Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bat Cave Chronicles

Bob Cammarata
Those who are regular visitors to this blog are undoubtedly already fans of Bob Cammarata's work.  He has submitted several stories and each has been exciting, beautifully written, and with some of the most gorgeous wildlife photography on the internet! 

But if you are visiting "Tales of Relentless Pursuit" for the first time, here are links to Bob's previous stories: When Mother Nature Lends a HandNext Stop Oz  , On Snake Mountain ,  Fish Tales, Part I , Fish Tales, Part II . 

Bat Cave Chronicles is the true story of one of Bob's most incredible outdoor adventures. The tale becomes more and more harrowing with every new paragraph.  Imagine yourself alone, deep in the belly of a cold, pitch-black dark, damp. guano-covered cave, when suddenly all of your well-planned lighting equipment fails you! 

This story truly tells an incredible tale of the relentless pursuit of survival, against all odds!  Get ready!

Thanks for stopping here to see the latest post. I'd love to know what you think of the "Relentless Pursuit" series. If you enjoyed this week's tale, I would greatly appreciate it if you left a comment (at the end of the post) for our author. And please email me with your suggestions on what you'd like to see on this blog or anything else you'd like to share.

Also, to increase the blog's readership, sharing the link with your friends, family, and colleagues would  help a great deal.

If you have a story you would like to share on this theme, contact me. And be sure to take a look at my Photography site. I'd love to hear from you! Thanks again!

Michelle Alton

Bat Cave Chronicles
By Bob Cammarata

Author's Note:

This Tale of Relentless Pursuit is dedicated to Carolyn Fletcher…who’s persistence in persuading me to relive this memorable experience is truly appreciated. This story lacks the customary collection of back-up photos our readership has become accustomed to,  so hopefully, my veritable efforts to use words alone to illustrate a mental picture will hit their mark. I’d also like to extend a personal thanks to a friend and mentor Giff Beaton  for the use of the title photo.

Since the dawn of recorded time, Mankind has evolved with an in-bred obsession to defy logic and reason in his infinite quest to ascertain that which makes our world tick.. Our species has been persistent…unremittingly imperiling life and limb in search of plausible resolutions to Earth’s most puzzling mysteries. We’ve probed deep into her seemingly bottomless oceans and ascended her highest peaks. We’ve even ventured so far as to hurl our rocket ships deep into the stars in an attempt to learn what intimate secrets even they might disclose.

Since it’s safe to conclude that we’re an inquisitive lot, it would stand to reason that when a photographer’s incessant tendency is to place himself and his equipment into jeopardy while in relentless pursuit of that perfect picture, he’s not acting irrationally. His behavior can be easily justified as merely an adverse by-product of an enduring evolutionary process.

It must be… “Nature’s Way."

Photo by Giff Beaton
This story begins as a road trip. It was during the winter of 2006 that this eastern “city boy” decided that it might be fun to take a few weeks off to tour the country. Since it was scheduled as an early January trip, I’d chosen a southern route to minimize any weather-related obstacles which might have impeded my journey westward.

My intended destinations were the arid deserts of the Southwest and the Canyonlands of Utah, but there were to be many planned stops along the way, including the alluring Ozark Mountains, where this harrowing adventure takes place.

 Land of Mystery
It was around daybreak on a chilly morning when I parked my Jeep at a secluded trail head in the aptly-named Lost Valley region of the Buffalo National River. The morning mountain air was cold and clean, with a crispness that mere words could never describe. It almost felt as if I could bite off a chunk of it. I paused momentarily to savor the mystical serenity of solitude before gearing up for my hike along the trail into the Ozark Wilds.

Although I’ve developed a penchant for discharging my camera shutter at just about anything that doesn’t shoot back, my primary objective that day was to explore and photograph a few caves and their inhabitants. From what I’d read about hiking these Arkansas mountains in winter, hibernating bats could be often found within the dark recesses of Ozark’s ubiquitous catalog of obscure caverns. Granted, my expertise in this arena was completely non-existent, but with a silly name like “spelunking”, cave exploration certainly seemed harmless enough to give it a try.

Inside my backpack, along with the usual arsenal of camera gear, was a fully charged, hand-held spotlight for exploring the caves. My back-up light source was one of those little head lamps I could easily clip onto the brim of my cap if the need for it arose.
In the beginning, the hike along the trail was un-eventful, but my journey eventually led into the higher elevations toward a narrow ridge teeming with captivating crags and alluring apertures. The first few caves I explored dead-ended too quickly and seemed devoid of life, but after systematically eliminating those, I finally found an interesting cavern which held promise. The access to the cave was far too narrow to accommodate the bulbous bulk of my backpack, so armed with only the spotlight and my shoulder-strapped camera, I squeezed through the tight crevasse and ventured forward.

