Monday, October 02, 2006

Marion County, May 2006 (Part IV)

“We can’t go forward! We can’t go down! We can’t go up! We can only go back!” My radio call to Carl captures our predicament fairly succinctly. Above us is a series of vertical bluffs. In front of us is a waterfall. Below us is a steep drop to a rocky creek. Allison is annoyed, but can hardly argue with my assessment. Carl just laughs and wishes us luck; he’s already on top of his own set of bluffs. Defeated, we begin the long ascent up the valley, back the way we came.

Later we go to Lookout Mountain for dinner at the Lookout Mountain Café. Afterwards we go to Point Park, but since we can’t scrape together the $6 entrance fee between the three of us, we have to turn around. A representative of the National Park Service has been watching us from his truck, lest we jump the gate. As we pass his vehicle he asks us what we’re doing in the area, a presumptuous question. At first he doesn’t believe us when we tell him we’re walking Aetna Mountain. He laughs and asks if we’re using the trails. We tell him, “No, we just go in and start walking.” He laughs again and asks us how far down we go. “All the way to the bottom,” we reply, “to the creek beds.” He stops and raises his eyebrows, suddenly serious. “Really?” he says. “Let me give you my card.”

Donald “Cavewolf” Connor moved to Chattanooga for the caves. He tells us he does 300 foot drops in caves, sometimes spending nine hours in the descent. He also dives, though he will not enter totally submerged caverns. He asks us if we’ve seen any caves, but we have not. He says we might come across a “blower,” a cave that funnels air from the ridge down to the valley floor. Air velocity can reach 30 mph and he says we can’t miss one of these things if it’s close. “You’ll feel the wind.” The Chattanooga area apparently has the highest density of caves in the US and Cavewolf would love to know about any we stumble across. Also, it turns out that he’s a member of Chattanooga Cave Search and Rescue and offers us his services if we get stuck. It’s reassuring and not reassuring at all.

Cavewolf tells us some other things, including his belief that the listing of mountain skullcap as a federally threatened species is an abuse of the Endangered Species Act. He says that a guy he knows got it listed just to see how easily it could be done. “That plant is everywhere!” Cavewolf spits and we laugh. We haven’t seen a single Scutellaria montana and all we do is look for the thing. We’ve only come as close as its brother, Scutellaria pseudoserrata. Soon, however, we will see evidence that Cavewolf may have been correct.

Over the next couple of weeks we find a few small cave openings, but we don’t tell Cavewolf. Technically, we shouldn’t encourage others to trespass on the property. In any case, we never do find a “blower.” But we never have to call Chattanooga Cave Search and Rescue either.

That's a view over Chattanooga at the top and a shot of the inclined railway that can take you there. At the bottom is the real mountain skullcap.

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