I recently visited Howe Caverns, the popular Schoharie County cave, for the first time. I feel a little embarrassed to admit this — I’ve lived in the Capital Region for over a decade, but had never visited one of the area’s big attractions. And I’m not one of those people who is afraid of caves. I like caves. I think they’re fun!
For some, the appeal of caves is hard to fathom. Caves are dark and frequently occupied by bats; they often require visitors to navigate tight spaces and put aside their fear of the unknown. However, caves can be beautiful as well as fun: They contain stalactites and stalagmites, interesting rock formations and cool features such as streams and crystals. Going into a cave offers a glimpse into a hidden world, and provides a certain thrill — it can be exciting to follow a guide down a darkened path, through winding passages, deeper and deeper into the earth.
My cave experience is not extensive. I’ve been to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Lewis and Clarke Caverns in Montana, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and the Secret Caverns, located down the road from Howe Caverns. Mammoth Cave is pretty impressive. Wikipedia informs me that it is the longest known cave system in the world, with some impressive features — giant vertical shafts, rivers populated by blind fish, glittering gypsum crystals. Lewis and Clarke isn’t quite as amazing, but its beautiful formations are very much worth seeing. What makes Wind Cave interesting is its boxwork — a honeycomb-like calcite formation that projects from a cave’s walls and ceilings.
As I mentioned, I’ve been to Secret Caverns, which offer an interesting contrast to Howe. Howe is a destination, with a ropes course, restaurant and gift shop. Secret Caverns is a little like Howe’s undisciplined hippie cousin, with colorful, cartoonish billboards and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility. As a cave, Howe is more impressive ... but Secret Caverns is nothing to sneeze at, particularly if you like quirky and unusual places. Here’s a description of Secret Caverns from a 2001 New York Times article: “Secret Caverns is reminiscent of the vanishing roadside attraction with billboards as quiet as carnival barkers, a lodge painted like a huge bat and guides who treat tours like an open mike night.” Yup, sounds about right. However, there’s more to Secret Caverns than jokes and clever banter: One of the tour’s highlights is a 100-foot waterfall.
As much as I enjoyed Secret Caverns, I was pretty impressed by Howe. Our guide was knowledgeable, friendly and told some humorous jokes and stories. The tour showcased impressive formations, took us through some labyrinthine passages and provided information about how caves form and Howe’s interesting history. The highlight was probably the boat ride on Howe’s underground lake, the Lake of Venus. I’ve never been on a boat ride in a cave before, and I was really looking forward to this. And it was pretty cool, offering views of the cave from the water, and a thrilling glimpse into the darkened, off-limits sections of the cave.
Like most well-known cave destinations, Howe’s paths are well-lit and there are amenities such as stairs and railings to guide people along and make things safe. But if you’re interested in something more exciting, Howe does offer an adventure tour and a lantern tour, both of which I’d like to try. About eight years ago, I got the chance to try what I’ll call “real caving” — crawling into a cave with only a headlamp for illumination, clad in overalls and an old pair of sneakers. The Northeastern Cave Conservancy was hosting tours of Clarksville Cave in rural Albany County, and I decided I wanted to take advantage of this rare opportunity to visit a “wild cave” familiar only to avid spelunkers.
Anyway, real caving is a real challenge that involves squeezing through narrow tunnels and passages, pulling yourself up and down rock and constantly straining to see. Of course, there was a payoff — I got a better sense of what spelunking was all about, as well as a glimpse of one of Albany County’s more interesting geological features. But this sort of spelunking isn’t for everyone, which is why places like Howe and Secret caverns are so valuable, and worth a trip.
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