The narrow passage eventually widened and navigation became effortless. As I probed deeper into the dark recesses of Inner Earth, I began to notice a dramatic change in the cavern’s interior climate….a balmy, incongruous contrast to the chill of the outside world.

It was around that time when I spotted my first bat clinging to the cave wall in suspended hibernation. A quick glance around revealed several more. They were fairly high up on the rocky walls and well out of the range of my 50 mm 1.2 lens…which I’d selected for its speed and low-light capabilities. As the passageway led me deeper and deeper, progressively more sleeping bats were spotted. Eventually, I found one that was positioned low enough to attempt a photograph.

Knowing that using electronic flash on these tiny, light-sensitive creatures would not be ecologically prudent, I’d planned all along to use only the peripheral light from my hand-held spotlight as illumination. Since I was using slide film, an 80-A corrective filter had to be affixed to the lens to balance the light. Even though I was using my fastest lens at its widest aperture setting, the dimness of the light source…compounded even further by the effects of the filter, necessitated a shutter speed of a full second.. Since my tripod was (foolishly) left outside, my only option was to attempt my shots hand-held.

I braced my body against the cave wall and, with one hand directing the light and the other holding the camera, I squeezed off a half-dozen,  one second exposures…hoping for at least a few cherries but expecting only the pits.

Keep Your Eyes on the Bat
Realizing that any serious photography was futile, I strapped the camera to explore further. I rounded a bend in the passage and the cave opened into a large, globular room. A rancid, musty odor permeated the senses and the ground began to ooze underfoot. I shined my light at the cave floor to discover that I was stepping on what I perceived to be piles of bat guano. A quick glance upward revealed that my supposition was correct. I’d struck the Mother Lode! The entire ceiling was peppered with hundreds of hibernating bats….maybe even thousands! They were everywhere!

My first instinct was to attempt a photograph of this astounding panorama of life, but my thoughts of photography were quickly thwarted when I had a sudden apparition of an infuriated, blood-thirsty horde of flying rodents awakening en-masse and swarming all over me. So rather than risk experiencing some form of Indiana Jones-type nightmarish scenario, I cowered quietly back out of the room and exited the cave…concluding that the wiser course of action was to let sleeping bats lie.

After re-donning the backpack, I continued further along the trail. After about a mile or so, the morning chill had dissipated and I was hiking in short sleeves. Despite the gorgeous weather conditions, there really wasn’t anything worthy of a photograph. I was contemplating turning back when I heard voices emanating from the trail behind me. Moments later, a young couple approached in full hiking apparel.

“What’cha shootin’?”, he asked…in what I perceived to be a native Arkansan dialect.

“Not much.” I replied. “I haven’t seen anything worth photographing for hours.”

“Have you been to The Cave yet?.” He asked.

I began to describe my morning encounter inside the bat cave, but he stopped me in mid-stride.

“NO…I mean the one further up this trail. It’s kind’a tough to get to, but there’s an underground waterfall that’s a real sight to see! We’re headin’ there now…You can come with us if you want.”

I thanked them for their kind invitation and tagged along behind them. We ascended the steep ridge which led to the entrance to Eden Cave. The opening in the rocks seemed wide and inviting, unlike some of the constricted cavities I’d forced my way through earlier in the day.

“Ya better leave that pack out here.” My guide said. “We’re gonna have to crawl through most of the way.”

So with spotlight in hand, and my gear lying in a heap with theirs, I followed their lead into the darkness. About a third of the way through, my guide called out, “Watch your head”, as the ceiling dropped to the point where we had to crawl forward on our hands and knees. There was water flowing around us, but thankfully, we were able to traverse the top of a flat boulder and remain dry. My knees were throbbing from crawling along the hard surface of the rocks, but the sweet sound of cascading water in the distance was getting louder.

“So how much farther IS this thing?” I inquired impatiently.

“Don’t worry.” He replied. “You’ll be able to stand up and rest in a few seconds.”
As promised, we reached the half-way point, where a vertical, cylindrical shaft permitted a brief respite. It was a tight squeeze, but the shaft allowed us to take turns standing for a few minutes to rest our aching knees.

“Just one more push, and we’re there!” He said as we dropped again to all-fours.
After what seemed an eternity, we rounded one last bend and squeezed through one final crevasse. We had finally arrived at our destination…and the spectacle was magnificent! I was so awe-struck at the scene before me that the pains of getting there were instantly forgotten.

We were standing inside a spherical underground oasis! The textured cavern walls were alive with color. From unknown origin, a perpetual cascade of crystalline beauty plunged vociferously from a hole in the 30 foot high ceiling. A collection pool at the base of the falls was fancifully adorned with lustrous, painted pebbles…brilliantly polished to perfection over eons of time. Closer inspection of the shallow pool revealed several small crawfish. They were of a species I’d never seen. Pale white in color and with pink eyes, the tiny crustaceans were fully adapted to life in the darkness.

