I left my office around 4 PM on Friday afternoon. I enjoyed an easy drive past and through Boone out to Blountville, Tennessee. I expected to meet Zoey and the Girl Scouts at their camp at the commercial Appalachian Caverns. However, no one was in camp when I arrived. I did notice two people in coveralls up by the cave entrance, so I went up to talk to them. They were the trip leaders for the Girl Scout wild cave trip that hadn’t left yet (it was almost 9 PM).

I threw on my coveralls and joined Wes and Tanya and walked in to meet the scouts. Wes and Tanya had a lot of experience making wild cave tours as sporting as one might hope. They began by pushing the willing through a side loop that finished with a tight squeeze. They claimed that it was 7-1/2 inches at the tight spot, but I’m guessing it was more like 8-1/2 inches (since I fit). Wes had the girls crawling through the sides of walking passages, and they didn’t care that I kept meeting them as they exited the squirmy crawls. He even poured water from his bottle to make a sliding board that he had to pull the girls down. Near the end of the trip that evening, we found a mud puppy (a creature I never see in Virginia caves). We exited the cave around 11:30 PM Friday evening.

Everyone was awoken Saturday morning at 6:30 AM to begin the next day. This Girl Scout trip was being set up as a 5-day-long caving camp, so there were lots of things to learn. Teaching the drowsy scouts about cave maps at 8 AM was not my shining moment; the early hour really prevented them from showing much interest.

A local caver named Jared and I followed Zoey’s car out of the campground to head toward the cave (about an hour later than expected). However, the van full of scouts took about fifteen minutes more before they joined us at a nearby intersection. We then headed to Renfro Cave where we were allowed to split into two groups. The old saltpeter cave is marked by pinnacles exposed by the mining, and the girls in my group had a good time clambering around and testing their climbing skills. We headed back to the room nearest the entrance, and I passed out map outlines of the cave and keys to NSS map symbols. The object was for the girls to figure out where they were on the map and then fill in the map’s blank spaces. Blank stares. I think they later appreciated that sketching a good map isn’t easy.

We had an extra half hour to go explore, so I led my group to a dead end. They then took us high up in the cave where I spotted the alternate entrance. We were all too big to exit that way, so we returned to the vans a little bit later than the other group. The van took off for lunch, and then we headed to the same park to meet them. Unfortunately the park had multiple parking areas, so we ended up in different places. This led to a late arrival at Morrill’s (Worley’s) Cave.

I think we managed to enter Morrill’s Cave around 4:30 PM. We stayed in one long line as we trampled along the trunk passage. My group stopped about a half mile in with buckets and scrub brushes. The girls learned how to clear graffiti from the cave walls in their conservation efforts, and they were dedicated workers while we waited for the other group to return. The other group did not return. My group headed after them down the Railroad Passage, and I gave some advice to would-be cave photographers as we passed some pretty formations and deep rimstone dams. Everyone was back to the parking area by 7 PM, except the van driver and van. After a few wrong turns on the way to dinner with girl scouts, I skipped out and headed up to Virginia for Sunday caving with other TriTrogs.

After a good night’s sleep, Dave Duguid, Diana Gietl, and Tanya McLaughlin took me back to the upper entrance of Rowland Springs Cave on Sunday morning. A warm breeze blew into this entrance, so no one got cold when we weren’t moving. Dave improved his earlier survey notes, Diana balanced her tripod and camera on dolomitic flowstone, Tanya learned how to pose, and I cursed at blue flash bulbs. While we didn’t do any entranceway shots, I think that Diana managed some nice formation photos (based on her 1-1/2 display screen).

We exited after several hours and then regrouped at the lower entrance of Rowland Springs Cave. The cold wind was roaring out this entrance, and I could see my breath plummet down the hillside. This was new cave to me. We climbed down to the stream level and then back up a cable ladder into a huge room. Dave and I discussed how to sketch the room, and then he began a massive cross section to capture the immensity of this relatively short cave. Meanwhile Diana rigged Dave’s new rope to drop a 30-foot pit.

After Diana discovered passage at the bottom, Dave, Diana, and I surveyed down the pit, with me in the middle setting station. While hanging on rope, I measured 95 degrees for the azimuth down to Diana, and her reading was 30 degrees off from mine. What a way to start a survey! However, the fact that both our clinometers read 85 degrees vertical drop meant that the trig works out to less than a foot in error. With me hanging on rope and Diana sliding down a slope with nearly vertical measures on a compass, that was the best pair of readings Dave could get from us.

