Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Caving In

On a cold November day in 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, two University of Arizona students who were also amateur cavers, squeezed through a narrow blowhole in the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains in southeast Arizona. Several hours and four hundred feet later, they discovered what would in 1999, become Kartchner Caverns, Arizona’s 25th state park and eventually, one of the world’s top ten caves known for its mineralogy and color.
Having spent a fair amount of time birding in southeast Arizona we had been aware of Kartchner Caverns SP and passed by many times. For one reason or another, we had never stopped. Until now. We had signed on to be 2014-2015 seasonal volunteers at the park with a goal to become Lead Guides on cavern tours.

our site for the next seven months
Although our official arrival date wasn’t until October 1, we took the the opportunity to arrive early by about a week and a half. This gave us a tremendous leg up on our park orientation and to get some initial training out of the way. By the time October 1st rolled around, we had become qualified cave tour Trailers and could hit the ground running. Well, walking. Running is not allowed in the caverns.

Upper Village before other volunteers arrived; view out our back window
The term “Trailer” had nothing to do with RV’s. A cave tour Trailer is someone who literally trails behind cave tours to assist the cave Lead Guides as needed. Sounds simple enough but Trailers play an important role for a successful and safe tour. This became even more evident when we eventually became Lead Guides ourselves.
Located in Southeast Arizona at the foot of the Whetstone Mountains, between Sierra Vista and Benson, we were about an hour’s drive from Tucson. On the surface, Kartchner Caverns isn’t as large as other parks we’ve visited. But underground? It has over 2.4 miles of caverns that includes some pretty compelling scenery.
Arriving volunteers like us, who live in their RV’s, are given a choice of being situated in either the Lower or the Upper Volunteer Village. As we soon discovered, both had advantages and disadvantages. The Lower Village was located much closer to the Discovery Center, the park’s Visitor Center, which made walking to work a lot easier. On the other hand, it was closer to the main highway and the maintenance buildings, plus, the RV sites were bunched closer together.

every evening brought a different sky
The Upper Village, although much further away from the Discovery Center, was also further away from the highway road noise. The sites were larger with more flora. But what really sold us was that the Upper Village is where volunteers with an interest in birding preferred to stay. Birds? That would be us. The only downside we could determine was that the water pressure was noticeably lower but given the other pluses, our choice worked very well. Our unobstructed view of the Whetstone Mountains out our rear window surely didn’t hurt.
For the next three weeks we were the only ones in the Upper Village but eventually, more volunteers in travel trailers, fifth wheels, or motor homes, began to trickled in. By that time, we had completed more training. In addition to being Trailers, we had learned to work the gate house at the park’s entrance where we welcomed visitors. We had also added “Portal Person” to our resumé. A Portal Person staffs the entrance to the caverns (the Portal), monitoring tour comings and goings and assisting guests as needed. But our main focus still centered around taking the training to become Lead Guides. At the first opportunity, we signed up for the next available Lead Guide training class.
Lead Guide training turned out to be a lot more involved than we had anticipated. Marlo Buchmann, the parks incredibly organized volunteer coordinator, encouraged ALL seasonal volunteers go through Lead Guide training. Her reasoning was that even if after completing the rigorous training, that participants would have a much better understanding and appreciation about the caverns and its day-to-day operation.
Training consisted of 3 1/2 days of classroom study (complete with a huge three-ring binder to study, pop quizzes, and a final exam). All manner of topics were presented: Geology, Hydrology, Chemistry, Paleontology, Biology, the cavern’s history, and working with the public, just to name a few topics.
After passing our final exams and opting to try to qualify to be a Lead Guide, we worked under the tutelage of various mentors (park staff) who critiqued our Lead Guide techniques during live tours. We were required to lead a minimum of three tours from start to finish, completely on our own. Once we satisfied our mentors, we were scheduled to lead a tour under the watchful eye of the Volunteer Coordinator. We each passed our on our first try! We were promptly added to the weekly tour schedule as Lead Guides and in addition to our other duties, began to guide the public through the caverns on the Rotunda/Throne Tour.