“So, what do you think?” My new friend shouted over the strident rush of falling water.

“WOW” was the first response I could muster. “You were right. This is amazing!”

I quickly added that…“Somehow, I HAVE to get my camera equipment back here!”

Later, as we were crawling our way out, I was formulating an attack strategy and assembling a series of mental notes for my return trip. “I could easily fit my pack through here…I could drag it through there…I could keep it dry on that rock…”  …etc.
When we arrived back at the entrance, I thanked the couple for allowing me to share their secret hideaway, and they continued on their way along the trail. I stayed behind…because I was on a mission.

After first contemplating lightening the load, I decided to haul the entire pack full of photo gear into the cave so I would not regret having left something outside which might have been needed.

Despite having to drag the heavy load along most of the way, the arduous journey back to the falls seemed somehow shorter than before. As I was formulating my battle plan, the bright spotlight propped onto a ledge seemed to illuminate the cavern and waterfall perfectly for the multi-second, ambient light exposure I had intended to use. The scene definitely necessitated a wide-angle of perspective. The widest lens in my arsenal at the time was 35 mm. (I preferred a wider view, but this would have to do.) Since my camera was loaded with daylight slide film, an 80-A corrective filter was attached to the lens as before, and the camera was affixed to a compact tripod. While looking through the viewfinder, I walked around the cave seeking the perfect spot to set up the camera….but I began to become painfully aware that my wondrous cave was getting progressively darker!

I glanced toward the spotlight and was horrified to see that the once bright light had reduced to an amber glow…and it was fading fast! My thoughts of photography were immediately superseded by the terrifying realization that I was deep underground and might have to find my way out in complete darkness!

“…But how dark WAS it?” I wondered.

I turned off the dying flashlight to see if the megatons of rock surrounding me were possibly permitting a few trickles of light to filter through from the outside.

…No such luck! It was darker than the darkest night…. Blacker than black!
My heart was pounding in my chest as I muttered to myself… “Don’t panic!…You’re still OK. …THINK dammit, THINK!”

“A-HA…!” My back up flashlight was inside my pack. It was small and not very bright, but it would surely provide enough light to get me out of there.

With the last few precious lumens fading from the dying spotlight, I frantically searched for the head lamp. The entire contents of the pack were strewn about the cave floor by the time I’d found the tiny light tucked away inside one of the compartments. I sighed an audible “Thank You!”…and flipped on the switch…but nothing happened!

“OH  NO!! …Dead batteries?? How could I have been so stupid!!”

With my spotlight advancing evermore quickly toward its ultimate demise, my pulse was racing at record speed.

“…STAY CALM…don’t  panic…and  THINK  dammit, THINK!”

“A-HA!” …The headlamp takes AA batteries…and before the trip, I’d remembered to put a fresh set in my motor drive! So with the camera’s motor drive held inches away from the nearly extinguished glow from the spotlight, I fumbled with the battery compartment’s retaining screw, removed the flange, and quickly popped out two batteries. With lightning speed, I had the old ones out of the headlamp and the fresh set in their place. With fingers crossed, I flipped the switch.

NOTHING!! The headlamp, which I hadn’t used for years, was inoperable…most likely corroded from sitting idle for too long.

“OK, Cammarata…NOW you’re allowed to panic…’cause you’re SCREWED!”

Accepting the inevitable, that my only viable option was to “feel” my way out, I turned off the spotlight to conserve the precious iota of energy that remained.

“What if a REAL emergency arose?  What if I were to take a wrong turn and find myself at a dead-end?”

Another disconcerting realization came quickly to mind as I remembered that all of my expensive gear was still scattered around the cave floor and needed to be re-packed. With shaking fingers fumbling in total darkness, I started grabbing at things with both hands and jamming them into the pack. I was hoping to get through the blind panic without forgetting anything expensive, all the while, praying that I wouldn’t latch onto something icky and disgusting in the process.

Feeling confident that I’d re-packed everything, I zipped up my backpack, then, guided only by touch, I followed the round circumference of the cave’s interior wall toward the opening. Fortunately, there was only one way out. I crawled through the narrow crevasse and entered the tight passage which would lead toward the outside. The spotlight, as it turned out, was very beneficial in maintaining my course. When I started to feel disoriented or confused, I’d flip the switch on for a few brief seconds of light, albeit very dim. It was just enough to keep me on track as I literally felt my way, inch by inch, back to freedom.

The Land of the Ozarks is a diverse region of mystery and adventure. It’s a picturesque panorama abounding in grandeur and scenic splendor. My experiences in the Ozarks have taught many valuable lessons and fashioned an enduring reminiscence. What I learned most of all, is that there’s no more wondrous spectacle to behold than to catch that first glimpse of the light of day as seen from the inside looking out. While I remain consummate and resolute in my quest to try to understand Life’s mystifying riddles, I’ve vowed from that day forward to view my world only from the outside looking in.
…and leave the spelunking to the spelunkers.

