a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A cave to savor

Our tour boat returns to the dock Saturday after an adventurous cruise into the fascinating Penn's Cave in Pennsylvania. (Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CENTRE HALL, Pa. – A school of large rainbow trout greets visitors to a pool of green water at the base of a 25-foot-long stairway into America's only all water cavern.
The fish trail lights on tourist boats into this cave as the small vessels return from a man-made lake fed by the same fresh-water spring that drains into Penn's Cave in rural Centre County, Pa.

"Eleven million gallons of water flow from it a day," said Will, the guide on our boat as we embark on the half-mile voyage into this dark, wonderful cavern to Lake Nittany on the outskirts of Centre Hall borough.

The Presbyterian Rev. James Martin made the first recorded discovery of the cave in 1795. It's been open for tours for the past 125 years, and owned since 1908 by the Campbell family, which also hosts wildlife tours on the sprawling well-manicured, above-ground farm.

Ahead in the cavern rooms, which are anywhere from 25 to 100 feet underground, great examples of stalagmites and stalactites formations await tourists riding in motorized, steel flat bottom boats. One rock looks a bit like the Statue of Liberty, while others are compared to Niagara Falls, Jabba the Hutt and the Pennsylvania State University mascot - the Nittany Lion.

But it's the mythological Indian Princess Nita-Nee who provided this cave with its best story. Legend has it she fell in love with a European trader, Malachi Boyer, and her seven brothers disapproved of the relationship. They tossed him to die into a sinkhole leading into the cave, where he swam around in the 38-degree water looking for an entrance until he died. People apparently still claim to hear echoes down there of Boyer calling out for his lost love.

There isn't much of a danger of drowning now because the water is only about 3 feet deep, Will said. He also reveals that bats are rarely seen here in the summer months, but they show up to hibernate in the winter.

Water that drips from the ceiling allows the natural rock sculptures to grow by one inch every 300 to 500 years, he said. One of them falls every 10,000 years, so there is nothing to fear on this visit, he insists.

Some of the rocks have turned red naturally from iron oxide. Others have been tinged red from boat scrapes. Those in the dry room are brilliantly lit by red, blue and yellow electric lights after Will stops the boat and he flicks a row of low-tech power switches attached a wooden board jutting out from a wall. Early explorers to this room also found Indian arrowheads, pottery and beans, he says.

"The Indians didn't live here. They used it as storage," Will said.

Like him, the other tour guides appear to be in their 20s and all of them have a corny sense of humor. One of them flashes a peace sign as he passes by, seated like Buddha at the helm of his ship.

The guides certainly add to the charm of this place. However, the gasoline-powered boat engines they operate fill the cave with obnoxious fumes.

That pollution is my only criticism of this destination, whose owners really need to find a cleaner energy source to power their boats. Those fumes cannot be healthy for the rock formations, which would be spoiled by a single touch of a visitor. Anyone who touches these formations would be charged with a felony crime, Will warns.

Aside from the smell, Penn's Cave is a fascinating place to tour, and one more reason why I keep my home in Pennsylvania.

Penn's Cave is nearly 17 miles northeast of State College, Pa. It is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as the month of January. Tour reservations are not accepted in advance.

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