Spelunking the underground world

We descend the stairs into the dungeon-like cavern, the humid air clinging to us, and our shoes sliding on the slimy uneven ground. The lights on our headlamps bounce off the crystals that sparkle on the stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Steadying myself on a rock, I notice a cave cricket with long spindly legs and antenna crawling close to my hand. Everyone else in the cave is oohing and aahing at the different formations along the cave wall. I look up and can’t believe that Bowie High School sits right above us — on top of the cave.

My dad’s whole job revolves around caves; he has been caving since he was 17, and now he works for the City of Austin managing a team that finds and digs out previously filled-in caves. They remove dirt and trash so the cave environment can thrive again, and people can explore them and learn about a world under their feet. Fifty thousand people in South Austin use groundwater for their water supply, so my dad studies where their water comes from. In doing this, he also protects the fragile cave food web that ensures the survival of all cave species.

Since I was 4 years old, I have accompanied my dad many times to exotic caves few people have ever been in; some we had to enter by rappelling on a harness and rope, other caves had passages I could barely fit through, one cave we had to swim through, and another had beautiful clay sculptures created from previous explorers.

Last weekend my dad took a group of people whom I bike with to three different caves in South Austin. Most of the people had never been caving before and were surprised at how different it was from movies and the commercial caves. The first, named—— , was located right under Bowie High School. The second, ——,  was a cave so narrow that we had to crawl to get through a passage. I heard the person in front of me yell a warning to me, but I didn’t understand until I almost stepped into a gaping hole in the ground below me — a 7-foot drop. The last cave Lacrosse Cave was even more intense. We had to crawl on our stomachs, head first, down a narrow passage. Pulling ourselves along the rocks resulted in some scrapes and bruises. Once we made it out, we saw a small salamander trying to run away and hide under rocks.

I always love seeing how everybody’s mood changes when they are in a cave — their fear turns into excitement, and they seem closer after going through this cave adventure. For me, caving helps get me out of my comfort zone and makes me realize how to enjoy these unique experiences that open my eyes to the mysteries of cave life.