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Lilburn Cave: A Multi-faceted Caving Adventure in King's Canyon Park, November 1996

Lilburn Cave is in King's Canyon Park. King's Canyon National Park abuts Sequoia Park, and together they form one of the largest designated wildernesses in California. One of these was only recently made a park, and the locals in the area haven't wholeheartedly accepted the new restrictions in what used to be the common back yard. According to the rangers, gates are frequently ripped out by locals, and poaching is common in the park.

We drove up on Friday night in time to hear these and other tales over dinner with the rangers at the Park Headquarters restaurant. It had recently snowed heavily there, but fine weather was predicted for the weekend. Still, when after dinner we slung our packs on our backs and headed out under a crisp canopy of stars set in clear black skies, we were walking in snow, and the trail was slippery with snowmelt. It was a walk of five miles into the canyon where the cave was, on a good trail recently cleared of all but a few giant redwoods which we had to pick our way around in the dark. Snow crunched underfoot as we trudged along, the trail lit here and there with a half dozen Petzl headlamps. At mid trek, we forded a cold stream, wet business when feet missed slippery rocks in the dark rushing waters, but we were able to dry out at our destination, an old refurbished miner's cabin with a warm fire already stoked by other cavers who offered wine they had packed in the way we had just come. The cabin, a way station of the Cave Research Foundation (CRF) who were studying Lilburn among other caves, had a loft strewn with bedrolls. To avoid the ever-present threat of snoring, I pitched my tent near a snow bank and slept comfortably enough despite the 40-degree chill.

Next morning, we were standing around the tables outside enjoying a leisurely breakfast cooked on Coleman stoves and savoring gourmet filter coffee when the ranger who was going to accompany us into the cave appeared, having just hiked in. The ranger was coming along for his own orientation and to reconnoiter cave rescue possibilities with Roger and Bill, who knew the cave well enough to show him around. Since I'd be the least trouble to everyone if I joined their tour, I was tagging along on that journey underground.

The ranger was resting up over his cuppa when we heard the dogs. It was a sound that slowly encroached on conscious awareness like morning traffic poised on the middle of a dream, and when we realized the dogs were on the move and coming closer, we understood also that hunters had turned their dogs loose in the area, and they seemed to have found game. The hunters would be tracking the dogs with radio receivers tuned to the dogs' collars and might be following with rifles, which were of course illegal in the park.

As the dogs drew nearer, we decided to check it out. We walked to the river and made our way along its banks until it petered out, forcing us to traverse a hillside. We kept on fifteen minutes through the underbrush, dogs' yelping growing louder and more distinct, until suddenly we were with them. They were jumping around the base of a tree up which a bear was perched as if he were a squirrel, higher than I had imagined an animal that size could possibly go, at least 20 meters. Of the four dogs, we managed to collar the two friendlier ones, and the bear took advantage of our intercession to let himself slide briskly back down the tree trunk. Warned of his coming by the noise of his claws barely braking his descent, we moved aside, each expecting the worst, but the bear took off downhill with the dogs in hot, rejuvenated pursuit. We surveyed our success, two radio collars tagged with the names of the owners. The ranger radioed in the information. He said the hunters sometimes declined to claim their dogs but would likely come down for the callers, worth $300 each.

But we weren't through with our good deeds. Though the dogs had moved downstream, the noise level was constant, indicating they had stopped again, so we decided we had all night for caving and it might be useful that morning to get the dogs and tie them to a tree and help the bear escape. We continued along the hillside and found that the dogs had the bear down a hole this time. Trouble was, we had the collars off the two trusting dogs (so we couldn't grab 'em), but the other two dogs were too cagey to let themselves be so easily taken in. I managed to get them all together by getting the two friendly dogs to come to me and let themselves be petted so pleasurably that the two holdouts couldn't resist. One slunk nearer, and I grabbed him and petted his head until the last dog could stand it no longer, and he too let himself be sucked in, and my buddies came over and collared the other two. Then we linked their collars so that they were together in pairs, and with a belt, we tied one pair to a tree. We figured the other two wouldn't leave the tethered pair even if they attempted to chase the bear in their constrained condition. But the bear may have gone into hibernation for all we know; we never saw him emerge from his hole.

The hunters were phoned and told to come and get their dogs, unarmed of course. We had left a couple of radio collars on the dogs to facilitate this. They were repeat offenders and would be hauled before a magistrate. The other radio collars were stored in an ammo box at the cabin, and I guess the ranger took them back with him when he departed next morning. He was not able to stop their transmission because the park service doesn't have the magnetized keys that are needed to turn radio tracking collars on and off. One hopes they'll be budgeted for.

After the excitement, the cave was almost anticlimactic. Actually, Lilburn is kind of the mother of all caves in Northern California. Laid out like a swiss cheese, it's not particular long or deep, but has extensive corridors and crawlways set roughly in three layers. Maps of the cave are either displayed in 3-d or laid out in such a way that you trace a route up to a pointer to its continuation elsewhere on the map. It's a complicated cave, and would be easy to get lost in, so it was a special treat to be conducted around by two cavers with extensive experience in the cave. This service is available to members of the caver's group, or grotto, on the tacit understanding that members get involved in cave preservation, such as survey or restoration work. Cavers tend to be happy to volunteer for such work because they like pursuing and improving their sport with other cavers, and it gets them into caves, like Lilburn, that are kept under lock and key, or that may be little known or difficult to arrange expeditions to.

For me, caving is a convenient and stimulating introduction to the California wilderness, and to like minded people with whom I can share the experience. Plus I find it moderately challenging. Caving is not for everyone. Some people get claustrophobic, or tire and become anxious about getting themselves out of whatever predicament they've got themselves into, or for whatever reason dislike prolonged periods in dark, cold, wet places not designed for human incursion, where there is occasional need to tolerate dubious footing while stepping over deep holes or into chill water. At one point, for example, the ranger asked for a belay (to be attached to a secure line which had to be rigged for him) to help him over a place with risky exposure to falling. As we each had just stepped gingerly over the hole, helping ourselves along with strategic foot and hand holds, the ranger, still in limbo on the other side of the chasm, asked, "Doesn't it bother you?" "Only if we think about it," was my empathetic reply. Non-reflection might be an asset in caving, but I had meant to imply that the ranger had a handle on sanity possibly lacking in the rest of us.

Then there is the wonder of caving, and Lilburn was in some respects a wondrous cave. There were white calcite formations looking like monstrous white candles overflowing with wax in rooms with names like Jefferson Monument. There was a lake, and other impressive features particular to caves, the usual stalactites and stalagmites, strands of multihued "bacon" formations, walls of sparkly mineral, "curtains", and curly hecalite formations emitting weirdly from the ceilings. The route we took was not particularly arduous, and got us about halfway into the cave. Meanwhile, other cavers were probing the more inaccessible recesses, one pair on an 11-hour trip (one difficulty of a trip like that is working out where to pee; you can't pee in a pristine cave and call yourself a caver - a suitable container would be de rigeur). But we emerged after only 5 hours or so in the confines.

We had grown overheated on our tour despite the chill and damp and had all shed clothing in the cave. We emerged from the dark into the ... dark (a surprise, having descended in the clear light of day) to find the night chilly against the sweat soaking through our garments, but the walk back to the cabin was short. Inside, there were raging fires in both the fireplace and in the cast iron stove, where one contingent of cavers was producing pizza after pizza laced with garlic fresh from Gilroy. I got out my bottle of wine and added it to the others, then helped deplete the supply so we would all have less to carry on the trek back out of the canyon. It was a nice way to end a pretty rewarding day.

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Last updated: November 13, 1997