11/16/19 | Trip Report | Marion, VA | Big Sink Cave

Party Members: Ken Walsh, Michael McBride, Carlin Kartchner, Taylor Tibbs, & Rodney Uriarte

The survey group prepared to enter Big Sink Cave on a pleasantly dry and not-too-cold Saturday morning. They entered the gates of the cow pasture and descended down the side of a hill to the small tunneled entrance. Once everyone had slipped inside, they were greeted with the iconic scene that gives Big Sink its delightful moniker – Big Stink. The local residents had generously left more odorous presents than they had in the previous surveys. Fortunately, the group’s nostrils weren’t offended for too long as they quickly split into two teams. Carlin and Rodney set out to profile the previous D and E surveys. Meanwhile, Ken, Michael, and Taylor began down the short semi-dry crawl to the stream passage to answer the always puzzling question: where does water end? A small cave salamander gave salutations as they passed. As they began the F survey, Ken sketched while Michael and Taylor shouted mostly agreeable numbers. While on their journey, the group met some surprisingly large and friendly crawfish. Good eatin’ Michael claimed. One even so trusting crustacean curled up under Taylor’s shoe while she was reading a station. The stream passage narrowed to a tight 2 feet and the sociable crawfish made the roughly 40 feet of splashing and floundering through the narrow space more enjoyable. The stream continued on, opening up briefly to wrap around a mostly dry room approximately 10×10 foot wide with an overhead message of “1997 S.” Beyond this room, Michael dug out some mud so that Taylor could crawl through a short, but tight squeeze that revealed that the stream made a roughly 25 foot bend before dissipating into a murky, bubbling sump, – much to Ken’s dismay, as the water did not travel back Northwards. The two groups reunited and finished a few more survey stations upstream. On the outward ascent Rodney diligently recovered most of a long line of string that had trailed through the cave. The group’s final trek towards the entrance was temporarily impeded by a rather large and confused raccoon wondering why the sun was rising inside of the cave rather than out.

[Ed: more than 1500 feet of cave to visit, most of which is now string-free]

Sunday, the day you wake up questioning if you really made the best choices the day before. What would your parents think of your decisions? Are you too old for these shenanigans?

These are common thoughts during caving weekend. You go into the weekend stoked about getting in multiple days, but then after you make a hard push on Saturday, you consider scaling back your ambitions. Disney+ just came out, maybe we should go home and try that instead.

But no. We’ve got caves to ‘splore.

This weekend, the trip the day before wasn’t actually too bad, but I’ll leave the details and color for that trip to someone else. Helpfully, we also made a fairly leisurely start to the day, not getting to the vicinity of the cave until after 11am.

The cave of the day was Stones #2. In past years the Tri-trogs surveyed the nearby Stones #1 and Cassell caves, but ended up saving this one for later. During the survey of those caves, Dave and I located the entrance to this cave and did some quick exploring to get an idea for what to expect. One thing we learned from that trip was that our access path was less than ideal. We basically climbed down and up a cliff to get there. Was there a better way?

At a later date, Ken had made a trip to checkout the possibility of non-cliff access, and thought he’d found something very convenient just across the river. When we drove there this time, “what, No Tresspassing”?! So we drove around to find another way. What did the top of the cliff look like? Oh, a brand new fence, thats nice, and annoying. We also didn’t have permission to park where we had been parking previously. Talking to strangers is hard. We did, however, find a way.

There was a nice parking pull out where we could walk along the river to our destination. Before suiting up, we made the short trek through the woods to determine the feasibility of access, and determined this new path would work out great even if we did step over a deer carcass to get there.

So, back to the car, then back to the cave. Cross the river. Don’t slip and fall. Oh, the water went over the top of your boots, too bad. It was cool that day, but not too bad. The sun was shining with almost no clouds in the sky. Once we got inside out of the breeze, the cave was rather pleasant. A little animal scat, but compared to Big Sink it was unremarkable.

As for the survey, it was rippin’ speedy. I was setting stations, Ken was on book, Taylor and Rodney were on instruments. After a bit of struggles with the first shot, we were off to the races. On a couple occasions I got ahead of the team with my station setting, and was able to do a little solo surveying, leaving my red LED at the opposite station, getting foresights and backsights of course, and recording the numbers in my book separately to hand off to Ken.

