The Annual Grotto Trip began with twelve of us headed from a wonderful campground over to Cave Ridge. I grabbed some flagging tape to mark the cave entrances for the different groups and headed across the field. I hadn’t counted on the hillside being covered in quite so much plant growth and ran out of flagging tape before I found the last entrance. Path finding got more interesting after that.

I returned to the cars to suit up and join my group. I was the tallest and oldest, and Carlin’s second son was the shortest and youngest at eighteen months. We climbed the hill to Boxwork Crystal Cave, and Carlin entered the slot first and invited Son #2 to slide in. He wanted nothing to do with going into that crack, even with the encouragement of his older brother and Carlin. I think he knew that Carlin was planning to put him onto his back again and that he wouldn’t have free movement.

The four of us managed to cross all three pits, and the the four-year-old did a masterful job of negotiating the significant breakdown piles (significant to someone of his stature). When the passage got low, Son #1 directed us to turn back for the entrance. He was anxious to see another cave.

We took a very short walk to the horizontal entrance to Dead Air Cave. Cold air conditioning welcomed us all, but neither of Carlin’s children wanted to go inside until Mike Broome showed up with extra layers of clothes for Son #1. Mike and I led Son #1 into the cave, passed the pools and white formations in the big room, descended the slope, and stopped for shadow puppetry. We “figured out” how to climb the hill and exited the cave for an exciting trip.

Next day Emily Graham, Mike Broome, Lisa Lorenzin, Diana Gietl, and I headed to survey Big Sink Cave. Mike, Lisa, and Diana surveyed down the stream passage, and we could hear them calling to one another far better than they could hear one another. We should’ve been writing down their numbers for them.

Emily and I tied the stream passage entrance to the previous survey in two places and then headed over to a stream lead Emily found. After crawling around or the first ten survey shots, it was a delight to stand up and clock a shot at 48.6 feet with a wonderfully flat floor. The lead continued around a corner and across a low cobble crawl back into walking passage again. That’s a great lead to pursue on the next trip. More than four hundred feet of Sunday survey and still good leads to survey.

Once again the TriTrogs represented at Grand Caverns Annual Spring Restoration Camp, with participation from Emily, Elise, Kim, Rachel, Tanya, Zeke, and me. The trip started with an unexpected detour toward Lexington to pick up Tanya after her car broke down.

On Saturday morning I led a small group with buckets of gravel back to the Oyster Shells at the back of the tourist trail. Puddles had been forming on the tourist trail, and the commercial trail was getting slippery. We immediately discovered that instead of gravel, we really needed muscle and tools instead. A thin veneer of flowstone was forming atop last year’s gravel. Using a weird assortment of tools, we sledged, picked, and pulled our way back to the gravel floor. We gradually assembled more tools and workers to create very walkable trails.

Kim and Emily hauled lumber up to Fountain Cave, Rachel and Elise scrubbed algae before joining the floor crew, Tanya worked with the flowers, Emily climbed on the roof, and Zeke spent the day installing the first phone lines ever within the cave.

Good dinner and then a trip to Madison Saltpeter Cave (named for the President’s uncle). Thick calcite rafts floated in one of the pools, and Rachel found a deep hole behind one of the formations. Except for Tanya, the TriTrogs all headed home Saturday evening.

Taylor Tibbs, Emily Graham, Pete Hertl and I squeezed into wet suit pieces to prepare for a winter trip into Big Sink Cave in Smyth County, Virginia. I had viewed the 1965 compass-and-pace map that indicated we’d be climbing down through some stream cascades as the survey progressed toward the back of the cave. Therefore, the wet suits seemed to be a good precaution.

Inside the Entrance Room we found that a pack rat or some other creature had likely visited the cave and walked off with our tie-in point at the back of the room. We shot the survey again and then headed for a short easy climb. Atop the climb Emily discovered an alcove with a hole in the ceiling. Emily pushed up a dirty slope but couldn’t quite find enough footing to ascend. Taylor poked her way up into the virgin Kidney Bean Room, but they told me I’d never be able to fit through the entrance hole.

