Thursday, December 23, 2010

Warm River Cave - an old story

...from long ago and not so far away....

       A few miles north of Covington, Virginia just off State Route 220 lies the entrance to an alien world visited in winter by Richmond area educators on a teacher adventure sponsored by the Mathematics and Science Center. Our field trip leader, a science teacher in Hanover County, had gotten permission for access to the cave, which is on private property.
     We drove off the main highway only a few hundred yards. There we parked the van that had brought us from Tawny's Cave near Blacksburg where we had explored the day before. On the slope of a hill near the road there was a misty cloud floating up from the ground into the cold December air. The temperature was only in the 20's so we bundled up carefully before getting out. We walked toward the rising column of steam and discovered a pit with sheer sides about eighty feet deep.
          After receiving instruction from our leader we free-climbed down the rock walls of the pit clinging to small jagged toe holds and jamming fingers into small cracks in the frozen rock being cautious not to step on any icy spots. At the bottom of the hole there was a wall of steamy air, and  as we stepped through it into the entrance room of Warm River Cave all of a sudden we were out of the cold. It was warm!
     The day before we had left Richmond early in the morning and had spent most of the day exploring Tawny's Cave. Just off the road to Mountain Lake, Tawny's is a cave that very likely matches your mental image of the way a cave SHOULD look, complete with sinuous interconnected passages, stalactites, drip stone formations and even a few bats hanging from the ceiling.
     Warm River Cave is very different. It is a limestone cave but it doesn't' have many stalactites or stalagmites. Instead it consists mainly of "breakdown". Water flowing underground has carved away so much rock that the whole inside of the mountain appears to have caved in on itself. The huge jagged boulders dropped down in tumbled confusion, leaving lots of space to crawl between the rocks. It was like climbing through the spaces in a jumbled pile of building blocks.
     We left a change of clothing in the entrance room and began to climb down and down and down, ever deeper, sometimes squeezing through openings so small that we had to hump through them stretched out flat like caterpillars, scraping rock a little on all sides.
     Before long we came to an eerie part of the inside of the mountain where the entire rock structure of the mountain had dropped a short distance without breaking. Imagine a crack three and a half feet wide, tipped at an angle of forty-five degrees, stretching up past your head for fifty to a hundred feet, and just below your heels jammed onto a three-inch ledge slanting down, down, down, out of sight beyond the reach of your helmet-mounted light. It was like a mountain within the mountain. It stretched off into the distance below me and as far to the left as I  could see in the dim light of our headlamps. It was spooky, but exciting!
     We wedged our way sideways across this subterranean rockfall for a least another ten minutes before reaching another area of tumbled breakdown where we could continue our descent. Now whenever we stopped to catch our breaths, we could hear the murmur of water rushing across rocks somewhere still deeper ahead of us.
     A few more minutes of scrambling and sliding down over rocks brought us to an underground stream five feet wide and a foot or two deep, its rushing waters plunging off downhill into the blackness. There was enough space to climb along the tumbled rocks at the edge of the water for another hundred yards before we came to a spot where it was evident that two underground streams joined each other.  A cold stream welled up from under some rocks to the left, and was joined by a smaller stream rushing out of a low passage to the right. It was obvious that if we wanted to go any farther, not only would we have to crawl, we would have to crawl IN the water! The water felt just slightly cool to us as we got down gingerly on hands and knees, but within seconds it felt comfortable. It must have been at least 70 degrees!
     For the next two hours we were rarely off our hands and knees, and that was usually to drop to our bellies to pull ourselves along in the water with forearms, elbows, and toes as if we had been attempting to bypass an enemy outpost in some jungle war-movie!
     In a few places the roof of the passageway dropped so low that we had to take off our helmets and float through narrow openings on our backs, noses a half-inch above the surface of the water and an inch from the roof, rocks pressing in to within inches of our cheekbones. In one place, not even that technique would work. We had to submerge to get under the rock that just barely cleared the surface of the water in order to be able to continue on the other side. It was challenging!
     Occasionally we would come to small rooms or the passageway would open out wider, providing enough headroom to stand up and walk, splashing along in the streambed for a hundred feet or so. More than once in these rooms we could see other passageways leading off in different directions higher up. The cave evidently has many different levels.
     Finally we came to a larger room with flow stone cascading in petrified falls down the walls. There were beautiful shallow rimstone pools here, with chuckling four-inch waterfalls. Off to the right side of the room was a deep pool of water. Shining our lights into the pool we could see it slanting back steeply under the rock wall forty or more feet deep, crystal clear and beautiful sky blue, to a point where we could see no farther. This was one of the warm spring sources of the underground stream that we had been following.
     Far back into the mountain, we came to a larger chamber that had steep, slippery clay banks slanting up out of the water thirty feet or more. Like children, or uninhibited otters, we spent the next half hour scrambling up the incline to take turns slithering back down our improvised mudslide into the warm, muddy water, while the passageways of the cave echoed back our whoops, shouts, and laughter.
     Traveling back through the water-filled passageway was easy: the hard part was the long climb back up to the surface over cold rocks, in air that felt even cooler on our wet clothes. As we climbed out of the pit into a fierce snowstorm and raced for the warmth of the vans, we knew we'd had a real adventure!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Modern Cities You've Never Thought Of