The cave itself has two entrances, very close to each other that lead into the main room. There is a side passage that seems to parallel the cliff/river, but eventually got too tight for my hips. Through a steep uphill crawl too tight for hands and knees, there is an upper room about 15 feet high. Weirdly enough, in that room there were roots embedded in the climb to the top part of that room, and there was also a slug on the ceiling, something I’ve never witnessed in cave before. The cave also had four bats scattered on the ceiling throughout the cave. Neat, better than Hancock.

The best part of the whole trip was that although I was rushing the pace a bit so I could get back in time for my ultimate Frisbee games, we got the whole thing surveyed. Yeah, all of it! The whole thing. 334 feet in the book! Woo-hoo. It felt super good. We left the cave feeling accomplished and made a quick change back at the car.

On the way home, the real world started to creep back in. Things like grad school, unemployment, and ultimate were the topics of the drive. The highs and lows of the weekend started to fade into the background as we made sure Ken didn’t fall asleep to the freeway lullaby. It was great to get outside, but we couldn’t stay there forever. It was nice to get away for a moment though, however brief it felt. We should go caving more often.

I’m thankful that Smyth County had little rain in September and early October.

I’m thankful I had an umbrella on Sunday morning,

Thankful that Mark Little and Michael McBride agreed to help me survey Big Sink Cave on Saturday,

Thankful that I still had one clean (but wet) glove when exiting Big Sink Cave,

Thankful that Michael prepared a full breakfast buffet for the TriTrogs,

Thankful that Mark and Michael snipped up the old barbed wire fence that has always been a tripping hazard,

Thankful that Michael has experience building trails and was willing to start drawing up plans for a new approach trail to Hancock Cave’s entrance,

Thankful that Tanya McLaughlin let us stay at her house and shared so many naturalist suggestions for the trail,

Thankful that the snoring from downstairs only mildly penetrated the upstairs floor I was sleeping on,

Thankful that Tanya came out to Hancock Cave on Sunday to share stories about Hancock Cave with the van drivers for the National Cave and Karst Management Symposium,

Thankful that Mr. Harrington allowed us to visit the back entrances to the cave,

Thankful that Drunk Dave led Michael and Emily Graham off so that more Sunday lunch food was available for me,

Thankful that Kim Parks prepared an incredible lunch for us on Sunday,

And incredibly indebted to Kim, Emily, Michael, Pete Hertl, Rodney Uriarte, and Elise Sanderson helped lead four good Hancock Cave trips for the Symposium field trip participants.

Thanks to all the people who made this weekend’s trips such a success.

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.

When the request came from James River Grotto for people who were willing to lead trips in Smyth County, I (eventually) stepped up to lead a trip to Hancock Cave. Why Hancock? First, I know my route through the cave. Second, with the help of some other TriTrogs, I’m leading a group of Girl Scouts there in a couple weeks and didn’t mind an opportunity to check on the condition of the entrance.

Due to a communication breakdown, Hancock wasn’t among the signup sheets that were put out at 10pm Friday night. I was kind of bummed, but I knew there were enough TriTrogs interested to make a full trip happen anyway. The apologetic VAR staff made a signup sheet in case anyone rolled in early Saturday looking for a trip. Saturday morning six of us stopped at registration to discover that a big bunch of people had signed up – wheee! We rearranged ourselves into two groups – a group of six (including and) led by Kim and Lisa and a group of eight (including and) led by me and Diana.

Kim’s group arrived first, and they rigged the entrance with both a handline and a cable ladder. The ladder was useful on the way in and necessary on the way out. Water poured into the entrance room through several cracks in the ceiling and along the left wall. A guy in my group declined to use either the webbing or the ladder and slid about 30 feet coming in. Wheee! He wasn’t hurt but busted his pack open and spilled its contents in the process. We spotted two salamanders, one Eurycea lucifuga, one only an inch and a half long, dark (Green? Black?), with a pale stripe down the back and some number of toes. No bats.

