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Archive for the ‘cavers’ Category

I spent the last weekend in the Allegheny National Forest way up over there in north-central Pennsylvania. I had a great time.

I had gone over to count bats. We mid-western cavers have watched entire bat populations disappear over the last few years due to “white nose syndrome” – a fungus pathogen killing bat populations as they hibernate. No one is really certain where white nose comes from or how it migrates from bat colony to bat colony. There is considerable speculation that the fungus is spread by cavers with contaminated gear or clothing. I bleach my equipment after I get home now and so do most of the rest of the grotto members. Another likely explanation for the spread of white nose is that bats are contaminating themselves as they mate, but it is all speculation at this point. In any case it is a bad business and the Cleveland Grotto is conducting bat survey work for several research organizations “doing the science”.

Our grotto Conservancy Chair Eric Topeke asked me to drive over to the Allegheny National Forest and count whatever bats I could find in the mouth of a certain small cave known to be a bat hibernaculum. Eric had GPS coordinates and a description of where the cave was located. The directions involved parking at the very end of a ANF logging access road, finding an abandoned railroad right-of-way and hiking through old growth forest to see if I could find the cave located in the side of a small sinkhole.

Eric’s directions also noted that black bear were reported to “be active” in the area off the logging road and that anyone walking in the area should be very cautious and should carry at the very least “a stout walking stick” as “protection”. Well I decided I would be cautious and I decided to carry “protection” but I decided I sure as heck wasn’t going to be using any walking stick to attempt to reason with a Pennsylvania black bear.

It occurred to me on the drive east that morning that I was rolling along in a jeep full of caving gear, camping equipment, guns, a fiddle and a five string open-back banjo. I was ready for just about anything the Allegheny National Forest could throw at me. With a certain amount of self-satisfaction, for at least a few hours, I thought of myself as probably the most well prepared man in North America.

I found the Minister Creek campground located off Pennsylvania SR (I am not making this up) 666 and I set up camp. Then I headed for the cave.

I found the end of the logging road and I found the abandoned railroad right-of-way. I loaded my 12 gauge pump with some deer slugs. I cradled the shotgun in my arms the way I used to when I hunted with my brother and my dad and set off down the trail to the right. Besides bear, Eric’s directions also noted that wildcats were “active” in the area. I had previously had some experience with Pennsylvania timber rattlers and between bears, cats and rattlers I had lots of opportunity to reflect on my position on the food chain (“dinner”) as I made my way through the wood.

I never could find the sinkhole. I’m dead certain that I must have been within 30 yards of it (and probably closer). And I never saw any bear. Or wildcats. Or timber rattlers. It’s probably just as well. I’ve never been a big game (deer) hunter – I don’t think I have it in me. I actually had to go and buy a box of slugs to take with me. On the other hand, I didn’t see any bats either, dead or alive. I waited till it began to dim a bit – I didn’t want to wait too long as I wasn’t real sure of where I was and I wanted to make sure I could get back to the jeep and back to camp before it got too dark – but didn’t see any bats in the air.

I made it back to the jeep, unloaded the shotgun and packed it away in its case. I headed back to my campsite.

The campground was beautiful. I had pitched my tent within feet of winding, bubbling Minister Creek inside a heavily wooded and secluded site. The campground was located on the Minister Creek Trail hiking loop and I got to say “howjado” to any number of day hikers as they drifted past my campsite when they began and ended the trail. I am going to make plans to head back to Minister Creek later this summer or early this fall to hike the loop myself and camp and enjoy the campsite over a couple of days.

The new/old banjo got a pretty good workout too. I’ve been spending a lot of time on Needle Case and Pretty Little Dog. My banjo is an open-back frailer and does not have a tone ring in it. It is not a loud instrument and I have been trying to teach myself to frail with a pretty light touch. As a result I have been concerned that I am not getting as much sound out of the instrument as I would like. I am learning that there is a technique to getting as much sound as I can out of the banjo without beating it to death. It has its own voice and I will have to adjust myself to that while I try to remember to hold the instrument correctly and frail “firmly and confidently” but without trying to force a volume or a type of tone.

