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Archive for July, 2007

Life and death in the “bone pit”.

IMG_6946, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

Here in a cave that we visited last weekend Greg examines a root – some distance beneath the earth.

Beneath the surface mythology and spirituality feel closer – is it in any way surprising that ritual and ceremony were so closely tied to caves by early man?

There is of course the old connection between life and death – closer to reality when crawling underground. As mentioned we frequently find bones and the remains of the forest creatures. A carcass is a living forest of fungus, its nutrient being a valuable source of food to the underground creatures. And in death new life is usually born.

The Mayans had an interesting view of the world – they saw their universe as existing on several levels, the surface of the earth being just one plane of that universe. With 190 gods that we know of several were assigned to the planes beneath the surface. The sun – bringer of life was swallowed each evening by “Xibalba” (shee – bal – bah) one of the underworld gods. As a jaguar the sun travel through the inky underworld – (caves and cenotes beneath the Yucatan Peninsula) to re-emerge at dawn as the sun again.

In the Mayan culture there is a strong belief in duality – of good countered by evil, life balanced by death, the surface and the underwold etc. etc.

This root that we found – protruding down into the bottom of the bone pit seemed especially significant – its living presence representing the duality that is the underworld – death bringing life. Maybe it is this proximity to the natural processes and the recognition of the unknown and superstition mixed with awe and wonder that brings on that feeling of spiritual connection.

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Probably had a hammer taken to them.

IMG_6926, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

These shattered stumps of stalactites are a good reason why the caves should remain anonymous in their location. Certain, easily accessible areas are quite badly vandalized but deeper where crawling and exploration beyond the daylight is required the environment is still pristine. Looking under a low shelf into the no-go area you can see in the distance some really incredible stuff – “pretties” as cavers refer to them.

Notice the concentric layers in the crossection. The rock is deposited as CO2 gasses off reducing the amound of mineral that can be held in suspension. Stalactites grow in length until they become blocked and then deposition on their outer surface gives them their characteristic carrot shape.

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Suspected buried passages beneath where we were crawling.

IMG_6884, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

We suspected that the tunnels within which we were crawling – though broken into several smaller caves – might actually be an interconnected warren of passages simply blocked by thousands of years of porcupine feces.

In many places the tunnels appear to have a lower level from where the water may have welled up though the passage straight ahead was filled to the roof with prickly – spine encrusted – mounds of porcupine droppings. I pushed one such diminishing passage until my face was pressed close to the earth and the smell hurt my lungs. I wondered about histoplasmosis and the like and thought that I should back out for my own good health.

At the upper end of the ridge – while hacking toward the upper end of the known cave passages I found a blind valley that seemed to drop to the level of the tunnels within the ridge. The remarkable thing though was that the valley appeared to end quite abruptly in a pothole that was clogged almost to its rim by leaves. I wonder if this was an entrance that led down to the lower levels that we had suspect ran beneath where we were crawling.

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Does anyone know what kind of vertebrae this is?

IMG_6953, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

Shortly after descending the bone pit Greg found two beaver skulls in a corner and as I was walking I kicked something that made an oddly porcelean sound – very unlike the sound of the rock shards beneath my feet.

In examining the cave floor I found this broad plate-like piece of what I think was bone – a vertebrae fused to the inside of it. The plate was far thinner than the other bones and appeared to be partly stone in places or maybe it was just scaled over with flowstone.

Some possibilities that came to mind – it is certainly from something larger than a beaver and with a thinner skull – someone suggested a deer ??? I will show the picture to my chiropractor this wednesday and see if the vertebrae look human. They have a model in the office that shows the lower lumbar – where my problem lies with all the nerves coming out. If it were human, might this be a burial site – or more likely just some unfortunate who had fallen down the shaft in the forest.

(Just been checking out pictures on “google images” of human vertebrae – never realized how different they all are and also I am not seeing the hole at the center of the vertebrae like you would see in a human – also wonder about the angle of attachment looks like the skull would be pretty flat on top.)

I recall the bones – like water-logged slabs of wood – that we had pulled up from a sinkhole north of Orangeville. Buried deep in the glacially deposited clay and agregates we had exposed them with a sucking dredge and they turned out to be what was left of many ice-age caribou. I suppose a shaft that bells out at the bottom is a natural trap and anything that falls down there is unable to climb out. Fascinating! The debris is really deep on the floor – it would be an amazing place for an archaeologist to dig.

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Falling would have unpleasant consequences.

IMG_6907, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

With suitable caution Valerie inches down the pit – not so deep but far more slippery than you might imagine. The scalloped roof indicates the former presence of running water and by the tunnel shape I would suggest at one time a pheratic passage – beneath the water table.

I suppose the question would be, had the water been flowing from lower down and out through the mouth of the shaft or had it been entering the rock from here?

According to Greg; “M”, a well known caver had suggested that the whole system had developed beneath the ice – as meltwater had been blasting along toward some point of escape – somewhere that the pressure of entrapment , (beneath as much as 6000 feet of ice) might be relieved. The weight of the ice may have cracked the rock and the speed and pressure of the escaping water would have exploited those weaknesses. It is theorized that another well known system (nearby) with at least 4 kilometers of straight line passage was created by the injection of high pressure water into fissues beneath a glacial lake.

As a general trend the cave tunnels dip toward the lake but the need for water to follow along a sloping incline does not exist under the water table. Water can flow uphill when under pressure and beneath a glacier the intense conditions and unsuspected erosive possibilities could be quite remarkable. This leads us to suspect a vast network of similar passages across the region but the difficult terrain leaves us balking at the prospect.

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We peer within contemplating a slippery descent.

IMG_6852, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

Following along the top of the ridge we soon located this elliptically shaped pit, “A bit like the “solution shaft at Olmstead” Valerie commented. Corneilie, Marc and Valerie peer down within – Mark suggesting to his fiance – Corneilie – “Be careful”. Greg warned of the possibility of venomous snakes thus bringing to mind an experience we had shared in another nearby pit some two years previously.

With Greg rigging a rope for security Corneile led the way. The shaft was not so deep but extremely slippery as though the rock had been smeared with vaseline and the belling-out at the bottom added to the treachery of the descent.

Beneath the ridge the tunnel led off along a similar orientation to all the other local passages – along the alignment of the ridge. One direction was out of bounds as the formations were to plentiful for safe travel but the view from the tunnel mouth – beneath a low shelf was incredible. Following up the other tunnel there were many soda straws and rock curtains – though it was the quantity of bones lying amongst the shards at the bottom of the pit that really peaked our curiosity.

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Seeping tunnels – dank and mouldy – forgotten in their forested obscurity. 

IMG_6858, originally uploaded by Mic2006.

The dolostone surface of this area was ground smooth by an enormous sheet of ice – a lobe that stretched down in a south westerly direction. The melting front retreated past this point around 12000 years ago.

The lake beside whose shores we trudged had been scraped to a depth of around 10 meters and all along the water’s edge there are striae left by boulders dragged beneath the ice.

Some distance along the shore a humped ridge intersects the lake. It was along the valley beside the ridge that we trudged – through juniper and cedar – following Greg’s map toward the tunnel entrances. As we were the first such visitors allowed on the new permit system our care was extreme – ducking under dead brances, avoiding patches of moss and replacing dead leaves where they were disturbed by our footprints. Every effort was made to come and go in perfect “zero impact” to the forest.

As you can see by the picture it is rather a grandiose tunnel entrance, this big hole intersected at its back by a low crawling tunnel that entered and continued on along the alignment of the ridge.

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