When I was a young girl we visited the caverns at Carlsbad. It left an impression on me– where else could you see such amazing formations and eat snacks in a cafeteria 700 feet underground? I told Clay, “We HAVE to go to Carlsbad. The Caverns are what all other caves wish they could grow up to be.”
On Saturday, October 31, we drove up the flat ridge that comprises the national park property. For this first trip into the cave, we chose to ride the elevator down, instead of the hour long, 1.5-mile trek down switch back trails through the natural cave entrance. We’ll save the natural cave entrance for one of next week’s adventures.
We almost had the entire cave system to ourselves. With hand held audio guides, we wandered on paths through the Big Room (an enormous cavern the size of six football fields, 4000 feet long and 350 feet high), looking at the myriad formations. Strategic lighting illuminated fascinating features, but the cave was mostly left shadowed and silent.
As each drop of mineral rich moisture frizzled down stalactites from the ceiling, forming daggers and crystals and curtains it also built up mounds, monsters, fairy creatures and goblins on the floor as stalagmites. Drip, drip, over hundreds of thousands of years.
Time has no meaning in a cave like this. It just takes so very long to get things done. I was reminded of a phrase a Tibetan wise man told an impatient American pilot in the Tom Selleck movie, High Road to China, “The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient.”
Yes, she certainly took her time with these caverns, and I’m so glad she did.
Bats and more bats, Oh My!
Tonight (Halloween) was the very last Ranger led bat flight program at dusk for the year. How lucky was that! Quite soon, the bats will migrate to warmer climes for the winter. The bat flight program was scheduled to start at 5:45 pm so the ranger could be done before the bats flew at dusk. We got to the amphitheater at the natural cave entrance at 5pm. Good thing we did, because the bats started coming out right at that moment. (The bats keep their own schedule and apparently don’t check with the rangers.)
Flying completely silent, there were suddenly swarms of Mexican free-tail bats rising out of the funnel shaped cave mouth, spiraling upwards in a counterclockwise vortex. Wave after wave of bats arose then shifted into straight flight, regrouped in a hovering swarm of a few hundred bats, and then each group took off East looking for the nearest river to eat beetles and moths.
Although the outpouring of bats was constant, each flight separated from the next group to come out, like every bat knew exactly which squadron it belonged to.
The rangers estimate there are 400,000 bats in this colony. They migrate during the late fall to warmer climes in Central and South America.
After they arrive at Carlsbad in the Spring, a mother bat gives birth to one offspring. For the first 4-7 weeks, they are left alone in their nursery during the night time hunt, clinging to the roof of the cave waiting for the moms to return (don’t loose your grip, Skippy!). Although the mother bat calls to her individual pup, the first one to approach gets her milk.
As we watched the silent ballet, a huge hawk, taking advantage of the sheer mass of bats, swooped in and snatched a meal. He snapped up the tender bits for a few minutes and then tried for another one. He caught four more bats before the flight was over.
About thirty minutes into the constant outpouring of bats we started hearing chirps in the air, like the bats were talking. No, it was the cave swallows, really miffed that they had arrived too late to get back into the cave for the night before the bats started flying out. The swallows had to wait their turn for thirty more minutes before the bats finished their exit. So the swallows satisfied themselves by swooping around in anger and hassling the exiting bats.
After an hour, as the sun was setting in the western sky with rosy red and gold and the eastern sky was bathed in blue and pink, the bats were gone.