Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Exploring El Capitan Cave: Southeast Alaska

  El Capitan Cave is the largest known cave in Alaska, and is also the first cave in Southeast Alaska where fossil bones were discovered. A wooden stairway has been constructed up the long hillside to the cave (see photo below), and tours are provided for visitors by Tongass National Forest. A gate has been installed in the cave to prevent visitors from falling into pits or being trapped behind a portion of the cave that floods during storms. It is located on Prince of Wales Island. 

 We stopped here this week after a nail-biting transit of the narrow, shallow Dry Pass. Not many people will take the big boat through this narrow channel leading up to El Cap, but Capt. Dano navigated the pass with expert precision. We could almost reach out and grab leaves off the trees, and to add to the early morning excitement we were getting our first glimpses of playful sea otters swimming along the shorelines. I even had passengers tell me they were seeing sea stars out of their portholes since we were so close to the edge of the narrows. 

One of my favorite pictures from inside the cave
Learning about the cave from the ranger
370 steps leading up to the cave
 This led us to one of the most unique parts of Southeast Alaska, cave at El Capitan. The karst geological formations here have been dissolved away by the acidic water which collects in vast bogs called muskegs. As the acidic water runs through the limestone karst these massive sponge-like cave systems develop. We went into the biggest cave and immersed ourselves into total darkness except what our headlamps illuminated. 
We were met at the bottom of 370 steps by two young National Forest rangers who gave us some amazing interp on the local flora and fauna on our way up the steps and then led us safely through the cave system. 
At one point they had everyone turn off their lights to show just how dark the early inhabitants would have found this place. Remains of a 10,000yr old young man as well as a larger version of a black bear were found inside the cave when they first excavated the cave system in the early 1990's. I made sure to plug myself into the cave exploring schedule for the day and got a chance to try my hand at some long exposure cave photography. Luckily I had some willing models to stand still for pics so I got a few to post for you.

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