We returned to the more spacious passage where Pete had started mapping out survey points. We found ourselves in Swiss cheese-style cave with interconnecting holes of different sizes over and under mock breakdown. We discovered that one crawlway had multiple holes leading back down into a larger room, and one led right back into the Entrance Room.

We descended into a big open room with a flowstone octopus up near the ceiling, a massive block shooting up like an orca, and a slab that resembled an alligator from one particular angle (according to Pete). Needless to say, we unofficially dubbed the room Sea World even before we noticed the windows into the stream flowing beneath the room.

Sketching this room turned out to be particularly difficult for me. Because it was so hard to figure out if there were any real walls. Behind every rock there seemed to be more empty space, and maybe a lead or two. We spent the next few hours surveying around this room, in and out some of the seven leads that we identified. Along the way we found pretty rooms that weren’t on the 1965 map at all, but those folks never necessarily crawled either.

I thought that the team was about to quit when I realized that we only needed 16 more feet to accumulate 500 feet of survey that day. Emily found a 31-foot shot but then pulled back to stop it at 16.45 feet, declaring an end to the survey that day.

Taylor kindly washed the survey tape in the flowing stream while I finished the sketch. I never stepped in the stream all day, but I think the crew was thankful for the wet suits in the long run. We all stayed warm despite the chilly February temps outside.

Emily Graham took me along on a graffiti cleanup trip to the gated Gilley Cave on July 7; I’ve wanted to visit this ACC cave for many years. The Flittermouse Grotto had organized this effort because the spray paint had been so prolific near the entrance. The ten of us managed to extract a significant amount of graffiti in the entrance passage, but more remains. Two photos show how we managed to clean a large stalagmite in the entrance area.

Photos by Steve Bailey

 

Then we turned it from graffiti cleaning to a sport trip. I was amazed at the gypsum needles and flowers covering the walls of the passage, the numerous dome pits, the interwoven parallel passages, and the way that Dan Henry and Emily understood the ways through the breakdown piles. They led us down to the passage upstream of Echo Lake. While the women explored the crawlway to the lake, I focused on learning the way back toward the entrance.

We followed Dan past the waterfall up to a large collection of Gilley Cave hoops, a cave formation I’ve never seen before. The hoops were in random spots on the floor and walls, extending up to four feet in diameter and six inches thick. I’m not sure why Emily had carried a tape measure into the cave, but it did come in handy when she wanted to check the sizes. Another remarkable sight was the fairy graveyard; the grave stones looked like ice formations and not limestone at all. Definitely a cave with some unique sights.

Dawson Duguid, Dave Duguid, and Carlin Kartchner were willing to help me get back to the Rail Valley Cave survey again in Smyth County, Virginia. It had been three years since Emily and Joel surveyed with me there and left five leads (three promising and two not-so-much). The difficulty had been that I needed a high clearance vehicle and a rain-free, snowmelt-free forecast in order to access the inside of the cave, but the wait was worth it.

Saturday morning we found that the property gate was locked, so we drove to the owner’s home in search of a key. We found no owner. Via GPS Carlin devised an alternate plan that involved crossing the Middle Fork of the Holston River, so we went in search of a good parking spot. Along the way, Carlin began hopping up and down in his seat when he saw resurgences pouring from the downstream side of the river’s oxbow. We had to pull over while he forded the river and checked out seven resurgences and the nearby rocks, but the wait was worth it.

Lacking a good parking area and unsure of how wet we wanted to get in the river before cave entry, we chose to go back to the original gate. It was still locked. So we hiked in. Odds are the trees that had grown up in various places would’ve prevented Dawson’s truck from getting us back there anyway. Long hike in the summer heat but worth the wait.

We found the entrance easily enough and went straight toward the leads in the back of the cave. The upper lead crossed over some small rimstone pools where we observed many segmented grains of rice crawling underwater. We’d appreciate any help with identification. That passage kept going up, eventually into a sideways crawl around formations. Then it ended.