  All photography (except the title photo) by Bob Cammarata

Bob Cammarata's Biographical Sketch

I am a Maryland photographer who specializes in nature in all its forms.
For as long as I can remember, my love for the outdoors has inspired me to capture nature's beauty and intrigue. My primary interests photographically involve traveling the country and getting up close and personal with subjects in nature. My travels have taken me to every corner of the U.S. and parts of Canada but the majority of my photography occurs less than a tank of gas away.
I prefer to shoot in full-manual 100% of the time because I believe that it affords the ultimate in control and accurately represents the challenges and rewards that this great art has to offer. I’m an active member of and a regular contributor to their Forums and Newsletters. My photos have been published in business and travel brochures, on Bugguide and other popular wildlife sites, and many have been sold as fine art prints. I’m currently working on my first book, which should be completed some time next year.

I consider photography to be the therapy which keeps one sane in a crazy world
Feel free to visit my website at

Bob's Bonus Photos:

(Since this story’s visual validation is limited, I’ve opted to include a few photos from the interior of Carlsbad Caverns…New Mexico’s Hidden Jewel…and arguably, the world’s ultimate Bat Cave!)


*** This Blog Needs Your Story! *** { I'm Serious!} If you have a story to post on this theme, or know anyone who does, contact me, please! We have zero stories on tap at the moment. Give your imagination a stretch--your story can be about any sort of Relentless Pursuit, fact, fiction, poignant, or humorous. I'd love to hear from you and work with you on your story! And we need to keep this theme going! And if you have a few moments, please stop by my website and have a look around.



Carolyn McIntosh said...

ONG, now I know for sure never to explore a cave . . . I would have been scared ____less!!!!! Harrowing is a very good description . . . and your photos are amazing. I will enjoy your photos and leave the adventuring to others.

Anonymous said...

I am from Arkansas and know this place well. Arkansas holds much beauty in her mountains and waterfalls. The downside is getting lost many times in her wondrous terrain, wondering if I would ever find a way out. Great story! Kaye Burazin

Carolyn Fletcher said...

Well, it IS called "In Relentless Pursuit". Having heard this tale when I met Bob on his way through Oklahoma, I took to calling him "Batman" when I commented on his BP submissions. I've been bugging him for months, through Michelle, to tell this story. I'm glad I kept after him. It was well worth it.

Linda B. said...

So glad that all ended well .What a story! The pictures are beautiful!

Sandy Powers said...

Ohmygoodness! What a story! It was so well written that I found my own self panicking in the dark! But that photographer characteristic in me that you mentioned in the beginning still had me on the edge of my seat thinking, "Oh please don't tell me he didn't get the photo!" Somehow, he HAD to use the last remnant of his remaining light and a full minute shutter speed to victoriously end up with "the photo". I think you were wise to let that one go... and I'm GLAD you made it out safe! THANKS for sharing!!!!

Debby Lewinson said...

Excellent writing, suspenseful and terrifying story, along with magnificent images! Thanks for sharing this amazing adventure, Bob! Looking forward to your book!

Joe DiGilio said...

You had me on the edge of my seat Bob. Going into caves alone is risky business for sure but it must have been thrilling. Though you didn't get the picture you wanted, your story paints a winner. It must have been a site to behold. I would have to go back. Think about adding a glow stick or two to each of your camera bags.

Dave Phalen said...

Riviting!! Photos are spectacular!!

Bill Vanko said...

This post will be necessarily brief, Bob. I have to leave the computer to go dry my palms! Your masterful storytelling had me on the edge of my seat.

Art Rosch said...

Great story, Bob. You made some dangerous decisions, but we make those decisions when driven by the inner images within our imaginations.
Don't spelunk alone! You've conjured everyone's worst nightmare, but you survived and man, I would love to see the photo you weren't able to take.

Anonymous said...

Sorry it took so long to get to this one but the weekend (football) was busy! I'm not sure if I can get through another story, they're so intense. Very entertaining, and to let you know, I like sharing them with friends and in-laws. They enjoy them too.
Coincidentally, I was just talking to my boss (Friday) at work about "total darkness"...recanting when Em and I went to the "Smoke Hole Caverns" in West Virginia last year for our anniversary (Feb). The guide (it was just the 3 of us by the way) flipped off the switch of the elaborate lighting to share total darkness with us. There's nothing like it and it was real creepy. It was real creepy with my wife, a guide and with the assurance that the light switch would soon be turned back on. SO..!, I can only imagine how you felt.
Great story as usual and I actually get excited when I sit down to read them like any good series.

Craig Johnson

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