Into the Bat Cave

Once upon a time (1881) two brothers — Bingham by name were hunting in the woods of the Black Hills near a town named Hot Springs.  As they wandered down a hill they heard a whistling sound nearby.  It seems air was escaping from inside the earth — from a hole in the ground.  According to Tom Bingham the wind was so strong it blew his hat off this head; at least that’s the story he and his brother told everyone.  This is the origin of the white man’s story about  what we call Wind Cave National Park:

Between 1881 and 1906 greed fostered by family feuds, mining claims and a world’s fair eventually led to President Teddy Roosevelt’s making this area a national park in 1906.  This sordid history overshadowed the more beautiful and romantic. cave creation story aka “Lakota Emergence Story” shared by Oglala Lakotas through a multi-generational oral history.  In summary, according to Oglala Lakota oral history humans lived underground in the Tunkan or spirit lodge (cave) while the”Great Spirit” completed shaping the earth’s surface for their eventual home.  The opening discovered by the Bingham brothers was the passageway to the surface. The Lakota called the cave Tunken or “Oniya Oshoka” that translates to “where the earth breathes inside”.   Preparation of the earth took a long time.  Meanwhile, some lesser spirits wreaked havoc on the minds of the cave-dwellers.  Eventually a trickster spirit convinced a portion of the humans that the wait was ridiculous.  He would take them to the earth’s surface.  

These “refugees” were spiritually weak . They were not capable of handling the change in seasons and clamored to return to the safety of the cave.  But the Great Spirit was displeased by their actions.   He chastised them and then transformed these humans into bison.  This was the origination of bison — which became a primary food source for generations of Native Americans.  Eventually the Great Spirit led the remaining human above ground. They were given the right hunt to bison by the Great Spirit.   This version is only a summary –Lakota elders take at two or more  days to tell this story so if you have a desire to know more simply google the Lakota Emergence Story.

Most people today prefer (at least those of us who believe in global warming) the scientific rationale for the Wind Cave phenomena.  Today scientists know changes in barometric pressure under and above the earth’s surface result in the winds within Wind Cave. 

To explore the cave explorers laid down string (not breadcrumbs) and lit candles to guide them as they crawled, walked and squeezed through one of the longest cave systems in the world — 90+ miles of caves have been mapped to date with more regularly being discovered.  Fortunately for us the National Park Service (NPS) with aid from the the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) installed lights and pathways through many sections of Wind Cave.

Virtually every day of the year Ranger led tours take folks into the cave system.  We and 40 of our now closes personal friends took the “Natural Entrance Tour”.  Our guide was Susanna and she was incredibly well trained–this is a photo of her from the tour:

She told us to watch for boxwork a significant feature of the cave — see desciption below:

Boxwork is found in caves throughout the world but typically in much smaller quantities than is present in Wind Cave.  These formations are for the most part extremely delicate  which means DON”T TOUCH — more photos:

Boxwork looks like a hornets nest, or layers of paper; or for me this feature reminds me of vanilla wafer cookies — yup, I was hungry during the tour .

You’re probably wondering about bats (many on the tour sure were)– boxwork has bat hotel written all over it — am I right?   The answer is yes to bats being in the caves.  We didn’t see any because the little buggers are nocturnal.(There was also no sign of Batman.)  we learned that bt food is bugs either found inside or topside.  Fossils of ancient sea creatures are found since these caves were created by ancient underground rivers.  To date there has been no signs of ancient or even modern era human habitation — no petrographs, smoke covered walls or artifacts have been found.   
The tour began with 40 and ended with 40.  I fully expected to go without my travel companion because she is claustrophobic. But shock of shocks — she womaned-up and joined me.  She felt she could keep her claustrophobia in-check.  I’m pleased to report that she didn’t run out of the cave screaming (this has happened in the past).  She was incredibly focused and made no physical threats to me or anyone else on the tour.   During the 1.5 hours underground she regulated her breathing using a type of Lamaze breathing method.  I applaud her — she rose to the occasion–doncha think? :


Theses photos don’t capture the entirety of her feelings.  It was her idea to take the photos above — see she maintained her sense of humor  throughout the tour.  As our group approached the final stretch our  guide shut off the lights and we were surrounded by quiet — extreme quiet! It felt like an eternity — perhaps 60 seconds worth.  It was as dark as anything I’d ever experienced — and just a bit intimidating — like that feeling you have in the pit of your belly when it’s so quiet at night you almost cannot stand it.   I wsometimes talk out loud alone or not just to insure that I don’t go crazy.    

A the end of tour exiting the cave was a piece of cake — we piled into an elevator and left by this unassuming and simple doorway:

No brush covered the exit ala the Batcave — the air sure smelled extra pure when we came out of the exit..  The sun was shining — it was the noon hour and I’d worked up an appetite.  We headed to the car to collect our p/j sandwiches.  We plopped down on a bench and with some bravado talked about the cave hike — all the while quietly sucking in fresh air. I won’t take that clean breathable air for granted — at least not for the rest of today.


About tourdetom

I'm retired. Travel a lot.
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1 Response to Into the Bat Cave

  1. Sue says:

    Bravo Cherie – and thanks Tom for another fine re-cap of another place I intended to see but did not quite make it to. My son and I had a travel companion who was not as able to conquer her fear as yours. Mom was concerned that when finished with the tour, that it would be dark for drive back to hotel. Tried to reassure her that the night driving in less populated SD would not be as frightening for me as it is for her in the city. She was still distressed so we turned back and saved it for the next time traveling thru. Now as I have gotten older I see why she was afraid-seeing at night is much harder for me now and I even sit higher in the frontseat to have the benefit the high beam affords. Glad we turned around and happy that you two made it and shared the experience. (Max and I had had the cave experience before anyway, at the Lewis and Clark Caverns north of Bozeman MT, which sounds similar- feared bats and lights off etc)

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