Chapter 6: Let Sleeping Bats… Well… Hang

One bright, blue sky day in early April, I descended into an inky black hole in the Earth and didn’t know if I would make it out alive. It was an old iron mine in upstate New York and I was talked into going into it by Tim Barnett, the head of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.

Tim had invited me to work as an illustrator on a bat education project and thought I should see some real bats. So when he and another Nature Conservancy staffer were to take a writer from Harrowsmith Magazine down to see the bats in their native habitat, he wanted me to accompany them.

I was reluctant to go, as I tend to be a bit claustrophobic, but more importantly I had always heard that it was dangerous to go into old mines. (Anyone from the Lassie generation knows this.) The danger was not just from dramatic cave-ins but also from simply getting lost. There were hundreds of tunnels which branched into an endless web of caverns and causeways with pits and underground rivers. If you get turned around down there, you may never find your way out. In addition, the darkness is complete. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. So you only have as long as your batteries last to get out. When entering a cave, you always bring extra batteries and an additional light source. Always. (And never go into a cave without an experienced guide, period!)

I thought of all this when Tim asked me to come along. I made up what I thought were some very plausible excuses. Yet, Tim Barnett was not someone who took no for an answer, so despite my efforts I found myself on snowshoes hiking through a forest covered in spring snow. I was looking for a big mine opening in the side of a hill, so when Tim stopped and motioned for us to come forward, I was confused. There, down in the snow, was a dark, gaping hole in the ground only six feet wide. A cascade of water poured down across the hole into darkness. I stared at it in fascinated horror (and wondered how fast I could run away in snowshoes).

In the end, I reluctantly removed my snowshoes and donned a headlamp. One by one, we pushed under the waterfall into the mine and stumbled down a steep, rocky slope. At the bottom, we adjusted our packs and turned on our lights. Then we started walking down further into the mine. I was third in line behind the journalist but ahead of Melissa, the conservancy staffer. When we rounded the first corner and the light from the mine opening disappeared, I got a sudden rush of suffocating fear. In the pitch darkness, I felt sure there was no air down there. I started to panic. Melissa, whom I had just met that day, spoke reassuringly from behind me.

“Everyone gets a little panicked at first,” she said. “Just breathe and watch the back of the person in front of you”.

I did what she told me to do, mostly because I was too embarrassed to run shrieking back towards the cave opening. So we made our way down and down and down into the murky blackness. I noted every stitch in the back of the journalist’s jacket until my breathing settled into a rhythmic pattern.

Tim kept up a steady stream of conversation as the journalist asked questions. It was cool in the cave, but not cold, about 55°. In some places the ceiling was very low. I shined my flashlight up so I wouldn’t hit my head and noticed the small dark lumps clinging to the ceiling of the cave just over our heads.

“Bats!” I said, in a little voice.

“Oh yes,” Tim said cheerfully.

He stopped and shined his flashlight above him too. A group of a dozen small bats were huddled together there sleeping.

“Those are Myotis lucifugus, little brown bats,” he said, in his singsong voice. “There are seven species of bats in the Adirondacks. There are actually more bats here now than there were 200 years ago.”

Then he turned and walked on and his voice filtered back to us as we followed.

“There are few natural caves here in the Adirondacks. It was the mines that provided a place for the bats to hibernate all winter. Thanks why there are more bats here now than there were before there was mining.”

As we walked deeper, more and more bats appeared on the roof of the cave. We turned right down a narrow passageway and crossed a small river flowing through the darkness. It was odd to think of rivers flowing underground, but of course that is what you tap into when you dig a well. I suddenly realized that I was seeing something few people had ever seen. Then something brushed across my cheek and I screamed.

“Got a few wakers,” Tim said, his huge smile visible in the dim light.

Wakers smakers, I mumbled, the reverations of my scream still echoing in the depths of the mine.

We stopped at the junction of two tunnels and sat to rest. We drank water and Tim talked about how all species of bats in the Adirondacks are insectivorous. They start to wake about the time the first hatch of moths and mosquitoes occur in spring. They are nocturnal and use echolocation to locate prey in total darkness, so life in the mine came naturally to them. The cool temperatures allowed them to hibernate without using up their meager winter weight stores. The ground was covered with a fine dust of dried bat guano. They would be waking soon and ready to eat. The females who had borne young over the winter would be nursing and especially vulnerable to starvation. Like all mammals they take care of their young until they are independent, but unlike all other species of mammal on earth – they fly.

