Reentry was a little bumpy. Our Harrier-class starship, still smoking, touched down with a series of thuds on what seemed from the stratosphere to be a landing pad. It wasn’t though. Some kind of exposed rock outcropping, blindingly white. Continue reading
My friends and I have been trying to get to Penn’s Cave for three years now. We’ve been to Crystal Cave and Lost River Caverns in Pennsylvania, Seneca Caverns in West Virginia, and Luray Cavern in Virginia. We’ve learned about stalactites and stalagmites, cave bacon, frozen waterfalls, cave draperies and fried eggs. We’ve seen columns and straws and flowstone. We’ve learned how dark it gets in a cave when the lights go out, and we’ve endured just about every bad joke a cave tour guide could come up with.
Luray Cavern pretty much spoiled me for any other cave experience. But Penn’s Cave, in the center of Pennsylvania, looked unique – an all-water journey through the cave in a boat. I mentioned it in my post about Crystal Cave three years ago; we’ve been talking about going to see it for a long time. At the end of October, we finally made it.
Our boat was also packed pretty tight. Turning to take photos was a challenge, and although the boat ceased to rock when it got underway, it was a far from motionless shooting platform. As if shooting in a dark cave wasn’t hard enough!
The waterway flowing through Penn’s Cave is Penns Creek. Named for William Penn’s brother John, one of its sources is a spring in the cave.
All caverns are caves, but not all caves are caverns. Wait, what?
Any cavity in the ground large enough that some portion does not receive sunlight is a cave. A cavern is a specific type of cave formed in soluble rock and decorated with speleothems.
A speleothem is a cave formation. You don’t remember learning all this from the Wild Edge three years ago? Read it again here, there will be a quiz later.
Like every cavern I’ve toured, the formations have names. Fittingly, there’s the Nittany Lion. The Statue of Liberty. The Straits of Gibraltar was a narrow passage with rock angling in on both sides. We had to duck.
Quiz-time! (Didn’t believe me, did you?)
How do speleothems form?
Back on top of the earth. The surrounding area is mountainous and agricultural. Penn’s Cave offers a Farm, Nature & Wildlife Tour. The park’s 1600 acres are home to longhorn cattle, bison, bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats and wolves.
Like all wolf packs, there’s a pecking order, with an alpha male and an alpha female.
These wolves were hand-raised from pups, so they are accustomed to humans.
You’re in Lion Country now, son. Penn State’s mascot, the Nittany Lion, is a mountain lion like this. She was housed in a zoo-like enclosure behind glass. When she heard my camera’s shutter, she turned and looked right at me for a long moment.
Got your quiz answer ready?
How do speleothems form?
That’s right, speleothems form when rainwater and calcium carbonate form an acid that eats through soluble rock like limestone. As it drips, it leaves behind calcite deposits.
Give yourself an A!
My friends and I gave Penn’s Cave an A, too. Three years we waited, and it was well worth it.
“No, my grandson,” said the old man as he stood along the river shore.
“In the grass at the base of the red rock cliffs.”
“You must return it to the nest. Mother Osprey will be looking for it. The cliffs are high and dangerous, but you are young and strong. I have confidence in you.”
“I will try,” replied the boy somberly. “But first, Grandfather, tell me again of how these cliffs came to be?”
“200 million years ago in the Triassic Era, hot molten diabase boiled out of the earth. Its heat baked the shale and siltstone to an unusual hardness.
“See how the rocks tilt to the northwest? Over time tremendous pressure twisted the stone just so, and weathering has left them exposed for us to view from below.
“These palisades host an arctic-alpine plant community that is rare in this land, as well as more than 90 bird species, including peregrine falcons and the Ospreys who are even now looking for their egg.”
“If you lose courage, look to him; he will give you strength.”
Along the way, he marveled at the perseverance of the plants. Ferns, bushes and even trees seemed found no difficulty in rooting themselves in face of the stone. “I shall be as tenacious as these trees,” he said to himself.