I’m working through Salt Fork/Salt Creek/Salt River (what is the right name for that tune, anyway?) now. I’m playing it out of a G modal tuning and I’m getting it all by ear – no tab. I’m kind of surprised that I am beginning to be able to “hear” the tunes with my fingers enough that I am able find them on a fingerboard. Progress!!

Onward! Upward! Excelsior!

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I’m tired of all the political and corporate scoundrels and I’m tired of all their mischief. My brains are roiled and I am otherwise distressed. I believe my circuits are overloaded and I am in danger of blowing a fuse.

I am forcing myself to take drastic measures.

I’m returning to First Principles; caves and American traditional music. Here’s a great way to enjoy both – Vernon Dalhart’s Death of Floyd Collins.

In January, 1925 Floyd “The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known” Collins became trapped in Kentucky’s Sand Cave in a narrow crawlway 150 feet from the entrance. Efforts to save him became a worldwide media sensation, and many would say it was the media circus surrounding the event that eventualy killed him. After four days where he could be fed, a cave-in closed the entrance passageway to everything except voice contact. Collins died of exposure and starvation after about fourteen days underground, three days before a rescue shaft could reach his location. His body (minus a leg) was recovered two months later.

His embalmed body was displayed as an attraction at Crystal Cave in a glass coffin for many years before the body was stolen. The body was eventualy recovered and buried at last in a private Flynt Ridge cemetary.

Dalhart documented the affair with a number of recordings for various labels. I have a copy of a Columbia recording pressed under the pseudonym “Al Carver (Caver?)” in my own collection of 78’s. Vernon took vocals and harmonica duty while his regular collaborator Carson Robison performed on guitar.

vernon-dalhart-first-star-of-country-music1

The folk and Americana purists among us (and you know who you are) consistently wrinkle up their dainty noses at the odor of commercial success surrounding poor Vernon. The rap against him was that he was a little too popular and that his vocal delivery was a little too polished due to his conservatory training and that he sold a few too many records (over 400 titles for Edison, Victor and Grey Gull) to completely qualify him as a ‘folk artiest’.

But to my ears, Vernon Dalhart contributed hundreds of great performances in the service of hundreds of great tunes (The Wreck of the Old 97′, The Prisoner’s Song and the wonderful depression tune Eleven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat come quickly to mind).

Vernon had a huge hit in 1925 with The Wreck of the Shenandoah. To those of us here in Ohio the crash of the dirigible Shenandoah was the stuff of legend for our parents and grandparents. The great ship went down in Nobel County not far from my Grandmother’s childhood home and I can remember her telling of how my great-grandfathered drove out to survey the wreckage strewn over many acres. Vernon and Carson Robison wrote the tune and published the song under the pseudonym “Maggie Andrews”.

wreck of the shenandoah

I went on the Mammoth Cave wild tour a few weeks ago with some members of the Cleveland Grotto. After we finished the tour we took a short side trip to Sand Cave where Floyd met his maker.

There is an observation deck built to look over the cave and the rescue site, but you cannot see the actual cave shaft from the deck. Curt, Phil and I walked down what was left of the path to the cave and found the shaft sealed with a steel grate in the back of the cave. The pathway down to the cave was overgrown and covered in poison ivy.

It is a dirty, muddy, dark and an awful place. The sealed shaft is filled to about five feet from the top with leaves and garbage. My imagination could make out how the shaft wound down to its intersection with destiny.

That’s Phil on the left and me on the right. We are standing on the grate.


phil and gary at sand cave -1


There’s a solid streak of populism and down home charm that shows itself all the way through the Dalhart catalog. Vernon built a twenty two year recording career by capitalizing on tragic topical stories and by combining morality tales with wry observations of the world around him – in short, by using the palette of the American folk musician.

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