We were still in the Grantham Room when we heard the first group above us at the Overlook. Our group was moving slowly and two of them would likely have trouble navigating the Toilet Bowls. When we got from the Overlook back to the Octopus Room it was clear that those two would be challenged by anything deeper in the cave. Diana agreed to escort them out so that the rest of us could continue.

After the Breakdown Staircase, we caught up with Kim and Lisa et al at the Comic Book Hole. They had all gone through! Wheee! I was the only one in my group who made it through despite others’ efforts; I clearly should work on my cheerleading skills! That said, it was good that we didn’t waste too much energy there since we all wanted to make it out of the cave, and preferably in time for dinner.

Back at the entrance, everyone made use of the cable ladder. There was a little trouble once it got tangled up with the handline, and it kept sliding into a crevice on the right. We remedied that by having one person wedge himself in on the left in order to hold the ladder in place. When we all met back at the cars, I learned that Diana had assisted her cavers with some photography on their way out, which (based on the smiles on their faces) helped make their trip worthwhile.

My thanks to the considerable efforts of Diana, Kim, and Lisa for salvaging this into a fun, successful, safe trip! Thank you so much! And, bonus, we made it back in time for showers before dinner!

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.

The Rail Valley Cave survey is finished…

…except for the bowling ball sized hole blowing air into your face like a fan.

Just about anyone who reads this trip report will have seen one of the emails I sent out the day before our planned trip. We needed a third surveyor, or the trip wasn’t going to happen. When we planned this trip, we knew it was going to be a hard sell for the local cavers, but we were determined, and tried to get the word out early. Then we crossed our fingers. I thought we had a third until it was almost time to leave. In a mild panic I re-emailed everyone I could think of. I got a number of responses from friends wishing me luck in my search, but for many, alternative plans were already made. Thankfully we had a taker from the Walker Mountain grotto.

I’d never met Zac Lynn before the trip, but I was glad to have him along. After he emailed me his interest, we chatted on the phone for a while and he seemed up to the task. Hiking, crawling, climbing, rappelling, surveying, bushwhacking, eating spiders, water, mud, risk of the cave flooding, whatever. Yee-Haw!

We stayed at Tanya’s Friday night, and Zac met us there at 9am Saturday. Of course I was still packing when he arrived. Fortunately the drive was short. On the hike to the cave I don’t think anyone actually ate any spiders, but Dave kindly offered to take the lead after I wrapped a few large webs around my head. With vertical to be had, we carried about 150’ of rope knowing it was serious overkill, but we didn’t have any shorter pieces available. At this point of the trip I expressed my concerns about the rain for the day. Although Marion was only forecast to have a small amount of rain, reading the scientific discussion informed me of the possibility of up to 2” with storms potentially parking in front of the mountains. We discussed the risks and decided that we should at minimum rig the drop. Worst case we’d get bored trapped in the liquor cabinet for a few hours.

In the entrance crawls, the the dirt and mud had shifted around notably since our previous trip a couple of months ago. Getting wet was unavoidable and I started my time underground by filling one of my shoes with water. Other than that, having a short trip to the start of our leads was really enjoyable.

Upon arriving at the leads we quickly realized something about that area we weren’t prepared to notice on the previous trip. That room is cursed. Okay, maybe not, but that room felt significantly colder than the rest of the cave. Entering the room felt notably colder, and when we left later in the day, the main passage felt much warmer. To add to the chilly feeling, there was air moving in that room, yet despite some frenetic searching, we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.

On to the survey. We started by rigging the pit. There is a thin stream at the bottom, but too tight to be entered up or down stream. Across the pit, the passage was well decorated, but not new to humans as there were some old boot prints. It also didn’t extend very far. Bummer. It looked really super exciting. We wrapped up that room, then surveyed a couple other passages from the liquor cabinet before moving on. One notable aspect of the pit stream was that we believe it could be heard upstream in a small room we called scholar’s cove. This means that we could have three independent streams of water in this small cave. The entrance stream, this one, and the one we were about to go survey.

