Today, my wife Christa and I took a group from church including my nephew Robert and Tyler, a boy who lived with us this last summer, out to the abandoned mine we have been recently exploring. We have nicknamed the area “Shiloh”. Tyler is down for the weekend and had expressed an interest in seeing the cave we recently discovered, so off we went. We parked the vehicles, walked down the long neglected industrial road, and slipped through the faded yellow bars of the gate that used to bear the warning signs of the company that owned the property. Christa and I have enjoyed showing off this jewel of Florida we recently discovered and hope that it will be appreciated by those we are now bringing here in the same way we do.
The beginning of November is the perfect time for hiking. The temperature and humidity were comfortable. The sky had that bright blue hue that invites you outside. There was just enough cloud cover to add texture. Over the hour that we leisurely walked the distance to the cave we came to explore I couldn’t help but notice that Florida is beginning to slowly experience the fall color change in the leaves. They are losing the green colors and favoring yellow with some distinct red shades poking through. The kids bantered back and forth and everyone was in a good mood.
We arrived at the open pit and the group showed a definitive divide as most of the kids wanted to dash for the cave. The adults and one of the kids opted to stay topside and enjoy the serenity and scenery. I took the fast way down sliding down the loose gravel and sand. The rest hopped down the rocky pathway from boulder to boulder that slopes between two cliff faces. At the bottom we unloaded our water packs and emptied our pockets. I had four boys who wanted to explore underground. I lead them to the back of the mining pit and across the rubble field of large rocks accumulated from the wash out when the pit was originally dug exposing the cave entrance. It is my guess that the cave was flooded and when they exposed it, that subsequently flooded the mining pit stopping the operation in that area. Today, with water levels down, what was once an underwater system is now dry enough to walk and crawl through. As I crossed the obstacle course entry way I was made painfully aware that this cave does not allow one to enter without leaving bruises on the knees and legs as a lasting reminder of the experience. Once I settled in on the other side against the cave wall I watched as the boys scantered across without a problem leaving my ego bruised as I am also reminded that I am getting older.
The group began to make a dash for the back of the cave. Kids seem to be so focused on getting there that they forget to look around. I backed them up into the first room they rushed past and told them to look up. That first room has a ceiling which is thirty feet high. They certainly did not expect to see that after crawling on their hands and knees bumping their heads to gain entry. Their flashlights were shining every different direction so I called their attention to the large boulder precariously perched above them waiting to fall on a rambunctious teenager if they sneezed too exhuberantly. I immediately lost the two older ones right there. They made their way back out. My nephew and Tyler continued.
After passing through a slanted passageway, the next obstacle was a large boulder that had broken free of its hold on the ceiling and wedged solidly just above the floor leaving a gopher turtle hole shaped passage to squeeze through. It seemed to me to be about the same size as one as well. I pushed through and was thinking the whole time that I ate way too much for lunch. My “fun size” girth just barely made it as long as I didn’t take a full breath. A camping shovel is coming next time! Robert and Tyler had no such difficulties. With the three of us safely on the other side we entered the last vault, the one that ends in an underground sump. It is an underground access to the Florida aquifer where the water runoff from the entire valley of about six hundred acres drains into this one point. It is an underground pond about ten feet long by about seven feet wide and down a clay walled shaft at the back of the room. I would also estimate it to be 50 to 60 feet below the surface and a few hundred feet back in the cave system. It is odd to me that the higher ground in this room is wet sticky clay while the open path of the lower floor is dry enough to stir up fine dust by merely walking on it.
Today I came prepared with a dive light and length of rope. The last time I was there we only had the light from our cell phone apps. I intended to find out just how deep this Trogloditian watering hole was. The dive light needed a weight to counter its buoyancy and the boys dutifully found a suitable rock to tie to the light. Unfortunately, as I was concentrating on perfecting my clove hitch knot, my nephew threw a large chunk of clay in the basin, totally silting out the water and destroying any visibility the otherwise crystal clear portal previously had. I couldn’t be mad at him. Boys are born with an innate impulse to throw rocks in water. He didn’t know any better. Since we were already there I finished my task and lowered the light in the water. It looked like the sump drops down about eight feet and then opens to a rather large tunnel on the left. I would have loved to have stayed longer to work at repositioning the dive light at different angles to get a better view of the tunnel….. except that one of those young boys, and I won’t mention that it was Tyler, began to… um… exhibit extremely odiferous symptoms of intestinal distress, instantly rendering the confines of that underground gas chamber unfit for human occupation. It is an interesting attribute of the human body that when escaping for your life one is not cognizant of pain. I never felt the confines of that turtle hole or the contusions from the rock field. As a side note I think we set a record for the fastest time exiting a cave system.