I took pictures of them clinging to the rock ceiling. Some were sleeping alone and while others were grouped in large huddles like a furry slumber party. Some bobbed and squirmed as they huddled together. It was getting close to waking time and they were restless.

Carefully Tim pulled a bat down and held it in his hand. I was surprised at how small and delicate it was. Its dark, furry body was only two inches long and it had tiny clawed hands and feet that were made for grasping rock. 

It was hard to believe that this was a creature that evoked terror in humans and inspired a whole genre of horror movies. Then the tiny bat bared its razor sharp teeth and hissed at us. That was impressive. Tim set the bat on a rock and it took off and flew into the darkness.

We made our way further down the narrow passage until it opened up into a huge cavern. Our voices echoed off of a domed ceiling that was so high it was above the range of our lights. Bats flew about in the dark. We could hear the whistle of their wings as they passed near.

The journalist set up his tripod and some lights. We looked around and were awed by the sheer vastness of the cavern. We could now see the bats lining the vaulted ceiling in brown fuzzy masses. The journalist took some time-delayed photos to capture the scope of the cavern in the dim light.

Melissa and I were told to stand perfectly still as perspective. We chatted quietly in the blackness while he timed the photos. It was damp and the air was musty. Tim disappeared beyond the lights and was lost in the shadows. I realized that if anything happened to him we would never find our way out of there. Time seemed to creep by while bats wheeled and the camera ticked off enough exposure to make the scene visible for the cover of the magazine.

Then something happened in the hollow darkness that to this day I cannot explain. Melissa, who I knew hardly at all, began to tell me mournfully about how she was worried because she was almost 40 and might never get to have kids in time. I suddenly felt deep regret for having left my kids all day at the sitter so I could hike into an old, abandoned mine. I thought of how devastated they would be if I was lost forever down here. Loneliness and regret seemed to echo around us in the cavern in an almost palpable way.

Then Tim came bounding out of the darkness near us and I jumped.

“All done!” he announced loudly.

As quickly as the gloomy mood came on it seemed to dissipate. I gave myself a mental shake. Then I followed them back, crossing rivers and making turns that I hadn’t remembered making on the way in. I wondered if the sheer volume of bats flying around us in the cavern, all sending out their radar-like echolocation, might have addled our minds a bit.

When we emerged from the mine, the afternoon light on the snow was blinding. Squinting, we strapped on snowshoes and stowed headlamps. I felt elated – buoyed up by fresh air and sunshine and the fact that I had actually survived. Snowshoeing back to the car I had a bounce in my step and had to stop myself from bursting into song.

I drove back to my studio and started illustrating bats flying, hanging upside down, sleeping and stretching their membranous wings. Eventually they would go on posters, flyers and buttons. People would build bat boxes and hang them on their garages to help keep the night insects down. School children would write poems and illustrate posters about bats.

I was so euphoric that I called my brother, Scott, in California and told him about the day. I was so excited that I probably sounded a little nutty.

“Wow,” he said, sounding surprised.

We were not a family of spelunkers, unless you counted some minor chandelier hanging. I felt so brave as I told him about the darkness and the panic and the bats.

“You wore rubber gloves and face masks, of course,” he said.

“What? No. Why would we?” I said, confused. “We were in a bat cave!”

“Exactly,” he said. “And many bats carry rabies.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry,” I said, shaking my head. “No one got bitten or anything.”

“You don’t have to get bitten to get rabies,” he said, in his matter of fact style of giving bad news. “Rabies spores can live in the dried bat guano on the cave floor. You stir them up when you walk around and breathe them in and sometimes you get rabies.”

I stopped breathing for a minute while I took this in, my euphoria turning to dread in an instant.

“Oh don’t worry,” he said laughing. “You probably didn’t get it.”

I started breathing again. It must be a common phenomenon how much younger sisters want to punch older brothers.

“So, just to be clear, you don’t think I’ll die in my sleep tonight then?” I said, a little cranky now.

“Oh noooooo,” he said.

“Okay then,” I said sighing.

“You’ll have at least 40 days before your brain swells up and you die a horrible death.”

Good to know, I said.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.