The lower lead took us quickly down to a terminal sump. While I sketched the sump area, I sent the remainder of the team back to Emily’s lead near the Hanging Buddha. Three years earlier Emily had relayed that the passage looked to continue as a belly crawl at the floor level but needed to be dug open; same notation on the original cave sketches from Wil Orndorff.

When I arrived at the lead, my team had disappeared from sight. I could hear whooping and hollering behind the wall. They found an easy bypass to Emily’s lead and had climbed into the Liquor Cabinet, a thirty-foot high room marked by flowstone pagodas climbing to the ceiling. Two horizontal leads lead out of the Liquor Cabinet, and a thirty-foot pit had intrigued Dave and Carlin. We looked across the pit to what might be a significantly larger room in this cave that previously held no rooms at all. We surveyed the Liquor Cabinet and then decided that we were all too wet and cold to continue much further. Dave and Dawson made a voice connection via Emily’s belly crawl to the Liquor Cabinet, but no visual connection. 371 feet of survey.

Sunday morning found Carlin outside again identifying the plants in Tanya’s neighborhood. We opted to take Tanya that day out to Staley’s Cave for a survey trip. We netted 211 survey feet mostly in a straight line, a dead calf, a hornet’s nest, white caterpillars crawling on Carlin, and one angry mother bird.

Dawson took some great photos (see below), but I couldn’t figure out how to get them all turned right side up in WordPress.

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

Photo by Dawson S. Duguid

 

Emily Graham, Dave Duguid, and Jason Lachniet seemed intent on exploring Radon Cave, but Dutton Cave would waylay them first because I was driving this weekend. I had estimated that fifteen survey shots would be all that were required to fully characterize this Cave Ridge cave, based on a scouting trip once before.

We entered the upper level, easily surveyed that single room with three different pits, and then dropped a cable ladder to the lower level. Jason and Dave took a westward turn and surveyed speedily down a decorated passage that twisted its way back to some small rimstone dams. Then it got tough.

Emily stood in the coldest spot between the three pits above while Dave and Jason surveyed over, under, and around numerous fins and random tubes. The water level in the pool was at least four feet lower than during my previous trip to the cave, so there was even more to explore (where I didn’t quite fit). The Cowl and The Sombrero were the more interesting blackened formations decorating this area. However, the strangest thing we noticed was a stone platform beside the pool. Someone had used flat rocks to build a four-foot high platform long ago at the water’s edge more than forty feet below the entrance.

It was nice to total 434 feet of survey (32 survey stations) by the halfway point in our cave trip that day and finish the survey of another Smyth County, Virginia cave.

The key to a successful Hancock Cave Bat Count trip is that your team has really accomplished something. The number of cavers had a lot of turnovers since the October TriTrog meeting, but we finished with thirteen cavers choosing a caving trip to Hancock instead of a WVCC banquet the same day.

We began the day with Mike Broome preparing a delicious cocoa quinoa porridge to accompany sausage, eggs, peppers, and mushrooms at Tanya’s home. The sticky dark brown porridge warmed us all up before Pete noticed the frozen birdbath outside. We felt sorry for the people who chose to camp instead of getting started with us.

I was assigned to Emily Graham’s underground team, along with Natalie Wickencamp and Molly Schlichenmayer. I was told that my job was to be the ladder. When we split away from the other teams, Emily navigated effortlessly through the passages to get us out to the Grantham Room Overlook. I realized that we had a very competent team (sans me).

We pulled out the wire brushes to remove graffiti at the south end of the Anastamoses Maze, but we found that creating mud puddles and smearing the mud over the scratched-in names was far more effective. After clearing most of the walls in one junction, we took a break to see the nearby historic 1896 signatures. Then we rubbed more mud on the walls to hide more recent names and arrows that pointed deeper into the cave.

