Moaning Cavern is located about an hour east of Stockton in Mother Lode country. As multimedia producer Andrew Nixon and I arrive we're greeted by Tim Brasier, one of the two lead guides at the cavern.
“Hi guys, welcome to Moaning Cavern, how you doing today?”
Brasier says Native Americans first discovered the cavern centuries ago. Gold miners explored it in the 1840’s. Tours by candlelight began in 1920.
“It originally started as a small hole that went in about five feet and dropped another 180 feet," says Brasier. "We had what we called 7 second tourists. They would go in that, hear the moaning that was water dripping at the bottom of the cavern and also from the wind blowing across the top of the hole. Kind of like a jug. Whhhhoooooo”
These days you can either take a walking tour of the cavern or a 2-hour adventure tour, which includes crawling on your hands and knees about 280 feet below the main chamber through narrow spaces with names like Claustrophobia Corner, Breakdown Room, Pancake Squeeze, The Roach Motel, The Meat Grinder and the Guillotine, Santa’s Worst Nightmare. After that you slide down what Brasier calls Wedgie Hill. (More on that later.)
There are two ways to the bottom of the cavern’s main chamber. You can either take the stairs a hundred and ninety-five feet down or you can rappel down the 16 stories. That’s just a little shorter than the state Capitol dome.
After watching a safety video and strapping a microphone to my harness, I was ready to rappel to the bottom with tour guide Tim right behind me. And I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid of heights. That much is pretty clear if you listen to the audio from this story.
I commented to tour guide Tim about the formations I saw, which to me looked like icicles. "They’re called stalactites," says Tim. "We have stalagtites that grow up from the top down and stalagmites that grow from the bottom up.”
Only three other people took the tour with Tim and me: My colleague from Capital Public Radio Andrew Nixon, Ben Preston, a grade school teacher, and his 14-year-old niece. Ben says he brought one of his sixth grade classes to the cavern a few years before and it transformed the children.
“They still contact me," he explains. "One of them said it changed his life. He’s gone on and he’s a mountaineering guide and all kinds of things but he brings it back to this cavern actually.”
As we started making our way deeper into the cavern, not only did it get tighter, it got twisted. We had to climb, crawl, and squeeze over and around protruding rocks. Tim explained how to get through each challenge and we passed his directions down the line.
After making our way through the Meat Grinder, the Birth Canal and Santa’s Nightmare we made it to the top of Wedgie Hill, which is a 45 foot slide down to where we began the tour.
“So she’s requesting you go first down Wedgie Hill," Tim tells me. "I can do that," I respond. "What you’re going to do is sit here and slide around here, down to the bottom," explains Tim. "And enjoy your wedgie.”
As we came to the end of our adventure, the only thing left to do was to climb 134 stairs back to the visitor’s center.
A lot of fun... with a wedgie.