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Exploring El Capitan Cave


By Emily Fielder, steward, Wilderness Discoverer

The darkness was thick, palpable, impenetrable. With the last flick of an LED headlamp, it enveloped us completely. Our other senses grew heightened with the dark and a hush settled over the group. A million droplets of water, seeping down from the surface through the layers of ancient limestone, echoed off the walls creating a cave-like symphony. Seconds ticked by while we stood entranced by the sounds emanating through the deep darkness.

A spark of golden light sprang forth from the void and shattered the spell. It was Blasé; geology major, rock nerd, USFS worker and our guide. “This is what exploring the cave with fire torches would have been like,” he told us. “Can you imagine?”

Wilderness Discoverer

76-guest Wilderness Discoverer

An Alaskan summer sun rises in the early hours of morning. This I can personally attest to be true. Sunday began my third week working aboard the Wilderness Discoverer and my turn to take the “early riser” shift. I find myself out of bed and working during hours I would normally shudder at back in my old life. But up here it isn’t so bad. The sun, when it isn’t hidden by rain clouds, is glorious in the early hours. Mist is illuminated as it hangs, suspended among the forested hills slopeing down into the steely gray waters of the Inside Passage. I’m finding that I enjoy being awake during these hours. Plus having the early shift has given me a chance to tag along on shore excursions during my break.

Steps to cave

The long staircase up to El Capitan Cave

Sunday morning dawned and we awoke to an anchoring in El Capitan passage, a short skiff ride across to the cave. With my morning tasks completed, I found myself happily tagging along with the group as a guest guide. I was even charged with carrying the can of protective bear spray. Man did I feel special. While walking up the dock we spotted an array of starfish in the shallows. Some even had a crazy collection of arms, numbering what looked to me like double digits! After a short walk we started up the staircase. It wound through rainforest and plants with names such as Devil’s Club.

Forest view

Beautiful view through the trees on the climp up

El Capitan Cave is the largest cave system in Alaska. Created from ancient coral reefs, it now finds itself high in the hills of the Alaskan wilderness. The cave was discovered in the 1970s but was not easily accessible until volunteers constructed a massive 370-step cedar wood staircase in 1994. As our knowledgeable guide Blasé informed us in whispered tones of excitement, evidence of life in the cave was found dating back three thousand years.

Group at cave

Cave explorers

Beyond the area where visitors to the cave can go, past a 40-foot deep pit, an otter body was discovered, wrapped as a sort of mummy. No one is sure why it ended up there and who exactly brought it into the depths of El Capitan Cave, but it is an interesting mystery that remains. The cave is a maze cave which means that its many passages branch off and meet back up later on making it rather dangerous to get lost among. Blasé said they are finding on average 10 new caves a year in Alaska.

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