Underground happy place

Castleton student Katie Paroline took her twin siblings Aaron and Krysten to Harris Cave near Danby Vermont.
While Aaron enjoyed the excursion, Krysten has vowed to never go caving again, in part because it required them to slither through the frigid water, shown below. Photos courtesy of Katie Paroline.

My two favorite things in the world are animals and adrenaline rushes. Music comes as a close third, but that’s irrelevant because this blog is about the first two: well, about wildlife and adventure. They may not be the grandest of adventures or the wildest of wildlife experiences, but they are my own, and I hope a little of the joy and excitement they brought me spills through in the stories I tell here.


“It’s one of the biggest, deepest, longest caves in New England. There are some caverns as big as this room, and other passages so small you have to slither instead of crawl to get through. One of the smallest ‘pinches’ is underwater, so you have to hold your breath and dunk your head to get through.”

As I described Morris Cave to my family, they interrupted me periodically with comments like “That sounds awful!” and “I don’t know why you’d want to put yourself through that.”

None of them seemed to share my enthusiasm, until my little sister Kyrsten piped up, “Now THAT sounds like fun. That’s the kind of adventure I’d like.”

It took me by surprise because she’s the indoorsy one of the family; the bookworm; the one who prefers to work and play inside; the one who hates hikes. But she wanted to slither through a cold, wet, muddy hole in the ground.     

“Are you serious?” I asked

Yes, she was serious, and yes, she was sure.

That was this spring, and just this past week I finally brought Kyrsten and her twin brother, Aaron, to the cave.

Fun fact: Aaron, Kyrsten, and I are all twins, but my twin doesn’t like slithering around in the mud so he didn’t come.

Every time I go to that cave, I get as excited as if I’m seeing it all for the first time. The walls and ceiling are composed of solid rock of all sorts of colors, from yellow, to brick red, to gray, sometimes with bands of white. The floor is covered with large, round cobbles that are hell to crawl on. Early on in the cave, before it gets too cold, the walls and ceilings glitter and sparkle a silvery white with some sort of microbial growth, which my siblings found disgusting, but I thought was cool.

The first part of the cave is big enough to crawl through, with three small “pinches” you have to slither through. When Kyrsten saw the first, she told me “There’s NO way Aaron’s going to get through there! His shoulders won’t even fit.”

I thought the same thing the first time I saw it, but as long as you put your arms through first and turn your head to the side, it isn’t too hard to push yourself through with your toes.

The toughest part of the cave is the wet pinch. I’ve swam through rivers in April that were warmer than that pool of water. It’s in the low forties, like the air temperature in the cave, which means once you get cold and wet, you stay that way until you get out of the cave and into the sun.

The pool is only about six inches deep, but there are also only a few inches of space between the surface of the pool and the rock above, meaning even though it’s barely over ankle-deep, it’s impossible to go through without getting entirely soaked.

Dunking into that cold water is like torture. Our hands and arms were numb within thirty seconds, and our bodies tingled all over. It’s definitely the hardest part of the cave, but also the most exciting. Aaron told me later it was his favorite part, that he liked the challenge. I can’t decide whether I love it or hate it, but I know “Sucker for Pain” always runs through my head while I’m doing it.

Kyrsten definitely hated it. From that point on, she had one goal and one goal only: get out of there. She was a trooper and made it all the way, but when I asked “Isn’t this fun?” She looked straight into my eyes and shouted “NO!”

“I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m dirty, and I’m probably going to die of hypothermia,” she said. “You think I’m having FUN???” She used hashtags like #cold #dying #notwarned #COLD and #barelygotout to describe the trip later, and said her favorite part of the cave was finally seeing the light of day again.

I think my favorite part is the waterfall room. The acoustics in there are incredible. I wish I could bring my violin sometime, but even if I could manage to carry it along with me, either the wet pinch or the cold, wet air would destroy it. Besides, there’s something about the stillness of the cave that is almost too peaceful to disturb, even with music.

The trickle of the water tumbling onto rocks, the dripping of the “waterfall” into the pool below, and the laughter of the nearby stream form their own gorgeous melody.

The cave terminates in “the corkscrew:” a vertical tunnel that twists around exactly like the object it is named for. It’s a vertical drop of about 20 feet of spiraling rocks. Kyrsten took one look at it and flatly refused to go down, but Aaron and I had fun. I’ve always wanted to try rock climbing, with harnesses and ropes up a vertical rock face, but in the meanwhile I settle for this kind of climbing and bouldering.

Kyrsten was waiting for us, shivering, and made us hurry back as fast as we could go. Ever since she got wet, she wanted nothing more than to get out of there and warm up. We even hurried through the wet pinch with barely any hesitation, because we knew we were only 500 feet away from the earth’s surface and the warmth of the sun.

I was so focused on moving along quickly, stumbling forward with my stiff joints and numb fingers, that I didn’t realize how far I’d gone until suddenly a wave of heat hit me, and as I rounded the corner I saw the first rays of sun I’d seen in hours, filtering through the narrow entrance of the cave. I don’t think I normally take sunlight for granted any more than the next person, but I never appreciate it as much as I do at a time like that.

Kyrsten’s upturned face as she basked in those thin rays of late afternoon sunlight told the same story.

So Kyrsten decided caving isn’t her thing after all and said she’ll never go again, but she admitted that the rocks were really cool and that she’s glad she went so she can say she’s done it. Aaron liked everything except army crawling through those six inches of wet sand.

And I loved it all, even the miserable parts. It wasn’t my first time going and won’t be my last, because rare and beautiful things in nature like Morris Cave never get old.


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