Weekly Photo Challenge: Out of This World

The Earth is a vastly fascinating place! You may think of rocks and trees and animals as familiar things, but they are often as unknown and otherworldly as specimens from Mars.

Here’s an example of a cave formation in Wind Cave National Park known as “boxwork”. Could be the surface of a distant planet, don’t you think?

Could these be aerial photos of alien landscapes? Or the skins and bodies of alien life forms?

Does this structure look like something you’ve seen before? 

turkey feathers

This one could be a satellite image of life on a distant moon. caterpillarThe startling discovery of unfamiliar living things is possible in your own back yard. Go take a look!

Out of This World

An American Adventure: Part Seventeen

Cave Tour and Home Again

You’re a sixteen year old boy who has just moved to South Dakota in 1890. There’s a cave in your backyard…and your mother is still in Iowa. What would you do? Grab a candle and some string and start spelunking! Alvin McDonald spend three years exploring the cave and keeping a daily journal of his discoveries. While presenting his findings at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he contracted typhoid fever and died at the end of the year. He was just 20 years old.

This cave’s natural entrance is only about ten inches in diameter. Depending on the pressure difference between the outside air and the cave air, it is either “breathing” in or out from this orifice. This Spirit Wind figures prominently in the creation story of the Lakota people. How were you breathed into being?

This cave differs from the others I’ve visited (Mammoth Cave, KY; Carlsbad Caverns, NM; Cave of the Mounds, WI) in that its formations are mostly boxwork, rather than stalactites and stalagmites. Boxwork is kind of like what you’d see if you built a castle of sugar cubes and mortared it with cement. The sugar cubes dissolve, and what is left is a kind of honeycomb of borders, criss-crossing each other. The calcite “mortar” that filled cracks in the limestone and dolomite is what remains. These structures were formed at the genesis of the cave, and not later by the action of dripping moisture, so they are speleogens rather than speleothems. (My new word for this section of the trip!) The ranger asked us what we thought it looked like. My first response was “a Jackson Pollack painting”.  

They also rather resemble cobwebs, giving the dimly illuminated cave interior an aspect of Gothic horror. Creepy and fascinating!

Cave tours are absolutely spellbinding, but they don’t make good photography hikes. Watching my head and my footing, looking around at the surroundings, asking questions and trying not to hold up the single-file line of tourists took too much concentration for me to get many pictures.

I was reminded of the phenomenal bat program at dusk at Carlsbad Caverns, but learned that Wind Cave doesn’t have one. The number of bats is far less and the egress far smaller than the natural arena at Carlsbad. (If you’d like to read about that experience and see a photo of the natural entrance at Carlsbad Caverns, click HERE.)

So, early the next morning, we headed home across the tall grass prairie of South Dakota, past Badlands (which we will return to see), through Minnesota, across the Mississippi River, and back to our Wisconsin home on the conservation prairie. The lawn hadn’t been cut yet this year and was absolutely lush and about waist high. It made us almost giddy! A good old Midwestern thunderstorm washed my car of all the insects and dirt we’d accumulated on our trip.

Five thousand miles, eight National Parks and Monuments, five hundred photographs, and four new brake pads later…I’m back at the computer, dreading the news about what is happening to our public land. I am so glad to have had an opportunity to walk in those places, to breath, to see, to sleep under the stars. I hold a hope in my heart that my children and my future grandchildren will have the opportunity to get to know the America that I visited on this journey, and that it will endure in its character. I may never know what they will inherit, but I will try to do my part to protect it.

An American Adventure: Part Sixteen

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

We drove north from Interstate 90 across tall grass prairies and into the Black Hills the next day. We stopped at a small town museum, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland ranger station to collect some information about the area. There are a LOT of tourist attractions here, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. We were not interested in seeing how people had carved up the mountains, however. We were interested in exploring the ecosystem on top and the caves beneath these sacred hills. 

We decided to stay in the Park campground for two nights and take a long hike in the morning and a cave tour in the afternoon of the full day in between. The campground was in a stand of Ponderosa pine, nestled in the grassy, rolling hills.  We heard coyotes at dusk both nights, yipping far off somewhere. The camp sites were, thankfully, not crowded at all. But the Visitor Center sure was! The cave tours are very popular in the summer, one reason being that the temperature in the cave is a constant 53 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Probably most tourists are seeing other attractions and sleeping in town, only visiting the National Park for a few hours to tour the cave. We saw no one on the six miles of hiking trails that we covered. But we did see buffalo, prairie dogs, dung beetles, an elk pelvis, and lots of other signs of a vibrant biotic community.