November 08, 2012 6:30 am • By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian [Photos provided by Ann Brooks]
COLUMBIA FALLS – Add dust bunnies to the list of creepy-crawly, cavern-dwelling critters one might encounter in a commercial cave, where dead skin cells, hair and other human detritus combine to create some pretty freaky formations.
“These were ancient 100-year-old cave dust bunnies,” recalls Ann Brooks, leader of the 10th-grade Senior Girl Scout troop, which last month worked to de-lint a Montana cave as a community service project.
Brooks learned about cave lint and its deleterious effect on naturally occurring cave formations last spring while attending the annual meeting of the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto, a caving group that met this year at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, which has been open to the public since around 1900 and receives up to 50,000 visitors every summer.
At a popular cave like the one at Lewis and Clark Caverns, lint accumulates just as it would in the nooks and crannies of a home. But in an active cave, in which formations are created by calcite deposits from flowing water, lint can become cemented into the limestone formations, causing discoloration and dissolution of a surface that required hundreds and thousands of years to form.
“The cave is active, so anytime there is water or moisture present there is the potential for new formations,” explains Rhea Armstrong, assistant manager at Lewis and Clark Caverns. “The lint absorbs water instead of letting it grow. Even though it’s not something I would see in my lifetime, in the long run it interferes with the cave.”
At Lewis and Clark, the philosophy is simple: If something in the cave isn’t naturally occurring, it should not be there.
“Pack rat poop and bat guano were OK,” Brooks wrote in a trip report. “Lens caps, water bottles, match boxes, flash bulbs, and lint, lint, lint, were not OK.”
For a cave aficionado like Brooks, it’s a noble cause. But an entire weekend scooping lint and colossal dust bunnies out of a cave isn’t at the top of a typical teenager’s list of priorities, so Brooks knew she needed to make her pitch resonate with the girls.
“I went back and talked to our troop about it, asking if they wanted to work at cleaning the inside of a large cave with toothbrushes, mostly removing dead skin cells and hair that had been accumulating since the early 1900s,” Brooks recalls. “I wanted to be blunt, to lay it out to them straight. I sort of enjoyed their shrieking, I guess, but also I didn’t want to get there and have them get grossed out, scared, or otherwise change their minds.”
It turns out that Brooks knows her Scouts pretty well. She’s been their leader since they were in first grade, and together they have logged countless volunteer hours and embarked on ambitious adventures, like scuba diving in Flathead Lake.
The troop, which acquired some previous caving experience while exploring the North Fork Flathead River, voted unanimously in favor of the project, and Brooks set about organizing the logistics with the state park.
The park is open year-round for camping and hiking, but the caverns are open only from May 1 to Sept. 30. The cleaning has to be done when the cave is closed to the public, so the troop settled on the second weekend in October.
Armed with buckets, gloves, toothbrushes, dust pans and garbage bags, the troop hiked from the visitor center to the cave entrance, a 20-minute uphill trip that meant bathroom breaks were “emergency-only.” Also, because food is prohibited in the cavern, a large breakfast would have to suffice for the day.
In her trip report, Brooks describes the experience of noticing the lint for the first time, which requires a discerning eye.
“For one second, I could not see the lint. Then, once I saw it, some caught on every single little limestone popcorn bump, that’s all I could see. It was everywhere. We each pretty much just stood in one spot and, starting up as high as we could reach, de-linted each popcorn nubbin on down to the level of the path where we swept up the piles – piles bigger than average dust bunnies.”
The felt-like lint is composed of hair, dead skin, spider webs, dust, and sometimes light rubbish and debris, and is held together by static electricity.
“It was slightly gross but if you just thought of it as lint it was somehow OK,” said Skye Hatfield, a member of the troop and a sophomore at Columbia Falls High School. “It spiked OCD levels all around.”
At one point, Hatfield joked that she was “channeling her inner Monk,” a reference to the television show “Monk,” about a homicide detective who suffers from debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Still, Hatfield and the other troop members told their leader they’d be interested in returning to the cave for another deep-cleaning expedition, and Brooks has already come up with some ideas that would make the de-linting process more efficient, like scraping the lint into plastic baggies.
“We could knock the lint into the baggies right at each spot as we went, like some sort of dirty juvenile underground CSI team collecting 100-year-old evidence,” she wrote. “Still, the cave was extremely satisfying to clean and sort of addicting. When we walked, we carried our brushes in hand, ready for ‘drive-by brushings’ in areas too linty to ignore. In the Cathedral Room we were able to spread out and stay a while. The large space made the air much cleaner and it was a wonderful area to work in. We saw a bat in there, which one girl promptly named Gerrard. It was so satisfying to me to look up from my own meticulous work and see the headlamps of our troop scattered about this amazing place, all intent on their chosen area.”