After leaving the cave those from church had exhausted the time they could spend with us so they made their way back to their cars. That left six of us to continue exploring.
One of the interesting features of Shiloh is the three dimensional topography of the
abandoned mine. It is distinctly un-Florida. When a mining company abandons an operation the state of Florida requires a certain amount of land reclamation. The mountains of spoil are supposed to be pushed back in to level out the ground and every attempt is to be made to restore the land to as much of the pre-mining condition as possible. In essence the tall hills and valleys with the cliffs weren’t supposed to be there, but that is government oversight for you. The result in this case is that enough time has passed that the humongous mountains of spoil have now become forested hills. The barren mining pits have become valleys of flowers. The walls of the mine are now rock outcrops that give the area distinct features. It was the last feature that we went looking for. There aren’t many places in Florida that are conducive to taking young boys rock climbing outdoors. At this point Robert’s dad and grandmother were worn out so they bailed heading straight back to the cars to wait for us.
The last four of us began our trek back towards the cars taking the long way out. Instead of following the overgrown gravel road that we had followed in, we took a route that skirted the base of a hill and formed a ridgeline between two valleys. Up to this point I haven’t mentioned that our dog, Dingo, has been along for the hike. It almost seems like an afterthought to
mention that a dog was with us. Anyone who knows us readily knows that we always have a dog or two with us anywhere we go. Our chihuahua has even done an 18 mile backpack trip. Now we get to the part as to why I named this little essay “Li’l Squeeler”. Have you ever had a moment where what you are listening to doesn’t match what you see and your brain is just a tad too slow to put it together? This was that moment. As we are walking through the dense, tall, brown grass, the kind that is about 2 feet to 4 feet tall and rustles as you walk through it, I watch my dog Dingo run out to my left and ahead of me disappearing into that grass. What I hear behind me is my nine year old nephew yelling in his stern voice for Dingo to “Get out of there”. I am thinking, “why is he yelling at Dingo from way back there? He can’t see Dingo. Whatever”. “Whatever” is NOT what I should have been thinking. Dingo is a black furry dog with some small grey and white spots. Robert had lagged behind and saw what he thought was Dingo crouching behind some of that tall grass I mentioned. It wasn’t. Robert walked over to this creature who was desperately trying to hide (it is hunting season) and kicked it. The next thing I know little Robert is running for all he is worth, eyes huge, and squeeling at the top of his lungs over the wind and rustling grass, “PIIIIIIIG!!!!!!!!!!!! PIIIIIIIIGGG!!!!! RUUUUUUUNNNNNN!!!!” I turned to see a black hog with, you guessed it, grey and white spots running at full out gallop (do hogs gallop?) across the open field and into the closest thicket it could find. I don’t know who was more scared, Robert or that hog. For that matter, I don’t know who squeeled more either. I don’t think Robert will ever do that again and it was most certainly the most memorable part of the day for my wife and me.
After each of us got done laughing and retelling what we had seen when Robert started yelling and the hog started running, we made our way down to a suitable cliff for the boys to rock climb. An hour of that and it was time to go, but not before seeing two deer make their way across the far side of the valley from our perch atop the ledge we had been playing on. I have always enjoyed each visit to our little Shiloh. Each visit has been a unique experience. On the way back to the gravel road Robert dropped his hiking staff. As he bent down to pick it up instead he came up with a freshly shed dear antler. It is a wonderful thing to see the magic in a young boy’s eyes as he discovers new things. This was a special moment for him finding that antler in the middle of that vast wilderness. We made it back to the vehicles with everyone laughing and Robert and Tyler excitedly telling Robert’s dad and grandmother their adventure.
It now seems to be tradition to leave Shiloh at sunset watching the last rays of sun light fade and the headlights of the land rover illuminate the forest roads on the way out through the woods.
These are the memories I want when I am old and too feeble to go into the woods anymore. Today… today was a good day and tomorrow will be another adventure.