As he neared the top, the boy found the climbing difficult. So high up he was! He tried not to look down. Slowly he moved, clinging to the rocks, wedging his fingers and toes into any crack he could find. “I shall be as strong as these cliffs,” he thought to himself.
At last the boy reached the top. Gingerly he took the egg from his clothes; tenderly he placed it in the Osprey nest. Mother Osprey watched him intently, fierce emotion hidden behind her glittering golden eyes. “I shall be as fearless as this Osprey,” the boy thought to himself.
After such a mild winter, why, oh why, did we choose the only truly FRIGID weekend to go fossil hunting along the Chesapeake Bay?
Calvert Cliffs on the western shore of Maryland is well-known for fossils, in particular fossilized sharks’ teeth. Dreaming of returning with fists full of teeth, Robb, Don and I spent a cold weekend on the Chesapeake Bay exploring Calvert Cliffs and other nearby sites.
Take a little trip back in time, 15 million years ago. It’s the Miocene Epoch, and southern Maryland is covered by a warm shallow sea. In the sea swim ancient species of whales, porpoises, turtles, sea cows, and rays. Several species of shark, including the giant White Shark Carcharocles megalodon, feed on the vertebrate population. Ancient invertebrates inhabiting the seas include clams, oysters, crabs and corals.
As each sea critter died, its carcass sank to the sea floor, to be covered with sand and silt. Generation after generation, the layers of bones accrued and fossilized.
Fast forward to the present. What was once sea floor is now a formation of clay, sandstone and shale cliffs known as the Calvert Cliffs stretching for miles along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Imbedded in those cliffs are the fossilized remains of over 600 species of extinct Miocene animals.
While the cliffs themselves are mostly on private property, there are a few public beaches where fossils appear – usually shells and corals – and the public is encouraged to fossil hunt. The real stars of the fossil hunt are the shark’s teeth. The teeth of extinct species of tiger, hammerhead, sand, and best of all Megalodon sharks can frequently be found here.
FUN FACT: Sharks, both prehistoric and modern, have an unlimited supply of teeth, which they lose frequently and which are immediately replaced by already existing teeth. Over the course of millions of years, that’s a lot of sharks’ teeth falling to the sea floor.
Don promised there would be “trillions” of fossilized sharks’ teeth out there for us to find.
Our first stop was the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. This was a great waterfront museum with an emphasis on natural and maritime history. We enjoyed the aquarium and other displays, but it was the fossil collection that we came to see. It was well worth the trip! There was a prehistoric time line, a reproduction of the Calvert Cliffs, and fossils of Miocene shells, sharks, whales, fish and crocodiles. Looming over it all was a HUGE replica of the extinct giant shark fondly known as Megalodon.
We also toured the decommissioned Drum Point Lighthouse. Previously I have only seen tower lighthouses that stand on the shoreline. Drum Point is a screwpile lighthouse that once stood over the water off Drum Point. The octagonal structure encloses a two story cottage for the keeper and his family. Moored next to the lighthouse is the skipjack Dee of St. Mary’s. Skipjacks were used to dredge oysters from the Chesapeake Bay.
The next afternoon we went to the beach near a portion of the Calvert Cliffs, hoping to find fossils. The gatekeeper showed us some fossils he’d found recently, petrified wood and a shark’s tooth. He said he’d found them yards out in the water, where the Bay is very shallow. Oops! Mistake #1: we left our muck boots at home. With temperatures hovering around 22° and a stiff breeze, there was no way we were walking in the water.
We walked for a long way right at the edge of the water, looking for fossils and teeth. Trillions of sharks’ teeth? Nope.
The cliffs south of us were dramatic. Even from a distance, the striations were obvious. It was also obvious that I’d made a miscalculation in suggesting the afternoon for this trek. I’d hoped it would be warmer. But the afternoon sun left the cliffs in deep shade, and none of my photos do them justice. Mistake #2.
In our exploration of the beach did we find trillions of sharks’ teeth? Nope. Not one.
Sharks’ teeth, no.
Frigid fossil fun!