            I've stopped to spend a leisurely hour in the city of Hartsfield. Sitting beside one of the major thoroughfares, I'm watching the heavy traffic flowing in both directions, and speculating on the origins and destinations of all the other travelers passing through.
            You won't find the city of Hartsfield designated as such on any map of Georgia, although its average population must make it one of the larger cities in the state. The climate is remarkably even, varying little from an ideal 70 degrees , summer or winter, year around.
            Hartsfield is a futuristic city. Conventional cars must be left in parking lots on the outskirts of the city. A robotic rapid transit subway system whisks commuters between the business areas of the city, and a woman's soft computerized voice announces each station stop. The few vehicles you see here are electric powered, and are reserved only for those who are unable to walk easily. Virtually all of the traffic within the city limits is pedestrian.
            The entire population of this city has arrived recently, actually within the last few hours, and although I'm  told that the number of people here at times exceeds fifty thousand, no one stays long. There are no residences here, and workers leave at the end of their shifts to travel to bedroom communities located in Atlanta or other nearby towns within easy driving distance. Hartsfield, with its totally transient population is indeed a city of the future, complete with its own roads, shopping malls, fire department, police force, and city administration.
            This is a new kind of city, having come into existence only within the past couple of decades, taking its place along with the other great unmapped cities of its kind like O'Hare in Illinois, Dulles in Virginia, Heathrow in England, and Le Bourget in France.
            Like the traffic in more conventional cities, the volume of traffic in the city of Hartsfield ebbs and flows fitfully, punctuated by the low rumbling roar of jet engines in the background. Fascinating as it is, everyone seems anxious to leave, stopping in clusters to scan with furrowed brows the rows of digital data on banks of computer screens that display a continuously changing list of arrivals and departures.
            Somewhere far off to the south, a couple of weeks walk, many hours of driving, or an hour and twenty minutes by plane, other intent eyes are scanning digital data on other banks of computer screens, all of them focused on the departure of a single flying machine now scheduled to leave on Dec. 17 at 8:51 p.m. EST. That is the tentative targeted time when space shuttle Discovery will leap for the last time from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I'll be watching.
            A faceless voice is announcing my own departure from this strange city. It's time to grab my possessions and to join the others crowding to leave Hartsfield International Airport. I know that I'll be back. Even though I wouldn't want to live here, it's a great place to visit!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Latitude Lassitude

What can you say about an interstate highway...any interstate highway? Basically they all look the same, with minor variations. They are the cement incarnation of a Phillip Glass symphony...seemingly endless repetitions of the same theme, gradually, very gradually evolving from one thing into something else. The music changes with the surface underneath the tires; whispering over smooth asphalt, humming over longitudinal highway grooving, whining over transverse grooves, the tarmac tympani changing the beat from thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump to kathunkety-thunk, kathunkty-thunk as the spacing between the expansion joints changes.
The vegetation gradually changes size, type, texture, tint. The trees seem to observe the state borders. Cruising down Interstate 95, soon after we cross into North Carolina we begin to spot the wispy gray beards of Spanish Moss hanging from tree branches. As we near the the lower side of South Carolina, very close to the Georgia state line we spot the first palmetto trees, and leave the predominant oaks, maples, and sycamores behind.
The colors of the highway change too as we travel, sometimes dark and smooth, then dark with millions of sparkling mica facets that catch and reflect the sunlight, paving the highway with countless diamonds. In parts of Virginia the highways have a distinct greenish tinge from the Catoctin Greenstone gravel that goes into the cement mix, but in Florida the cement pavement of I-95 South is glaring white like the low white sand dunes we see as we turn east off the Interstate toward Cocoa Beach.
Perhaps the most magical change is the air itself. Tropical air is sensuous. Why is that? Surely not just the varying amount of moisture in the atmosphere, since that fluctuates seasonally in Richmond from dry to saturated, and it never feels like Florida. I think that it must be the unique combination of ocean salt in the air and the vegetation. Indian River grass washed up and decaying on sandy western shores, sawgrass, palmetto, swamp-smells blended with hints of flowers and the warm moist air all blend in a heady recipe that seeps into your lungs to work its spell. A few deep breaths and you want to get rid of shoes and wiggle toes in white sand, rub pungent coconut oil on your skin, lie in the sun or sprawl on warm sand. The resulting change of attitude might be blamed on latitude. It isn't exactly ennui, but gone are any plans that involve hurrying. Fading fast is any kind of planning at all. Normally get up at 6:30 or 7:00? Try 8:00 or even 9:00 without a twinge of regret! Thought you might go fishing or paddle a kayak on the Indian River in the morning? Why rush? The river will still be there this afternoon, or tomorrow, for that matter. A few insidious thoughts creep in that you should be doing something, but hey!....sitting and watching a snowy egret stealthily hunting breakfast, or taking note of the changing shapes, colors, and textures of the clouds overhead or watching distant sailboats scurrying south along the Intra-Coastal Waterway...well, those are doing something!

Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Road Again

     Failure to launch! We had not yet left Richmond today when a friend in Florida called, saying that he had just heard that the Shuttle launch had been pushed back from Monday afternoon for at least 24 hours while maintenance crews search for and repair nitrogen and helium leaks in the port-side Orbital Maneuvering System on Shuttle Discovery. We'll continue on schedule our trip to Florida anyway, pleased that we have reservations for multiple nights at the Long Point Campground south of the Kennedy Space Center.
     The day is perfect for cruising the interstate: bright sunshine, cool but not cold, a cloudless sky - except for one tiny spot of white that looks like a hovering UFO. As we roll through southern Virginia approaching the North Carolina border there are lots of cotton fields, millions of dark, dried stalks holding their puffy white harvest up to the Autumn sunshine.
     The traffic is steady but not too heavy, and we see lots of vehicles with Canadian plates on motor homes and trailers...Québécois fleeing from temperatures that are already dipping at night into the 20's, heading for extended stays in Florida.
     The mid-day sunlight illuminates the leaves of trees turning yellow, turning them to glowing gold, shimmering as they flutter in the afternoon breezes. The gusty slipstream that chases tractor trailers makes the long green blades of grass along the roadside ripple in waves, shiny and scintillating, reflecting the sun.
     North Carolina scrolls past the windows, showing off its magnificent treatment of interstate landscaping. Spectacular six-foot-wide alternating strips of red and white flowers near on and off ramps mimic the red and white stripes of the American Flag.
     Signs and billboards along the road clamor for the attention of drivers, each attempting to outdo its competitors  with extravagant claims. "35,000 Towels in stock at J&R - Exit 97", "World's Largest Gun Show Next Exit!!!", "See and Do Orlando"!
     Anything that may break through to the jaded senses of drivers, enticing a short stop, is a plus. Although Kenly, NC is over a hundred miles from the ocean, a truck stop within sight of I-95 has erected a towering replica of the real lighthouse at Cape Lookout. Beginning in the middle of the state, over a hundred miles from North Carolina's southern border you begin to see really "kitchy" signs exhorting you to stop at "South of the Border", a complex of arcades, gift shops, rides, and greasy-spoon fast-food enterprises just over the border in South Carolina. A huge slab of a sign bigger than the boxy building beside it shouts, "LARGEST SELECTION OF FIREWORKS ON THE EAST COAST!"
     The sun is dipping below an orange horizon as we pull into Santee, South Carolina for some dinner. We'll spend the night here, and continue our slide south in the morning.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Final Countdown

     The last countdown for Space Shuttle Discovery really began on September 20th when the enormous tracked mobile launch platform lumbered ponderously out of the 52 story tall Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, carrying Discovery with its big red empty external fuel tank and the solid rocket boosters toward Launch Pad 39A three miles away, a journey accomplished at the speed of a slow stroll.
     Now on Thursday evening, October 28th its final liftoff is less than a hundred hours away. The astronaut crew members flew in to the Kennedy Space Center from Houston this afternoon.
     Here in Richmond, Virginia we've begun a smaller less complicated countdown with our our shorter, less critical checklists as we load food, clothing, bedding, electronics, entertainment, cellphone and battery chargers and the like aboard our Chinook RV for an ETD of noon on Friday, heading for a geographical rendezvous with Space Shuttle Discovery while it's still fastened securely to the Earth. We'll be watching from the vantage point of Titusville, Florida on Monday at 4:40 p.m.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rappahannock River Adventure

