Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wild Caving

It's almost that time again to go spelunking at Alabaster Caverns.  From April 1st until the end of September you can not only explore the main cavern, but you can also go wild caving in one of the four wild caves in the park.

Last August, we gathered up a swell group of friends (you have to have at least 3 people) and headed out to Freedom, OK early in the morning.  Our adventure first began with rescuing a tri-athlete on the side of the expressway with a blown-out bike tire, but fortunately no bodily injuries.  She was an Oklahoma-transplant and I hope that we restored her faith in Okie goodness.  I also shared my blog with her, since she wasn't aware of all of the great things Oklahoma offers for the adventurous.

Photo by Bryan Fowler
After depositing her and her crippled bike at a convenience store to wait for her rescue ride home, we continued on our way.  One of my dearest friends had brought along "The Sound of Music" soundtrack.  We yodeled along to The Lonely Goatherd as we drove through the downtown streets of Kingfisher.  Since helmets are required for wild caving, we donned our headgear and rolled the windows down enjoying the beautiful day and our silliness.  After a bit, we noticed that there were people lining up in their lawn chairs along the sides of the street and waving at us.  I don't believe that we were the reason for the attention, but the local residents had to believe that this was the strangest parade ever!

We arrived at the Alabaster Caverns State Park about midday, so we took a quick lunch break before the exploration began.  A horned lizard joined us - a rare treat since their populations have taken a dive in the last few decades.

For a small fee, we got our wild caving permits, signed waivers, and let the park staff know which cave we were going to explore first.  They require you to check in with them before and after each cave.  We were thoroughly warned that they would send search and rescue after us if we weren't back by 3pm, and charge us a hefty fine, too.

The first cave we picked was HoeHandle.  I was not expecting much, due to the hype of the tram ride into the main cavern and the warning that there were not "modern conveniences" in the wild cave (well, I hope not!).  I was wrong.  The large entrance quickly narrows to a crawl space that made this claustrophobic girl a bit panic-y.  We discovered bats, camelback crickets, a salamander, and a lone field mouse.  Although this particular cave wasn't the wettest by description, we still ended up army-crawling through a couple inches of what we thought was muddy water.  When we came out the other end of the cave, we consulted our map and discovered that the muddy hole near the end is popular with the local cattle and we had just crawled through bovine "excreta".  Their creative phrasing didn't make us feel or smell any better, especially since we could only find barbed-wire barriers at the end and had to crawl back through the "excreta" to return the way we came.

The day was getting long, so we picked a second and final cave for the day and decided on Owl Cave.  It was a short, but scenic, hike to get to the cave.  The gaping entrance drops down into a more narrow, but still semi-tall, path.  We made our way to the far end of the cave and followed the trickling water until it became too slick and small to go any further.  The day was hot, but we were cool in the damp and dark of the cave.

After we changed into clean clothes, we headed home along the Great Plains Trail.  On our way, we decided to stop in Waynoka for ice cream at the local soda fountain shop.  The sweetness was only intensified by a lovely rainstorm like only a blazing hot Oklahoma day can brew.  We sat under the awning and licked melting ice cream and soaked up the day.

There are two other wild caves at Alabaster Caverns that we still need to explore - Ice Stalactite and Bear Cave.  If you go, be prepared to get stinking filthy.  Bring a change of clothes and take advantage of the showers at the park.  Don't be afraid of the bats, rodents, reptiles, and bugs.  Don't expect the maps or park staff to provide much direction on the wild caves.  Explore, enjoy, and be silly.  You will be dirty and stinky and not give an excreta!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Wildlife Bingo

We have this game we play whenever we take off on an outdoor adventure.  It's pretty simple - we list all of the wildlife that we want to see that day.  Of course, to really prove that you have seen the animal, there has to be identifiable, photographic evidence.

In Oklahoma, there are the usual suspects:  white-tailed deer, armadillos, red-tailed hawks, etc.  For fun, we will throw in a bobcat, fox, eagle, osprey, elk, or porcupine.  If we are feeling extra adventurous, then there will also be rattlesnakes and mountain lions on the list (from a safe distance, of course).

Today, not only did I see many of the usual critters, but also added a new wildlife sighting that I had never seen in the wild (in Oklahoma or any other state) - a river otter.

About a year ago, someone mentioned to me that there are river otters at the Wichita Mountains.  I thought that he was full of longhorn excreta (more on that fun word in a future blog post).  Ever since then, I've been on a mission to spot one.  I had even seen other people's photographic evidence of their existence in that area.  Challenge accepted - river otter was added to the "wildlife bingo" list every time I ventured to the 'tas.

The weather today was going to be beautiful - 74 and sunny.  Not too bad for the last day of February!  Unfortunately, it is Friday, so all of my hiking friends are slaving away at their 9-5s.  I disregarded the plaque in the Charon's Garden area of the Wichitas that warns people to never hike alone, in memory of someone that lost their life there in the rock rooms (another future blog post).  Afterall, it was going to be one of my last chances to go there for a while, and the weather was perfect.

On my way, I decided to pull off the turnpike to try to see what bird had been sitting in the nest I've been watching.  The zoom lens came in handy to view the adult great-horned owl.  I must have disturbed her when I got out of the car.  She flew off into the field and in her place was a three-week old owlet.  Darn!  I didn't even have owl on my bingo list!

I chose to hike the bison trail section of Dog Run Hollow, since it runs along French Lake and Cache Creek and the 40-foot hole.  I had been told that the river otters have been spotted all over the area, just following the water.  But, Donna at the Visitors' Center warned me that my chances of spotting the otters there were slim and said that the most recent sighting had been in a different area.  I took my chances anyway, since this was a well-marked trail and I was hiking solo.  Sure enough, she was right - no otters.

I was driving away from the refuge as the shadows grew long.  I got almost to Medicine Park and pulled my car over.  Searching for a map of the refuge, or even one of the state, I came up empty.  Finally, I remembered that I had a handkerchief from the Visitors' Center gift shop that had a map of the refuge printed on it.  I pulled it out of my backpack and found the spot that Donna mentioned.  Of course, it was at the opposite end of the park.  Turning the car around, I raced against the sunset.

river otter? or beaver?
The lake was still.  No ripples except from a few Canada geese and red-eared sliders slipping off the logs into the water.  No signs of playful river otters.  Determined, I started walking the perimeter of the lake.  In the distance, I see a bobbing head in the water.  I knew that it was much more likely to be a beaver than an otter, but I was hopeful.  The shutter was clicking as I quickly scrambled on the rocks to get a better view.  There were whiskers, lots of them.  Still not convinced, I moved quicker towards my subject.  He dove underwater.
scruffy little guy

At least I had some pictures to try to scrutinize later.  I sat down and checked the viewfinder.  Would it be good enough to get a proper ID?  Before I could determine the answer, the bobbing head resurfaced.  For the next hour, I watched as the otter swam around, caught his dinner, rolled gracefully, and played on the shoreline.  The light was low, but the pictures were good enough to convince even the doubters, such as myself.

Not great quality, but definite ID