Monday, June 17th, 2013
I woke up Monday morning with the sounds and an aching back and ribs from our deflated air mattress. Turns out the birds start up as soon as day breaks. Since I get up pretty early anyway, I didn’t try to sleep in on the bed of rocks clearly detectable beneath our flat air mattress. A couple of deer wandered through the campsite. I was able to get a couple of pictures, though my 300x lens isn’t stabilized, and I’m not steady enough to get very many non-shaky pictures — especially when the lens is all the way out.
This is one of the two deer. You can see the bear locker behind it. It’s the big tan box that says “EXTRA” on it. All food — and anything that smells like food — goes in these. They post the rules for dealing with bears on them. They even suggest you take baby seats and boosters out of your car (probably because of all the food that gets dropped on them) so the bears and sniff them without tearing your car apart (which they can probably do).
I tried to take a shower across the road when I woke. They cost $3 in quarters, but they don’t open until 8:00 am.
So when I woke, I gathered some more firewood so I could start breakfast. I made what I dubbed “frontier biscuits,” which was Bisquick mixed with a little water to be tacky and cooked on a griddle over the fire. I would say they had a smokey flavor, but it was more sooty. I also made eggs on the camp stove.
The kids didn’t like the frontier biscuits. All said, “I peeled off the frontier part and ate the yummy part in the middle.”
After we were all ready, I went to the Lodgepole Visitor Center across the street and got tickets for the 11:30am Crystal Cave tour. The ranger told me the whole thing takes about three to four hours. It’s about a one-hour drive from Lodgepole to the Crystal Cave parking lot (and it was — even though it’s only 12 miles, it’s 12 REALLY curvy miles), about a 15 minute hike from the parking lot to the cave entrance. And you’re in the cave for 30-45 minutes, I’d guess.
At the entrance to the Crystal Cave.
We were told that the summer schedule for the cave tours had just started, and they were giving tours every 30 minutes.
We met the curator at the top of the trail to the cave, and he gave us a talk about White Nose Syndrome, which is a fungus that’s affecting bats in caves in the Eastern United States. They’re afraid this will spread, so they ask everyone not to wear clothes or bring items into the caves that have been in any others caves since 2005. They also make everyone walk through a big mat saturated with a bleach solution.
The hike down was strenuous, as it’s one-half mile that’s downhill and steep. I was not relishing the trip back up. We passed a waterfall on the way down, but didn’t stop at it until we were finished with the cave tour.
Crystal Cave was discovered by Alex Medley and Cassius Webster in 1918. It’s estimated to be about 1.2 million years old. According to our guide, there are hundreds of such caves in the park, but this is the only one accessible to the public. They have found that the presence of people in the cave dramatically affects the wildlife in the caves.. There are animals, mostly microscopic, that only eat a couple times a year and their heart rates measure a few beats per day. They’ve recently discovered that the dead skin cells we drop while inside may increase the food supply and unbalance the ecosystem within.
The temperature within the caves in 48-deg-F year-round. It’s very damp within the caves, which is a kind of refreshing change from the arid air of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The caves are very well-lit using solar powered LEDs. Some of the passageways are rather tight, and for those with claustrophobia, it’s a great challenge to your will or a place to avoid at all costs (depending how you look at it).
Our guide gave us a glimpse into the past when Crystal Cave was first discovered. Once everyone was inside the Dome Room, he asked all of us to turn off our flashlights. Then he turned off the lights within the cave, making it absolutely dark.
The Dome Room
He had us imagine ourselves as those explorers in the early 20th century, using only a single lantern for light. He turned on his flashlight and shielded it with his hand, simulating the flickering light they had at the time.
On the way out of the caves, we stopped by a small waterfall before the hike back up.
The hike up wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the hike down. Maybe I was refreshed by the cool moist air in the caves. I went on ahead with Zachary (who had to go potty bad!). The rest of our group saw a fox with a dead squirrel in it’s mouth during their hike back up.
When we got back to Lodgepole, I went to the market across the street. While I was gone, a mama bear and two cubs crossed the mountain slope behind our campsite.
When I returned I decided to take the kids up the mountain slope a bit to see if we could find anything interesting.
While at the gift stand by Crystal Cave, Heather bought a book on Sierra Nevada wildlife, showing pictures of many animals, plants, rocks, animal excrement, etc. As we wandered around, Allie would look up in the book and tell us the name of the critter or plant we saw.
We found bear poop! We also found some tracks leading to it and away from it, which we didn’t follow.
This is one of about a dozen different varieties of stink bugs, or darkling beetles in the area.
I knew from childhood that these things squirt a stinking liquid from their butts, and I made sure the kids knew that (and didn’t find out the way I had).
We identified several different plants while we wandered up the slope as well.
We found a couple of felled trees up there as well, and we took that as an opportunity to gather more firewood.
While we wandered around this felled tree, I slipped and caught my fall with my right hand, which landed right on what I thought was some Poison Oak.
Either the poison oak soap and lotion from the market works really well, or I misidentified it. I had a little itching, but not as much as I expected. Stinging Nettle is much worse (don’t ask).
Allegra kept telling me we should turn back. I think she was afraid the bears would come back. I told her with the amount of noise we were making, no critters with ears would come anywhere near us.
Zachary was fixated with sticks, and picked up nearly everyone he could find. He used them as swords, dragged them in the dirt, hit his sister with them, drew on the ground.
He was constantly wanting to go back up the slope and see if we could reach the top, which we tried to do the next day.
Meanwhile, I went back to the market and bought some huge potatoes, because I suddenly really wanted a backed potato for dinner.
Allie LOVED the guide book Heather bought for her. Here nose was buried in it constantly.
While the potatoes were cooking, we wandered around our campsite and tried to identify the different trees.
She discovered that not all pine trees are the same. Some have short needles, some have long ones. Some have single needles, some are in pairs and some are in threes. Using this information, along with the shape of the pine cones and the appearance of the bark, she was able to identify pretty much every tree we saw.
After dinner, we were visited by another deer.
Since I didn’t want to use the flash and scare the deer away, I opened the aperture in my camera all the way out and slowed down the shutter speed, resulting in this blurry picture of Allie and the deer.
It wandered around for a few minutes, and I was able to get some good video of it (turns out my camera takes really good low-light video — who knew?). Then it wandered off.
We spent the rest of the evening eating roasted marshmallows and popcorn, singing songs and watching the campfire.