officially Lead Guides
Kartchner offers two tours. The “Rotunda/Throne” tour, covering a 1/2 mile and lasting 1 1/2 hours, is offered year-round. The theme of the Rotunda/Throne tour is water - how water played a significant role in the formation of the cave and its formations. The “Big Room” tour covers 1/2 mile, lasts 1 3/4 hours, but it's offered only six months of the year. The emphasis of this tour is all about the cave’s discovery with an overview of its bat population. Bat population? The Big Room closes between April 15th and October 15th to allow a small returning bat population time to breed and rear their young undisturbed. Due to the popularity of both tours, it is strongly recommended that advance reservations are made.
Rotunda/Throne rooms tours consist of up to twenty guests of all ages and depart twenty minutes apart. Up to three tours are run simultaneously. The Big Room tour group is limited to fifteen guests with no children below the age of seven. Two Big Room tours can be run simultaneously. One learns very quickly that running simultaneous tours requires a lot of exact timing. So much so that all Lead Guides and Trailers are required to set their watches to an atomic wall clock that hangs in the break room. And woe to the guide who falls behind…

Park's front entrance; trams waiting to ferry guests; the portal
To become Lead Guides for a Big Room Tour, we would be required to take additional classroom training (a day and a half), go through more mentoring (minimum of three satisfactorily run complete tours), and be signed off with a final "yay or nay" by the Volunteer Coordinator. However, we were still qualified (and scheduled) to trail in the Big Room. For now, the Rotunda/Throne Room would keep us busy...but we would also keep an eye out for the next available chance to sign up for Big Room Lead Guide training.
The Discovery Center (Visitor Center) is the park’s hub of activity. It consists of a front desk (another volunteer opportunity for which we were trained but rarely assigned), a movie theater, a museum, a well stocked gift shop, an amphitheater, some picnic areas, a butterfly garden, and a food concession (the Bat Cafe). The park also offers RV campsites (water and electric) plus tent sites. There are two hiking trails. The Guindani Trail is 4.2 miles in length (moderate to strenuous) with an elevation of 4750’ to 5620’ through semi-desert grassland and oak-juniper woodlands. The Foothills Loop Trail is about 2.5 miles long, also rated moderate to difficult. The trail passes over a limestone hill north of the cave and descends into the Guindani Wash with views of the San Padro Riparian area. Typical vegetation consists of ocotillo, creosote bush, buckthorn cholla and hackberry.
From a Lead Guide’s perspective, a typical Rotunda/Throne Room tour consists of a ten minute introduction at a pre-determined location outside the Discovery Center. Guests then board a tram for a short ride up to the Portal where they disembark and hear more about what they are likely to encounter in the cavern. It’s also one last opportunity for a guide to review the cavern “do’s and don’t’s. The biggest rule? “Don’t touch!”
One is never in total darkness during a cave tour. A series of rope lights along the pathways are always lit. However, guides need to trigger various light switches along the route that control additional show cave lighting to illuminate various speleothems (cave formations). Did I mention that timing is critical? There are specific points during a tour where a guide has to turn on a light which then also triggers a cue for another tour that began twenty minutes later. This all has to happen seamlessly and without guests being made aware of what’s happening. Moving a tour group along in a timely fashion to access these trigger points, while managing to cover all salient cave information (and ensuring a tour ends on time to re-board an awaiting tram), may sound simple enough. However, all kinds of variables can throw a tour into a tailspin. As Lead Guides and Trailers, we all have to know how to address these variables while magically keeping the tour fun, exciting, and on time. As the saying goes in the break room, “A happy tour is a tour on time”.

hiking the Guidani Trail
Discovery Center
hiking the Foot Hills Trail
one very big ocotillo

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