If you haven't been to Howe Caverns since your elementary school field trip, I can give you five reasons why you should go.
1. The animatronic farmer.
The new first stop on the cave tour -- new, as in, it just opened this past Saturday, and it still smells like cut lumber -- is the library of an animatronic Lester Howe. Holding a geode and a stick, the latex robot farmer welcomes you to the cave and tells you of its history. He blinks, he jokes, he simultaneously worries and fascinates the little kids. He directs our attention to a digital picture frame, where we watch a re-enactment of Howe discovering the cave by following his cows, who liked to rest on hot days near the cool air blowing from the cave's entrance. The frame's images are all oversized heads and cow kisses. But in a good way.
2. The weather, or lack thereof.
The elevator takes you down into the cave, a couple hundred feet below winter. At a constant 52 degrees, it's warmer than being outside. And that's no small fact.
3. Take groovy cave photographs.
My attempt at artsy photography. ... Yeah, I know: I'll stick to writing.
Tours are 80 minutes long: plenty of time to challenge yourself to create some new art. Explore the artistic potential of blurred images, or experiment with all those low-light settings on your camera. Study how the shadows play in the sinuous hollows and curves of the cave ceiling.
4. Think about the bats.
Howe Caverns had a small colony of about 500 bats, in a part of the cave not open to tours. Now there are four bats left. But that's nothing compared to the destruction of huge bat colonies in other caves.
White nose syndrome, a disease that's decimating Northeast bat populations, was first observed in Howe Caverns. Researchers understand little about the fungus, which grows on hibernating bats. It's associated with a loss of the bats' fat reserves, which they need to survive hibernation. In a story last December, National Geographic speculated that the fungus, which is known in Europe but doesn't harm bats there, could have entered the cave on a tourist's shoes. More than a million bats have died in the United States in the past few years.
Considering that bats devour more than half their body weight in insects every night, this disease could be devastating to our ecosystem. Howe Caverns raised more than $12,000 last year to donate to research, and you'll hear a pitch for contributions while you're in the cave.
Besides talking about the bats, the tour guide will fill you in on other things, too. Some of it will be the same corny stories they've always told, like the Boy Scout and his frozen mouse. But there's some good science in there -- calcite and flowstone, floods and rockfalls, how the cracks in the ceiling were caused by the weight of glaciers passing above.
But really, you don't go for the geology lecture. You go because ...
5. Dude, it's a cave!
I mean, wow, you're underground. And you see things you can't see on top of the earth. Rock that ripples and flows. Forms that seem to quiver somewhere between liquid and solid. Take a meditative walk through the narrow paths of the Winding Way. Enjoy the calming sound of water echoing off stone. Howe Caverns doesn't have soaring stalagmites or jaw-dropping mineral formations of the sort you can see on some cave tours. But you know what? It's still awesome.
It's a chance to hang out underground. Talk about getting a change of scenery.
AOA, we have a spelunking budget, right? Because I might need to go back.
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.