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Spelunk in the raw abyss of Kickapoo Cavern

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Marcy Stellfox and state parks ranger Seth Frerich walk along the rocky trail of Kickapoo Cavern. It's slow going without handrails or built-in lights, and there are plenty of spiders to move around.

KICKAPOO CAVERN STATE PARK I've been scrambling over teetering rocks and clattery stones in this underground hidey-hole for the past hour, on a quest to discover my inner spelunker.

Now I'm plopped on a smooth, cool hunk of limestone inside Kickapoo Cavern, about to switch off the foot-long Maglite that's been cutting a swath through the gloom.

This hasn't been your typical jaunt into a commercialized cave.

There is no ribbon of smooth, wide sidewalk to follow. No lights to illuminate formations created by eons of dripping water. No elevator to carry you back to ground zero when you're done exploring, à la Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Not even a handrail.

Instead, my friend Marcy Stellfox and I dropped into a Volkswagen-sized gap in the hard-baked Texas landscape, ducked to avoid vibrating clusters of daddy longleg spiders, then forged our own paths as we followed park ranger Seth Frerich into the quarter-mile-long hole in the ground.

Kickapoo Cavern is just one of 20 known caves in the park.

It takes time and a limber body to negotiate its interior. There's no belly crawling required, but the terrain is rugged, and the wild cave tour isn't for everyone.

Visitors must sign a liability release. They also need proper hiking boots and two light sources.

So far, the trek has exceeded my expectations which, honestly, weren't very high.

We picked our way over a jumbled heap of stone blocks, or breakdown, that was once part of the cave's ceiling.

It was a test of balance to navigate. We crept along, arms outstretched, like we were traversing a football field covered by teeter totters. Now and then I squatted low and grabbed a rock so I didn't fall.

I visited Carlsbad just last year, where I was wowed by towering speleothems, formations created by minerals in water that seeps through the cave. But Carlsbad is so touristy, so accessible, so sanitized, that it feels a little like an underground Disneyland.

Not Kickapoo.

This cave's collection of stalagmites, which grow from the ground up, and stalactites, which look like a tangle of tree roots clinging to the ceiling, are surprisingly impressive. The cave even has helictites, rarer formations which don't grow only up or down, but every which way, thanks to a little help from air currents.

There's also an 80-foot column, thick as a redwood tree trunk, in one of the cave's vast rooms. It's the largest such known formation — created by the meeting of a stalagmite and a stalactite — in a Texas cave.

Enlist your imagination and you'll see even more.

On the way back to our current perch at the back of the cave, Frerich pointed out features that resemble an elephant, strips of bacon, a castle, a gnome and Bob Marley. That inspired me and Stellfox to discover a few mineralized highlights of our own, including what looked like a wet T-shirt slapped on the wall.

Old graffiti — some dating as far back as the 1880s — is carved into rocks in the belly of the cave. Back then, visitors carried flaming torches to light their way. Black, soot-stained patches on the wall still mark where they stashed the torches while they explored.

On the count of three, we turn off our flashlights, and the place goes dark.

Even after a minute, I can't see my hand in front of my face — or any creepy crawlies that might be loitering close at hand.

Collectively, we imagine what it would be like to try to find our way out in the dark.

It's so quiet my ears tingle. And cool, too, even though temperatures outside are close to 90. Frerich tells us the cave stays at 68 degrees year-round, with 90 percent humidity.

The cavern is part of what was once the Seargeant Ranch, acquired by the state in 1986. The 6,368-acre parcel was opened to the public on a limited basis in 1991, but you had to call ahead to arrange a visit, or sign up for a guided tour.

Earlier this summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife launched the next phase of the park's existence, unveiling new hiking trails, opening a campground and picnic areas and inviting the public to come explore whenever they want.

Besides the wild cave tours, which are offered by reservation only on Saturdays, the park is known for its bat population. From April through September, a colony of more than half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats swoops out of Stuart Bat Cave, which is slightly smaller than Kickapoo Cavern, on a nightly mission to feast on insects.

The bird watching is good, too. Gray vireo, varied bunting and Montezuma quail are spotted here, and the park is home to the endangered black-capped vireo and golden cheeked warbler.

We flick our lights back on, and the stony relief of the cave pops back into view.

We make our way back over the tippy floor, and in another 30 minutes we see the shaft of light at the cave's entrance.

Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, we crawl back through the hole, and Frerich locks the grate behind us.

Back up into reality.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

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If you go ...

Kickapoo Cavern State Park is 22 miles north of Brackettville on RM 674. Entrance fee is $3 per day per person 13 and older. Cave tours $7 per person on Saturdays, by reservation only. Tent camping, $12 per night; water/sewer/electric sites $20 per night. For more information call 830-563-2342.