The Porter Cave is better known as Empire cave to the world outside of UCSC. Nestled near Porter College, the cave is frequented by throngs of first years each fall. Large groups come at night to explore the cave's three chambers. They slowly make the trek down the narrow path to the entrance: a large concrete block covered with graffiti. An uneven hole on top of the block greets those who wish to enter. A ladder eases their entry into the cave's dark depths. The inside of the cave is unremarkable geologically, but it is the connection humans have with the Porter Cave that makes it special.
The cave is not totally mundane however. The cave was formed millions of years ago when the water level in Santa Cruz was much higher. Carbon dioxide mixed with the water and formed carbonic acid, which ate through the rock to create a hollow pocket. After the water level fell, the cave became accessible. It is home to two rare species, the Dolloff spider and Empire Cave Pseudoscorpion. The Dolloff spider is only found in caves located in Santa Cruz and the Empire Cave Pseudoscorpion, as the name implies, is only found within Empire Cave. The Dolloff Spider builds its web near the cave's entrance and feeds off of the cave's fauna. Its prey includes cave moths and harvestmen. The Empire Cave Pseudoscorpion crawls on the cave floor and eats cave fauna. Sadly these species are both endangered and human interaction is to blame.
Visitors to Porter Cave often leave litter and other junk around the entrance as well as inside the cave. The San Francisco chapter of the National Speleological Society does an annual clean up litter after Halloween. One year, the clean up crew was shocked to find rotting hay bales inside. The carbon dioxide emitted into the air from the decaying hay is harmful to both the Dolloff Spider and Pseudoscorpion. When I visited the cave as a first year student at UCSC, I saw evidence of a small fire in the first chamber of the cave. If the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by decaying hay bales is enough to harm the cave's life I can't imagine what a fire would do.
The University is also to blame for some of the destruction. UCSC has no storm drainage system, so it lets all of its storm runoff drain into the Empire Cave system. This added water flow impacts the habitat of the Psuedoscorpions and harms the species they prey upon. The water also introduces aromatic hydrocarbons into the cave, further negatively impacting cave ecology.
Not all human interaction with the cave is negative. On my last visit to the cave I noticed that while there was litter on the concrete block, there was no litter inside. I also noticed small notes placed in the first chamber by members of the National Speleological Society reminding cave visitors to respect the cave. There was relatively little vandalism. The air was thick and hard to breathe and the cave was dark. Even with two lights, it was hard to make anything out. The larger of the two lights cut out large swaths of light, but it was still hard to make out the cave layout. The entrance to the second chamber is adjacent to the cave entrance; I had to climb on my hands and knees in order to pass through. The limestone walls were slick with water.
Once inside the second chamber the air became markedly moister. I could see the moisture in the air as the light from the flashlight shined through. The second chamber was totally clean. It had a remarkably high ceiling; I didn't feel claustrophobic at all. Toward the rear of the second chamber the cave floor became very muddy. I had heard from a student on campus that people sculpted faces and heads out of the mud, but I didn't see any signs of these. The heavy flow of water throughout the winter may have washed them away.
I didn't go into the third chamber that day. Our main light source had dimmed, and the cave floor was becoming so muddy it was hard to walk without slipping. We left the cave for the time being, but I knew that I would be back soon.
The Porter Cave is a special place to my friends and me. During our first year at school, we would hike down to the cave entrance, or "the block" as we referred to it, two or three times a week. The block became our hang out. After fall quarter, the cave receives far less traffic. Most of the first years have seen the cave already, so the large groups to see the cave stop. The novelty of the cave probably wore off and perhaps might become a place to take visitors from outside of UCSC.
For my friends and me, the cave was a nice spot to rest our feet. While located right off of Empire Grade, the cave is surprisingly quiet and peaceful especially at night. Our feet became so accustomed to the trail that we could walk it at night with no moon and no flashlights. It was perilous, but the reward for making it all the way down with no light made up for it all. By the time we reached the block, our night vision had come into full effect. Now we could see the eerie silhouette of the forest. The air was crisp and refreshing, adding to the calming atmosphere surrounding the block.
Passing cars periodically shattered that calm. Their headlights looked extra bright because our eye's had adjusted to almost pitch black. The roaring scream of the cars passing by combined with arcs of blinding yellow light shooting through the trees created a spectacular show. If we went late enough, the frequency of the passing cars was long enough to let our eyes adjust again before the next car came. We'd get to see the show five or six times in a night.
We began to realize that we were probably the ones who came to the cave the most often and this strengthened our bond with the cave. While we hung out there often, we seldom went inside. The block was our domain, and we merrily sat on it week after week. Eventually one of us came up with the name “Gatekeepers.” The name fit; we sat outside the entrance and gave advice to the uninitiated cave explorers. We would also kindly remind them that the cave was home to many rare and vulnerable species and that they should respect the cave. My friend Hugh was always quick to tell people not to smoke inside the cave because that would harm the Dolloff spider and Pseudoscorpion.
While the cave itself occurred due to natural processes, people have interacted with the cave in such a way that they have given it an unnatural history. Each year thousands of people come to the cave for the first time. Many of them have never been in a cave before. Each person who enters the cave leaves slightly changed. Visiting the Porter cave becomes an indelible marker in the lives of visitors. It can symbolize the start of a new life, at a new place, with new friends.