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In the summertime, gray bats, which are on the national endangered species list, fly out of the Nickajack Cave around dusk every evening.

To the bat cave, paddler!

One of the off-beat interesting adventures sponsored by Outdoor Chattanooga starts this week and runs Fridays through late September. It's a guided, "family-friendly" canoe tour to Nickajack Cave to watch endangered gray bats fly out at dusk to feed.

It's so appealing that registrations are pretty much full through the end of August, Outdoor Chattanooga's Terri Chapin said Wednesday. The trip organizers take about 15 people at a time, with equipment provided by Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga, but experienced paddlers can make their own trips on other days.

"Trip sizes are kept small to keep our impact to a minimum and the experience at a maximum," Chapin said.

"One may imagine a Scooby-Doo episode where thousands of bats blast out of a cave all at once. The reality is much more subtle, yet no less mesmerizing."

She explained that Nickajack Cave was partly flooded when TVA built Nickajack Dam in 1967. As a maternity roost for the gray bats, the cave is managed jointly by TVA and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

A disease called white nose syndrome, caused by an "introduced Old World fungus," has killed millions of North American bats but is not known to have had "significant impacts" on gray bats yet, according to Cory Holliday, cave and karst program manager of the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, adding that WNS is "still relatively new to their range." Holliday noted that gray bats have been an endangered species since 1976 "due largely to human disturbance at their principal cave roosts."

Watching from outside as the bats fly out of Nickajack Cave is an important distinction from entering the cave and disturbing them.

"Outdoor Chattanooga offers a variety of affordable programs targeted to the beginner as well as toward families," Chapin said. "The nature of canoe travel is inherently family-friendly. These guided canoe tours provide the instruction and the equipment to assist and inspire all ages to enjoy our natural environments and experience the importance of conservation."

Each Friday trip will begin at 7 p.m. EDT. The return to the launch site will be after dark. It costs $20 for ages 14 and up and $10 for ages 13 and under, accompanied by adults. Reservations are required through info@outdoorchattanooga.com or by calling 643-6888.

"My favorite aspect of this tour is the anticipation of the event," Chapin said. "As the group waits patiently for the sun to set, sitting quietly floating in canoes on the water in the failing light, you may hear fish tails slapping the water's surface. The imagination kicks in."

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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