Blowing in the Wind Cave

El Capitan Peak is an impressive region of alpine karst with deep sinkholes and pits. The deepest limestone pit in the United States, 182-meter-deep El Capitan Pit, is located there. Other caves on the peak include complex vertical mazes. These caves have been explored and mapped by the Tongass Cave Project. One of the most extensive of these is Blowing in the Wind Cave.

While mapping Blowing in the Wind Cave in 1992, cavers Steve Lewis and Pete Smith recovered two isolated juvenile brown bear skeletons. This was the second cave in which brown bear remains were found on Prince of Wales Island, and the first case of a natural trap. The two individuals were found in different parts of the cave, but what remained of each skeleton was found closely associated at each location. There appeared to be no other associated fossils.

The two juvenile bears died in different stages of development. The larger one (on left in the photo below) had limb bones and other elements that were in fair condition. This individual was radiocarbon dated at 9,995 years old, which fell between the two dates on fossil brown bears from El Capitan Cave. What remained of the smaller individual (on right in photo below) was much more fragmentary, and it lacked sufficient collagen for dating. Although these were small juveniles, their tooth size indicates that they would have become large adults.

Photos taken in the field by Paul Matheus

It seemed paradoxical that only brown bears, which went extinct on Prince of Wales Island, were represented in Blowing in the Wind Cave, whereas black bears (which are still abundant on the island) were found in greater number as fossils in El Capitan Cave. Blowing in the Wind Cave is in an alpine habitat at 670 meters above sea level. Confirmation that brown bears dominated in the higher elevations was found the following year with the discovery of Bumper Cave.

© 2002 by Timothy H. Heaton