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You’re stooped over, following a flashlit path down into a hobbit-sized cave.
“Ouch!” The tall man behind you didn’t bend over.
The narrow tunnel opens into a large room. A small group of adults and children fill the room. The adults stand up, grateful for the chance to stretch.
“Are there goblins in here?”
“How far down are we?”
“Can I touch this?”
“How cold is it in here?”
Children—and a few grownups--pepper Ryan Brock, Florida Caverns State Park guide, with questions. He smiles and answers.
* * * * *
Do your grandchildren think Florida vacations are only movie-themed amusement parks with cartoon character parades? Then take them on a cave trek and nature walk instead—in the “real” Florida.
Florida Caverns is one of many State Parks where families can hike, canoe, fish, observe birds and wildlife. Let’s rejoin Ryan and his underground adventurers.
“Right here we’re 55 feet below the ground. The deepest part of the cave is 60 feet. It flooded during Hurricane Ivan. The temperature stays 65 degrees year ‘round, so it feels cool in the summer and warm in the winter.” He flashes his light across the walls and ceiling.
“This room is called the Drapery Room because of the translucent—that means light can pass through it—formations that resemble curtains or drapes.” He shines his light behind one “curtain.”
One little girl squeals. “Ooh, that’s like a ghost!”
“All these formations—the curtains, stalagmites, stalactites and others—were formed when liquid from the surface, such as rain or groundwater, seeped through the soil, picking up carbon from decaying plant material and forming carbonic acid that dissolved minerals like calcium, manganese and iron in the soil. As the acid dripped through the soil into the open cave below, it deposited these minerals.”
He flashes his light upward. “Some of the minerals stayed on the ceiling of the cave. These became stalactites.” His light swings down. “Some minerals were deposited on the floor. These are stalagmites.”
“How do you remember which is which?” a ten-year-old asks.
“Easy,” Ryan replies. “A stalactite hugs ‘tight’ to the ceiling and a stalagmite ‘might’ reach the top!”
Stepping carefully over the occasional puddle (“This is a living cave, so please watch your step and refrain from touching the formations.”), the group follows Ryan’s light down another narrow tunnel to more fancifully named chambers.
“You can get married in this room. We call it the Wedding Chapel.” His flashlight picks out a tiered white formation. “There’s the wedding cake. It’s white from calcium.”
Three thousand years ago, a portion of the cave collapsed, breaking the stalagmite columns in the Fracture Room. “Look at the new ones forming on top.”
In the room Ryan calls New York City Upside-Down, hundreds of tiny stalactites resemble upside-down skyscrapers. Pointing out the layers of colored rock, he explains, “The black color is manganese and the orange and red is from iron.”
In the Waterfall Room, hundreds of sea shells line the ceiling, a remnant of an ancient ocean that covered Florida.
In the Cathedral Room, Ryan asks, “Want to feel what total darkness is really like? Get ready.” He shuts off his light.
A tiny voice says, “I can’t see my hand.” The group laughs gently and Ryan flips his switch.
Ryan gestures to a column with a palm-sized shiny area. “You’ve been really good about not touching any formations, but this is one you can. This 150,000-year-old stalagmite is already ‘dead,’ so it’s OK to touch. It’s shiny from the oils in your skin.”
One of the children reaches a tentative finger and makes a face. “Ooh, slimy.” His mom raises an eyebrow.
“Don’t worry. We clean it every six months with salt water,” Ryan reassures her.
Crouching through yet another narrow passage, a visitor catches sight of something that doesn’t look like a rock. “What’s that fuzzy chicken nugget doing on the wall?”
“That’s a fully grown Eastern pipistrelle bat,” answers Ryan. “Let’s let it sleep.” All tiptoe past the creature that does indeed resemble a fuzzy fast food morsel.
“Oh, that’s bright!”
Ryan opens the door to the surface, and everyone squints at unaccustomed sunshine. Questions begin again.
“Can we fish here?” “How do I get to the campsite?” “Where can we rent a canoe?” “Can I go horseback riding?”
As Ryan directs questioners to campsites, riding stables and the lake, you and your grandchildren make your way back to the parking lot.
A soft breeze ruffles the leaves in maple and tupelo trees. A red-tailed hawk leaps from a high branch. Not a tropical beach or cartoon character in sight.
You can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventure--in the “real” Florida!
Join award-winning travel writer Yvonne Lanelli on adventures around the world!!
Florida Caverns State Park is north of I-10 between Tallahassee and Pensacola, just off Florida Highway 166. Vehicle admission is $4 for up to 8 persons. Cave tour admission: Age 13 and up $8.00, Age 3 to 12 $5.00, Age 2 and under free. Cave tours last 45 minutes and depart every hour. Tours are not handicapped accessible. Camping, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, ranger talks and tours available. For fees, reservations, or further information, click on http://www.floridastateparks.org/floridacaverns/ or call 850-482-9598.