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Last updated: May 10. 2014 9:48AM - 467 Views

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Dudley Wooten


PDT Outdoors Columnist


In 1974 two amateur “cavers” Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen were roaming the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains in Arizona, about 50 miles from Mexico. They found a sinkhole and then discovered it was “breathing.”


This means that as the air temps change in the ambient air above ground, the geothermal temperature changes a little and the sinkhole is where a cave will “breathe.” To a caver, the cooler moist air coming out of a cave is sweet discovery and only sweetened by the smell of bat guano.


They dug and created a big enough crawlspace for the smaller 150 pound Tufts to enter and come back and tell the 200 pound Tenen. They then had to enlarge the crawl space.


When they entered, they found a beautiful large “living cave.” This means that the water is still dripping from the ceiling through the ceiling and off the stalactites and onto the stalagmites on the floor. The calcite is still forming on top and bottom and the bats are abundant. This is a living cave.


They worked for weeks on exploring this cave that proved to be 1 ½ miles long. Being naturalists and conservationists, they want this find to be preserved and not trashed as so many other caves have been. They continued to work the exploration of the cave and contact the owner - the Kartchner Family. They spent a year trying to figure the best way to handle this for the Kartchners, Tufts, Tenen, the cave, and the bats. They finally, after a year, secretively contacted the State of Arizona and a plan was hatched.


For 14 years this covert plan was code name “Xanadu.” The discoverers were paid, the Kartchners were paid, and the State of Arizona built it into a state park named Kartchner Caverns.


We toured this site on this trip and it is an hour and a half of beauty. It was well preserved in every way. They built walkways through it, after they built manmade entrance tunnels with 5 – 6 compression chamber doors at entrance and exit. This maintains the constant 72 degree temperature and 100% humidity in the cave. The tunnels also constantly “mist” the air and you, as you pass through them. The caves are closed six months out of the year, while the bats are there. The stalactites are still dripping and the bats still rule. The cave dates back 500,000 years and the bat guano 45,000 years.


Calcite is the material that forms the cave formations and it’s heavy (162 lbs. per cubic foot). Water weighs 8 lb/c.f. This weight causes the floor to “settle” and break the stalactites off at the ceiling.


Other formations hanging from the ceiling would be helictites. They form in exotic vertical and horizontal fashion. This is believed to be formed by gravity and wind and/or by charged particles. The “cave bacon” or drapes are wavy, streaky growths hanging down like drapes or rabbit ice.


The multitude of color in the calcite might be influenced by iron (red) to manganese (purple).


This is one of the highest rated caverns in America on formations. Mammoth is bigger but not known for its formations.


When the bats return, the females will go to the highest (warmest) ceiling in the cave, which is near the sinkhole. This makes sense for several reasons. As air warms, it rises, and if the cave needs to breathe, this seems a natural process. Another observation on my part is that this is like my cattle. A cow will go off to herself up on the hill in the woods to a higher, warmer place (in winter) to have her calf.


When you have 500 – 1000 female bats attaching that many “pups” to the ceiling in the high, warm maternity ward circle of 6 feet in diameter, how does she identify her pup? Just like cow and calf, by smell.


Another question would be how does a bat hang from the ceiling, give birth, and not drop the pup to the floor? She hangs by one wing (which has thumb and fingers) and catches the pup with the other, wraps it, bonds, and attaches it to the ceiling.


How does she get pregnant? – When she wants to. They can breed numerous times, but she will decide when to conceive in a time that suits her mating, hibernation, and migration schedule. We could learn from the bats.


The white-nose syndrome that affects the bats in Mammoth Caves hasn’t reached this far west yet, so they don’t require the “shoe covers” here to prevent us tracking it into the cave.


The Native Americans would inhabit ledge type caves, but they didn’t enter these underground caverns. They believed them to possess evil powers and spirits. This left them available for bandits and pirates of European descent to later find vacancies there. Everybody has to be somewhere.


Caves have been shelter or adventure to many of us including Injun Joe and Tom and Huck, to name a few.


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