Emily revved up the group as she adeptly led us around the MC Escher Loop, and Natalie led me into the tightest crawl off of Harrington Hall. We found a live bat while heading to the Over-Under and then began more graffiti removal from the Over-Under all the way back to the Long Room. However, we left the 1896 signatures from HB Buchanan. I think that the Spring VAR 2018 visitors will really appreciate the graffiti-free look of the cave.

After sighting another bat, our group headed for the Funnel Tunnel. It wasn’t flooded but was damper than any time I had seen people pass through before (but there was no rain in the forecast that day). As I lay stuck in the Funnel Tunnel’s tight spot, I noticed that the sticky dark brown mud surrounding my lips reminded me of the morning’s porridge. Drowning in porridge would indeed be a slow death, so I exerted enough energy to free myself and join my companions.

We visited Earthworm Gym and Noogah Way in the spare time we had left to explore and then beat a hasty retreat toward the exit. Hasty except for the part where I again crammed my body through the viscous porridge.

When we stopped my vehicle at the North Carolina Welcome Center on the way home, Emily went to the back to look for something. We were excited to find that the rear hatch had managed to catch a corner of a Ziploc bag bouncing along the bumper. That Ziploc bag held my spare ignition key.

Emily and I weren’t sure that we’d have enough people to have a real cave photography trip; we needed models, people to hold flashes, and sherpas. However, we got lucky when Ava, Diana, and Pete agreed to join us for a Sunday caving trip. We drove up to the Bat Ranch Saturday evening so Ava could spend some quality time with a boa constrictor around her neck.

I pointed at the trail to the Hillside Entrance to Smokehole Cave, and Pete said “That’s not a trail.” We took a more circuitous route to the cave. Click on the photos below to see the full images.

Easy travel corkscrewing down to the stream passage, and then I started looking for places to take photographs. Emily was a good sport as she held the ceiling up while looking down at the stream below her. She seemed okay with her niece being the subject of the photos.

When we climbed up the breakdown pile, Emily scouted around while I set up a second photo. Diana couldn’t quite hide from the flash.

Pete agreed to pose near a rock whose bottom had eroded away, and then I flipped direction to try a backlit shot of Emily posing on a rock in the stream.

Diana’s lighting skills helped us backlight more stream shots, but the main stream split three ways not too much further in. I tried to photograph Diana and Pete walking down a mud passage that led to the Big Room.

The Big Room was really big. And muddy. And a good place for a lunch break.

Emily looked to be nine feet tall standing over a rimstone pool, while Ava skulked in the shadows. We then exited the cave uneventfully and drove home late Sunday evening.


[photo staged by Emily Graham]

Carlin and Dave cancelled a planned cave trip with an aim to drag heavy scaling poles through a water-filled belly crawl. Phew. Eric Williams, Emily Graham, Tanya McLaughlin, and I opted for an easier trip on a sunny June Saturday. Eric prepared a great breakfast for us, yet we still feasted on the cherries in Tanya’s front yard. So sweet and delicious. Eric’s five-year-old daughter couldn’t get enough of them.

We started with a short trip to Stone’s Cave No. 1, at my request. The guys mowing the field thought us a bit strangely dressed until we told them about the cave in the woods. I had to collect a profile sketch and check some leads before I could draw the map. I got very focused on completing my mission and determined that the leads were definitely dead ends/too tight for me.

When I muddily returned returned from the upstream dead end to the group, I found Eric’s daughter crawling on a high ledge to avoid a deep pool (that had been empty on previous trips to the cave). This seemed unnecessary because she was already soaked from a previous pool. However, the surprising part was that a dog had followed the group into the cave. The untagged dog (later dubbed Happy Happy by the five-year-old) found travel through the cave particularly easy, but Tanya and Emily didn’t like getting soaked when Happy shook the cave water from his coat.

We then travelled to Speedwell Cave because none of us had ever been inside. We explored a few different levels, and I discovered that the five-year-old had a considerable advantage in the two-foot-high passageways. Some pretty formations but some graffiti. We were delighted to find little to no garbage dropped inside this oft-visited cave.