September 18th, 2010
     We got a late start on Saturday morning, driving the Chinook RV East on I-64, Rt 33 through West Point to Rt 17, and then on smaller roads eastward to Topping, Virginia.
Turning down a dirt road we came to Camp Kekoka on Indian Creek. An all-day music festival was already in progress, but we had come to listen to our neighbor Robbin Thompson play at 3:30.
We strolled down to the dock to look out across the water, searching for Robbin's sailboat "Song Bird". It was nowhere insight, although he had posted on his website that he was looking forward to sailing from his home slip in Jackson Creek near Deltaville to the concert. We wondered if he was still beating north to windward against the strong winds blowing down the Chesapeake Bay.
   We bought hot dogs at a vending stand, and as we stood listening to the music and munching on our summertime luncheon, Robbin came up to say hello. He had slept on his boat and had planned to sail up to Indian Creek, but the 30 knot north winds and 4 foot seas had convinced him that driving his car was a more comfortable option!
We moved our folding chairs closer to the performance stage as Robbin's assigned time got close, and enjoyed a full hour of his songs, including "Out on the Chesapeake", and his best-known and most popular composition "Sweet Virginia Breeze"
   After the concert we drove back across the high bridge spanning the Rappahannock River to Grey's Point Campground for a sunset paddle in the kayaks, and to spend the night.

September 19
   After a leisurely breakfast we packed up and headed north on Rt 3, eventually turning back toward the river and Belle Isle State Park, which preserves over 700 acres of riverfront, marshes, and forest. We put our kayaks in at a sandy bottomed spot on one of the tidal creeks, and explored the marshes for several hours  before heading back to Richmond.
Click here for video
A great way to celebrate the last weekend of summer!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Kayaking The Chicahominy

The Chicahominy River flows roughly northwest to southeast, all of it across the almost-flat coastal plain of Virginia known as "Tidewater". Here, when the tide is ebbing rivers flow toward the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, but as the tide turns and begins to rise, the river currents slow, stop, reverse their direction, and for six hours flow upstream. The river meanders its sinuous course across the coastal plain, mostly shallow and spread out, filling the swampy areas along both sides and providing a rich ecosystem that is difficult for humans to develop.  Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes settled along its banks long ago, living in harmony with their surroundings and being supported by the river and marshes. Each tribe still has land along the river.
At its broad mouth, the Chicahominy joins the even wider James River just above Jamestown. Here, on land next to the new Route 5 Bridge, James City County maintains a wonderful park that includes acres of woods, picnic areas, a large grassy field, a boat launch ramp, and lots of camping sites.
As long as you pay attention to whether the tide is flowing in or out, the flat water here is a wonderful, easily accessible place to enjoy a paddle on the river.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hot Air Ballon Adventure

In mid-July we went to the Boars' Head Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia with our grand-nephew Alex and my sister-in-law Linda to go hot air ballooning. The rendezvous time was 6:00 a.m., and it was just beginning to get light. The balloon pilot, Mr. Behr has been offering trips from the Boar's Head Inn since 1980. The first thing he did was inflate a 10 inch helium balloon and let it go, watching carefully to see how it rose above the trees, noting that it was moving toward the north. Since a balloon flight always moves with the wind, Mr. Behr states that he has spent the last 30 years of his career not having any idea where he is going!

    Determining that the light breeze and the weather report were both good, he instructed us to walk with him just a short distance to an open area, where he and his assistant unloaded the huge bundle that contained the balloon, and the large basket that all ten passengers would ride in.  The balloon was stretched out and attached to the tipped-over basket, and a gasoline-driven high-speed fan was used to blow cold air into the balloon opening to begin the inflation. Once there was adequate space the double propane burners at the top end of the basket frame were turned on, quickly filling the balloon.
     We all scrambled in, and seconds later we drifted slowly into the air accompanied by the loud roar of the propane burners. A few short blasts, and all of a sudden it was totally quiet as we floated across a small lake near the Inn, over a road and an affluent neighborhood out toward wooded countryside.
     The sun was low on the eastern horizon as we sailed along. There was very little sensation of movement. Since the air all around the balloon was moving at the same slow speed as the balloon itself, it felt more as if the balloon was stationary and the ground was somehow scrolling past beneath us.
     Do you think you'd like to do this too? Investigate here:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Visit to London

....Arkansas, that is! It's a two day trip from Richmond, Virginia. The first day of driving follows I-64W to I-81S down through the SW tip of Virginia at Bristol, crossing over into Tennessee, and then West on I-40 about halfway through Tennessee before stopping for the night. The morning of the second day is for completing the long stretch that covers the rest of Tennessee, then across the Mississippi River into Arkansas, through Little Rock in the middle of the state, and on another 80 some odd miles through Russellville on the edge of Lake Dardanelle to the crossroads of London, population just under 1,000 people.
My daughter Lynne and her husband Blake Slater live there, along with grand-daughter Devin, our main reason for going. Lynne is signed up for a week-long, three-unit course that is being given an hour and forty minutes one way drive from home, and we're staying with Devin during the day while Mommy and Daddy are away.
It's summertime, and it's HOT! One way to cool off is for the kids to play in the sprinklers!