually we found the proper hole, and there was dancing for joy with the rope!

It may not look like much, but that’s where we are heading!

We rigged to a tree higher up on the mountain, and where the pit splits into two we let the rope go naturally through the narrower side so it avoided some of the sharp rocks we would have had to contend with otherwise. I wasn’t too concerned, I’ve been in tighter spots on rope. I was, however, happy to have my ropewalker with me as I had debated only bringing my frog. For me, narrow spots on rope are easier on a ropewalker.

Tight fit, but not terribly so!

Once in, it turned out to be a pretty cool pit. Flowstone lined the walls, and there was a pretty little pool. Troy and Doug climbed up into one of the domes, finding Bill Torode’s name scrolled in the mud. For those who don’t know, Torode is a famous local caver who has discovered lots of caves and done lots of mapping projects. Sometimes, he would find the nastiest, craziest, oddest little places in a cave he figured no one else would ever go and put his name in the mud. While some argue this goes against conservation to scrawl a small name in mud and is not recommended by cavers these days to do, it is still interesting to find one of these historical marks that are relatively non-intrusive in rare hidden areas and not permanently marring.

One of the pretty flowstone pools.

I climbed up into a different dome, almost breaking my foot! The rock seemed a bit crumbly so I was testing holds before committing, and a hold I thought was good broke off a 15-20lb chunk when I committed my hand to it, falling and almost hitting smack on top of my foot. So I didn’t luck out with finding a famous Torode mark.

We started to ascend back out of the pit, and I grabbed a quick shot of a little tiny carved hole in the rock, with a beautiful crinoid fossil inside.

D is for Dunham Cave

Part of my Alphabet Caving Project is trying to get into some of the less-visited caves, or ones people just don’t hear about. I found that in Dunham Cave. A Google search revealed a very little information and only a few snapshots. So on a cool Saturday morning, we went to get permission and headed to the entrance. Covered in ivy in the early morning, it was extremely picturesque.

I had the map from Alabama Cave Survey, and it proved to be pretty accurate – enough to navigate by. The entrance areas had some spray paint graffiti, along with other evidence local teens use this as a hangout. But further in, the spray paint dwindles and disappears, probably due to lack of wanting to get soaked in some deeper parts of the stream.

It is almost a mile in length, and split for most of the way, a lower stream passage and an upper dry route. If you like scalloping and fluting and sculpted rock, this is a great cave to see. There are also areas that have a harder churt layer, of which the limestone both on top and below has been carved away, leaving a false black ceiling peppered with holes. And even though it’s a shallow cave, the upper levels had some nice formation areas, including a section of soda straws with very yellow tips!

No, this is not Photoshopped – it was quite yellow!

I did wonder if anyone has ever done biological studies in this cave. We saw crawfish and fish, although neither that we saw were fully cave-adapted. In addition there was evidence that at one time it housed massive bat colonies, with guano piles 3-4 feet tall and as wide in diameter. We only saw a handful of Southeastern Tricolors, no where near the number needed to create such huge and extensive piles in one of the chambers. As a happy note, none showed any signs of WNS. 🙂 This cave also had a healthy smattering of various salamander species. The Northern Slimy Salamanders must have recently hatched, as in one section I counted more than a half-dozen tiny ones, less than one inch long.

This little guy was barely longer than my fingernail!

Some areas had impressive formations. Although some of these had spraypaint on them (apparently, sculls are the thing to paint onto flowstone haystacks), viewed from the correct angle they still looked pristine.

Waterfall Room

All in all, I am surprised at how many other local cavers have never heard of this one. I suspect biologists and geologists would greatly enjoy the variety presented, and it’s a cave I would happily go back to. Any conservancy looking for a cleanup project, this would be a good one. A good crew could clean it up probably in one day. The graffiti is not too extensive and mostly on rock, and the trash in it is pretty localized. I would hate to see such a diverse and unique cave be destroyed! I would also be very interested in learning what the guano piles could tell us about the history of bats in the cave; I know some biologists are studying such things.

For more photos of Dunham, see my Flickr set.