Camdenton, Mo.—After a day or two of traveling in Central Missouri, you are no longer surprised at the number of activities and places that are free and open to the public. Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Camdenton is one of those free places.
We pulled into the park to see the ruins of an early 1900s castle and estate. Just before the turn of the last century, the story goes, a prominent Kansas City businessman named Robert McClure Snyder allowed his desire to live in a castle to get the best of him. He wanted an estate that would rival the castles he had seen in Europe, so he designed it and then contracted Scottish stone masons to come over and build it. Fast forward to 1906: Work on the property had just begun and Snyder is killed in an auto accident. It took his family over 20 years to complete his plans only to have the estate burn in 1942. The fire gutted the building and only a shell of native Missouri limestone blocks remain. The situation at the top of a bluff is both eery and breathtaking at the same time.
Visiting Ha Ha Tonka for the castle is well worth a stop. So is spending a few minutes at the visitors center. That’s where we met Bonnie. Bonnie works behind the counter and spends her days getting visitors to and from the castle and other places in the park; one tool she uses is a park trail guide. As she marked the way to the picnic tables near River Cave, she apologized that the cave was closed because the bats were breeding.
I asked, “What kind of bats?” Her eyes brightened as she began to tell us about the two colonies that live in different areas of River Cave.
There are common brown bats and a colony of Indiana gray bats, which is an endangered species. In 1984, in an effort to protect the grays, a gate was added to the mouth of the cave during breeding season. Before the gate was installed, an estimated 7,000 gray bats lived in the cave. In 1990, 23,000 were counted.
Armed with one of Bonnie’s orange-markered maps, we drove to the picnic table area and struck out on the half-mile trail to the cave. The gate, we discovered, is a large, metal contraption that looks more like giant louvers than a traditional gate. The louvered entrance works to keep humans out and to allow bats to enter and leave at will.
Wooden stairs lead into the crevasse near the front of the cave and there are platforms every 20 steps or so; it is steep but doable.
A park naturalist will escort groups near the cave—again it is Central Missouri so there is no cost, just sign up ahead of time. The naturalist gives a brief history of the cave, talks about the bats, and the group stays around until the bats take off, usually about 8 p.m. The bats leave the safety of the cave to feed. And feed they do.
A bat will consume 2-3,000 insects every night. Especially mosquitoes. The feasting makes it possible for humans to hike the trails at Ha Ha Tonka, perhaps play a game of Frisbee, fire up the picnic grills near River Cave, and to leave without dozens of welts on their skin.
It’s a bat thing. Alfred would have loved it, I mused on the way back to the car.