Our first group has come and gone. I’ll miss the spoiled little weirdos, that is until the next group comes to replace them and all the faces start to blend together. Last week I learned 39 names which I need to start forgetting to make room for 56 more. I caught a glimpse of 39 personalities, sets of ambition and personal dilemmas which have gone back to Qatar to develop. More are coming in moments. And so it goes.
For the first week I was the camps caving specialist. The day before they came I scurried about the staff library (finding it terribly short on the subject) and poured through internet archives pulling information applicable to our solutional limestone cave. I led the session the way I was introduced to it. To start, we’d hike out of camp and take a step into a small cave on the way to the main one where I’d make an introduction while our eyes adjusted to the dark. Once the kids could see I’d set them off into the shadows, using the light of the cave entrance to explore for further entrances and perhaps a hidden counselor.
After this short introduction we’d pop over to the main entrance of our cave system. The first chamber is the biggest. It’s yawning mouth angles down into misty darkness where it meets a crystal pool of water at the end of a stream running out of the rock.
Once the kids had been given instruction on our rules for the caves I’d turn on their helmet lights and we’d set off like a group of miners. Usually the kids were mildly bored by the experience up until the time that the distant daylight was no longer relevant to their navigation of the cave floor. By the time they’d reached me at the edge a crystal clear pond deep into the throat of the cave they’d be mine. Headlights would dart around taking in all the strange sensory inputs: dripping stalactites, running water, gemlike droplets clinging to the ceiling, and pervasive cold and mud. It’s amazing to go from fighting for attention to have a dozen curious headlamps pointed towards you in the dark as you explain why this alien world is there.
After the first chamber the kids search through the dark for our next entrance. Most of them are worried about crossing the pond so they’re momentarily relieved when they find a tunnel that they’d passed by on the way down. However, when they crouch down and start crawling through the first low tunnel in the mud they’re far less excited. The second chamber is all mud and we stop for a minute to talk about cave formation before we crawl through trench eroded by water rushing through from above.
On the way to the third chamber the kids are filthy and already resigned to or embracing the dirt and cold. This squeeze is the tightest we do, forcing me down on all fours (well, threes since I’m keeping one hand clean) to cross over polished stalagmites while my head bumps cracked ‘tites. From here we enter into Jabba’s Palace: so named for gnarled old ‘mite central to this chamber. Here we can see a couple new speleothems (cave formations like stalagmites): soda straws and columns. The kids get excited and two or three of them always come up with great questions. I’d taken to describing the formation of stalagtites and stalagmites as a million year romance where each drip of water is a flirtation culminating in a kiss when the two meet and a marriage as they start their life together as a column.
We leave Jabba’s Palace by the way of a natural stair case into a pool of frigid, waist high water. The next chamber the Qatari kids renamed the Burj Kalifa Chamber after the world’s tallest tower in Dubai which is represented by a particularly splendid column. Here we talk about a few more new speleothems, the coloration of the cave walls and the effects of people on the cave environment (exampled by a sad ‘mite/’tite pair which had nearly reached their first kiss before someone clipped off the ‘tites nose).
Once we leave the Burj Kalifa chamber we climb up into a muddy dead-end known as the Jam Chamber. When everyone is safely ensconced and comfortably sitting I come around and turn off their lights. It’s an amazing sensory experience to be with a group of people in complete darkness. There we do a couple singing exercises, get comfortable with being in the dark (and the kids probably touch each other).
After the Jam Chamber we head back to the Burj Kalifa and look down into the next tunnel which leads further into unexplored cave. I then turn out the kid’s lights and run ahead down the tunnel leaving them to grope and communicate as a team through the tunnel until they find me and I pop on my light.
By this time the kids are shivering with the cold and I give the group two candles them run back towards the beginning letting them catch up to me at Jabba’s Palace where I turn their lights back on and request that since this is the last time many of us will be in a cave for a long time (if ever) that we finish our journey out in silence. When we finally reach daylight again (two hours after entering the cave) I smudge war paint on their faces and release them back into the world.
The exit of the cave is amazing because you walk through an invisible wall from the caves cold dark to the day’s bright warmth. Then we head down to the river to clean off and back to camp for whatever’s next.
This week I’ll be working with our river leader on canoeing support. If the threatened thunderstorms stay away it’ll mean two days instructing the kids on paddling and two days leading them on the Grand Descent through the Ardeche Gorge.