Near the entrance of the cave, we left a side passage with what was advertised to us a great blowing lead that needed only a little hammering to pass through. Knowing this, we skipped it thinking we’d attack the known stuff first to save the exciting things for later. On the previous trip I explored that passage briefly to determine what sort of tools we might need, and concluded the blowing lead was going to be a lot more work than was advertised. With low expectations, we wrapped up our survey for the day in this passage. However since we were being more thorough on this trip, we realized I’d been looking at the wrong hole. My expectations came from an old sketch that placed the blowing lead in a different location from where I would have drawn it. Yes, a hole does blow there, but there is a much better hole a hidden nearby. It’s about 6’ off the floor and will require some creativity to safely expand, but the air and location make it worth a return trip at some point.

So, until we decide to break out the digging tools, the survey is done. That is the only lead left. We’ll stay off the property for hunting season, and until next summer only the bold will be bothered to return crawling through the fresh snow melt of spring. With Rail Valley off the list… for now, It’s time to find another project.

Survey total for the day: 333.4′

I’ll start by thanking Ken Walsh for setting up this trip. It was my first proper photo trip, and I feel like I created some really good content while in the cave. After spending the night at The Bat Ranch, we had a group of seven total that went in Tawney’s Cave on Saturday, July 28. After sorting through gear and deciding which lights to take, Ken and I entered the cave through the Formation Room entrance. We started setting up a shot, and the others followed shortly.

Ken modeled in this first one, and I liked the outcome of it alright, although I cropped it quite a bit from the original frame. The original was actually a landscape photo extending much more to the right, but the formation you see in the foreground was dead center in the frame. After this photo, we moved to a lower section of the Formation Room.

Mark DeWitt climbed up high for this one, and I really like the scale that having him up there demonstrates. We then moved to the back of the Formation Room, where the stream can be accessed.

Dan LaPasha stood in the stream for me this time. In this photo, we are looking back uphill towards the entrance. I wish I had lit this one a bit differently in the foreground, because I would’ve liked more texture in the surface of the water. That said, I like how deep you can see into the room from this angle. From here, we carried all the gear into the Moon Room, which doesn’t have much in the way of formations, though there still are things of interest.

 

I took two photos showcasing the ceiling here, the first featuring Matthew Lubin and the second with Dan. I experimented with the water some more here, and though I like both photos, the first one is my favorite of the two. We moved a little further into the cave and took a few more photos, but I admit I don’t remember any room names after the Moon Room.

This photo, with Matthew modeling, was just an idea I had when we came upon this little spot. There wasn’t actually much crawling required on this trip, but I thought it would be a cool idea to illustrate it nevertheless. Above this hole is one of two paths to the sinkhole entrance at the rear of the cave. I grabbed one more photo before heading that way, though.

Mark and Ken stood in for this one. The hole in the crawling photo is just below and to the right of what you see in this image. By this point, I had started to get pretty worn out from all the camera gear I dragged along – even with the help of others carrying strobes for me. We continued on to the sinkhole, although we went there via the other route which requires climbing over the decaying cow carcass. I left my gear behind as I was fairly tired at this point. After spending a few minutes in the sinkhole, we returned using the originally planned route that avoids the cow. I grabbed my gear and we began the journey back. There was a fair bit of walking that had to be done in the stream through some passages in the cave, and I had one last idea while doing so.

Dan was carrying one of my strobes, so I had him turn it on and aim it ahead of himself. This shot was quick and dirty, with me not even bothering to use the tripod. I just crouched where I stood in the stream to get as close as I could to the water without falling over and in, and got a shot I wasn’t ashamed of in only a minute or two. With that, I packed up and we continued back to the Formation Room. We had considered checking out the Sump Room on our way out, but I was really feeling the weight of my gear by this point. We exited, locked the gate, and got back to the cars. As I removed outer layers, I realized how much my new boots, suggested by Ken, worked in this cave. I had planned on bringing my usual caving boots which are just “waterproof” hiking boots, but I forgot them when Dan and Ken picked me up. We ended up stopping at Walmart to pick up some new ones, and after trekking through the stream with all my camera gear, I was very glad to have the wellies that I purchased. I considered this trip to be a success, both in that I learned a lot about cave photography and in that I am proud of what I was able to capture through my lens.

Not pictured are Matthew Weiss and Michael Caslin, who were also on our trip. I want to thank everyone for being patient, carrying gear, and modeling for me on this trip.

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.