Delving into dark
By KEITH NIEBUHR
© St. Petersburg Times,
When Times photographer Ron Thompson told me a few weeks ago that there were caves in Citrus County, I thought he was joking.
I mean, this is central Florida for crying out loud -- not ... well, not wherever it is you'd expect to find a cave. I've always heard there are caves of some kind near Marianna, a small town up in the panhandle, but I had no idea we had any of these things down here.
This I had to see.
On a muggy summer day (Is there any other kind here?), Ron agreed to take me to the caves, which as it turns out, are located about 12 miles south of Lecanto and inside the western end of the Withlacoochee State Forest.
To reach the caves, you have to park your car on the side of the road and walk about a half-mile. In 60-degree weather, I'll bet this is a magnificent walk. But when it's 93 and you're wearing blue jeans, it ain't nirvana.
When we arrived at the cave, I was amazed.
Basically, there's a huge hole in the ground that falls about 20 or more feet from where you stand. The opening is carved through rock. To be honest, it kind of looks like an old sink hole.
To enter the cave, Ron and I had to walk about 20 feet away from the giant hole in the ground to a smaller opening that has -- for all intents and purposes -- a natural set of steps leading into a pit.
Ron went first and easily made it in, despite the fact he was carrying about 50 pounds of camera equipment. I slowly made my way down the steps, which consisted of rock that had slippery and slimy stuff growing on it, by balancing myself against the wall of the cave.
When I reached the bottom, I turned and noticed a spray-painted sign on one side of the cave that read: "Your Gonna Die."
Not exactly the greeting I had hoped for. I winced for a second, but then realized that I probably had nothing to worry about. I mean, how prophetic could this person be if he or she didn't know the difference between "Your" and "You're."
We moved into a larger cavern within the cave that led to other smaller caverns. You can walk into some of them, but you literally have to get on your hands and knees and crawl through the mud to reach others.
I basically decided right then and there that the best way to experience this cave would be to find one cavern, turn on a flashlight and poke around. Fortunately, we didn't have to go far.
The first cavern we reached, which was roughly 10x15 feet in size, was perfect. The roof of the cave was about 15 feet above us. The walls had hundreds of cracks, some small and others large enough for a child to fit into.
Inside the cave, the temperature seemed to drop about 5 degrees or more. I touched the walls, and they felt damp and cool. The rock was smooth at some points and rough at others. The cave seemed sturdy. The ground was half dirt, half rock.
When I shined the flashlight around, I spotted items left from previous visitors. I came across some matches and a couple of beer cans. And the walls of the cavern were littered with graffiti. When I looked around, I could visualize a cavern packed with teenagers on a Friday night.
So little light reached this particular cavern that without the flashlight, I wouldn't have been able to see a thing. The only thing missing was a family of bats. Believe me, we weren't complaining.
Before leaving, I turned around and looked at a small opening in the rock that led from our cavern to another. The cave had more to offer for another day.
Caving: where to go
Approximately 1 mile north of the Citrus/Hernando county line on South Lecanto Highway (County Road 491). Park your car off 491 across the street from W. Lone Court. The trail to the caves begins there.
Bring a flashlight and some first aid equipment.
Drink plenty of water.
Wear old clothes.
For information about caving, check out these Web sites:
Tampa Bay Area Grotto: (813) 933-2736.
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