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A descent into the abyss — with guides

University of Maine at Presque Isle students Gordie Scannell, Adam Dunn and Courtney Cray take a break before entering a Quebec cave during last weekend's OAPI outing. (Photo by Julia Bayly).
University of Maine at Presque Isle students Gordie Scannell, Adam Dunn and Courtney Cray take a break before entering a Quebec cave during last weekend's OAPI outing. (Photo by Julia Bayly).
Posted Nov. 26, 2010, at 7:02 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.
Narrow passages meant cavers had to go single file during the OAPI outing to the caves of La Pocatiere, Quebec, last weekend. (NEWS photo by Julia Bayly).
Narrow passages meant cavers had to go single file during the OAPI outing to the caves of La Pocatiere, Quebec, last weekend. (NEWS photo by Julia Bayly).

In hindsight, I’m kind of glad no one told me about the spiders. Small openings, enclosed spaces, tight corners, slippery ground and muck are fine. Subterranean arachnids? Not so much.

But when you deliberately go underground, it’s best to be prepared for all eventualities. And having a guide or two who know their way around caverns is not bad, either.

In this case those in the know were an intrepid group from central Aroostook County who had signed on for a caving exploration trip in Quebec sponsored by the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Outdoor Adventure Programs International, or OAPI.

“OAPI is all about ‘challenge by choice,’” Kimberly McCrea, assistant director of UMPI’s Gentile Hall and program director, said. “We are not about pushing people beyond where they are comfortable.”

The caving trip, for example, was a beginner level OAPI offering. An upcoming winter ascent of Mount Katahdin, on the other hand, is geared for people who possess a specific mental and physical fitness level.

“We want people to see what is out there and to challenge themselves,” McCrea said. “OAPI provides a safe and friendly environment for people to get and try things they may not have the confidence to try on their own.”

Taking part in the caving trip were UMPI students Kaitie Sprangers, Mark Payne, Adam Dunn, Jessica Jamer, Emerson Wright, Gordie Scannell, Courtney Cray; community member Ethan Linders, McCrea and me.

Most are veterans of past OAPI adventures and all were more than happy to lend a hand — or two — to me, a middle-aged reporter along for the trip.

Which is a good thing, since I really did not want to spend the rest of my life under the rocks of Quebec.

The series of small caverns at Parc Montagne du College in La Pocatiere are fissure caves, which are formed by tectonic forces — the geologic widening of thin fissures within the rock.

Most fissure caves are formed by erosionlike forces along escarpments and cliff bases with access through small holes in the ground or cracks between the rocks.

Let me just say, experiencing the network of caves and crevices firsthand makes anyone a believer in plate tectonics.

A short hike from the park’s parking area gets you to the general area of the caves. Since Sprangers had been there twice before, she served as our guide for the day, saving us a ton of time searching for the cave entrances and the way out once inside.

When it comes to the La Pocatiere caves, access is not so much by walking in as it is slithering either face- or feet-first.

Since I really like to know what’s coming at me, I chose the head-first method.

Given the passages were often just wide enough for us to squeeze through, I lost count of the times I offered up a silent thanks for the OAPI-provided helmet.

Judging from the sounds of plastic hitting rock throughout the day, I suspect the other cavers were offering up their own thanks.

Simply put, caving is hard work.

Once inside, we crawled, crab-walked, slithered and pulled ourselves up, down, over and under rock ledges, sharp rock outcroppings and smaller loose stones.

And since none of the caves was particularly level, this meant doing all of this either sliding down or attempting to climb.

Sprangers knew what she was doing and took us through about a half-dozen caves with increasing levels of difficulties and formation details.

Then, saving the best for last, she took us into the Grotto Tartare.

Its narrow opening drops down in what she described as a “slip and slide” for about 25 feet down a narrow fissure and into total blackness.

“Just use your arms and hands against the ledge above you to slow yourself down,” Sprangers instructed with a wide grin before she disappeared into the abyss.

Right behind her was Ethan Linders who made the descent look easy and controlled.

Taking a deep breath, I let go of the above-ground terra firma and tried to slow my slide as instructed.

My grip missing the ledge completely, I shot down the chute going from spelunker to projectile in a matter of seconds.

Thankfully, Linders grabbed me as I flew past, saving me from at least two broken ankles and a painful evacuation.

I was committed — there was no way I was going to make it back up that slide so it was onward with more slithering, crawling and sliding along the cave’s slick interior.

Oh yeah, and avoiding those spiders.

We knew they were there — one of the students had pointed out clusters of the insects bunched into crevices of the walls.

I just chose to ignore their very presence and tried not to think about what hundreds of disturbed spiders were capable of.

Eventually the Grotto Tartare opened into a room just tall enough to almost stand up in. Squeezing in, we took a group photo and — just for fun — turned off our headlamps to experience true darkness.

Amid fears of what would happen if none of our lamps turned back on, every horror and slasher movie I had ever seen ran full length through my mind.

Then with trusty lamps clicked back on, we continued to the cave’s exit.

The way out was several feet above my head up a narrow chimney lacking in any sort of foot or handhold, but not lacking in slick walls.

Ah, the skill and athleticism of youth.

I stood there awhile watching student after student magically scale that wall until it was my turn.

I tried, as God as my witness, I tried. But all I accomplished was bruising my elbows and knees as I slid back down to where I had started.

With thoughts of changing my mailing address and residency to that cave beginning to rise, down came a helpful hand from above at the same time a second helpful hand from below provided a perfect foot hold.

Safe to say, after four hours of caving I felt challenged and extraordinary grateful to have done the trip with the OAPI crew.

“This was a fantastic trip and great experience,” Sprangers said as we headed back toward Maine. “I’d recommend it to anyone.”

At the same time, she was quick to add anyone wanting to explore the caves should do so with a guide the first time.

It’s easy to see why. The entrances are small, the passages confusing with twisting turns and dead ends and, in the event of an accident or other emergency, there is little chance of a solo caver being found in a timely manner.

“I felt pretty confident guiding today,” Sprangers said. “It was really a matter of remembering just where the caves were along the trail.”

Proximity to resources like the caves, Aroostook State Park, Baxter State Park and other outdoor recreation opportunities is a big advantage for OAPI, McCrea said.

“We are really fortunate to live where we do,” she said. “So many of these places are just a half day’s drive or less away from us.”

In addition to several planned outings per semester, the OAPI program also makes outdoor gear available to students and community members for a nominal fee.

It’s all about getting people outside and enjoying themselves.

“We want people to give things a try,” McCrea said. “People are more than welcome to give me a call and we can talk about the different activities we offer.”

By the end of Saturday’s adventure, despite the fact there were few areas of my body not bruised, sore or both, I definitely felt successfully challenged and exhilarated by what we had accomplished as a team (not to mention very grateful for the existence of ibuprofen and aspirin).

Information on all OAPI activities is available at www.umpi.edu/gentile-hall/oapi or by calling McCrea at 768-9401.

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