I picked up my candle lantern and entered the cool, damp and dark Crystal Cave at Sequoia National Park. I had paid my fare to take candlelit tour at dusk, hiked down the steep mountainside and prepared to enter the cave’s gaping mouth with a handful of park visitors, expecting to see fanged bats in the shadows.
And then came the cave naturalist and tour guide, Billy Dooling, 26, who promptly reminded the group to hold the candle upright, not to touch any of the dagger-like stalactites or stalagmites, and to not worry about the bats …because there were none.
Bummer, I thought to myself, blinking to see in the flickering darkness. The 48-degree chill crawled up my spine and I shuddered as the gigantic cavern opened up to reveal hundreds of ghoulish calcite formations that had spent millions of years twisting and warping in the marbled sanctuary.
Of 280 caves in the park, Crystal Cave is the only one open to the public, but is inaccessible without a professional guide, such as Dooling.
A biology graduate from Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, Dooling works for the nonprofit organization Sequoia Natural History Assn. and has spent his first season as a guide educating visitors about cave conservation. It was about halfway through the tour when I realized Dooling was going beyond the history of the cave, informing us of its future and how we can help keep it intact.
I connected with him soon after to learn more about his role as a national park tour guide, active environmentalist and undercover educator.