The three of us found an active stream passage at the bottom of the pit, and a few high leads would’ve taken us back up to other levels. We continued surveying away from the known cave passage, and the stream eventually gurgled into a small hole in the wall. The stream-level passage ended shortly thereafter in mud plugs, so we headed uphill. It was nice to leave the wet stream, but a cool breeze took over at the higher level. Diana took us up a dry slope until we arrived at some incredible formations. Delicate white rimstone dams and thick draperies were much prettier than anything else I had seen all weekend.

We stopped surveying at big borehole-like passage, with promises of lots more formations for the next survey team. Unfortunately my time lying in the stream and the prospect of driving back to the Triangle that evening made us turn around at that point. The next sets of surveyors have a lot to look forward to. We also did pretty well with our survey, eighteen stations covering about 275 feet in under four hours. Overall, I sure can’t complain about a regular weekend with five cave trips.

Sunday morning was a bit of a mix-up, the restaurant we were to meet Robbie as was closed due to a family emergency. It took a bit to get things straightened out, and was soon at the property talking to the landowner. His brother and himself were outside; they both are very friendly and supportive of our effort. He is very appreciative of the work we are doing to clean up and protect his cave. Both have plenty of stories about caving in Rowland as boys. That cave has real significance and memories to both of them.

We started the survey from the lower level; near the cable ladder climb, as it has become known. In some of the breakdown there was a hole in the floor, which led into tall canyon-like passage. The passage is actually the continuation of the canyon before the cable ladder climb. It was not noticed as such previously due to the amount of suspended breakdown. The canyon continued until reaching a short climb to the right (and a dead raccoon to the left).

The climb looked very promising; at the top of the climb the cave T’ed. The right passage was one terminal shot, darn. To the left, we were presented with another entranceway into the big room we started to survey on the last trip. The survey continued into the big room. It was nice to complete the big room and to knock off two leads, but disappointing the leads didn’t continue on. In the big room there is one lead that was not surveyed. This lead will require vertical gear; it is a pit. The stream can be heard from within the pit; while the bottom was not visible the depth the streambed would be estimated at about 25ft below.

We ventured to the upper level to check out three other leads; one lead was declared not safe to attempt with the current equipment with us and will require another try, with a 12ft ladder. The other lead did just as I suspected, looped back into a lower room we had previously surveyed. The last lead wasn’t really a lead, we knew the passage; the brothers used to traverse a rather creepy pit. The passage leads to the big room below. We surveyed the small section to add to the map for completeness.

Much of the cave surveyed was not nearly as decorated as other portions of the cave. However, the cave continues to impress me; it is not a long cave but has tremendous volume given the two large rooms. I remain optimistic the pit will provide more passage, only another survey trip will reveal the truth.

Some may consider Durbin, WV to be in the middle of nowhere, but fans of the Green Bank Observatory, old-fashioned railroads, and caving know better. I showed up Friday night after registration closed, during the party where Smiling Bob Gray and his wife were spinning the tunes. It was incredibly cold, and I lost one leg of my convertible pants, the only long pants I had brought along. The folks I knew at VAR were mostly already signed up for trips and weren’t planning pickup trips of their own. I didn’t think my options were looking very good unless I wanted to join Dwight Livingston on a Cassell Cave through trip.

However, I was pleased to find a cancellation on a horizontal trip with Doug Medville with possible surveying or ridgewalking. Score! On top of that, it was only a few minutes drive away. A drive up a forest road until the cars could penetrate no further and then a 1.5-mile hike. Normally that long a hike in caving gear would be unpleasant, but the cold temperatures and heavy clouds made the suit quite comfortable. The hike along the forest road was filled with foot-deep mud puddles that the ten of us avoided whenever possible.

I was hiking at the front with Doug when we neared where he thought the cave might be. His only trip into the cave had been in 1973, and the surface drainage had changed a bit since then. He knew that a pit was nearby but didn’t know if it went anywhere, so Van carried along a cable ladder. We found the pit easily, and I free climbed down without any problems. At the bottom the echoing lead with water beyond it was too small for me to fit into. I spotted a shorter person down the climb, but it was too small for her as well.

Just up the stream from there, Doug remembered the cave we were headed for. Unfortunately it seemed to terminate after about 20 feet. Maybe he was wrong. In any case, the hillside hadn’t been well ridgewalked, so we had lots of opportunities to find the cave. Doug found another entrance just below a pair of springs. I dropped down into it, saw a lot of water dripping from the stream above followed by a 9.5-inch high crawl. We elected to save this lead for the hike out.

We ridgewalked for another hour or two, finding lots of springs but no reasonably sized caves. Five of the party had headed back to the cars, not that Cheryl Suitor had a key to get her clean stuff from my car. Back at the wet tight lead, two folks explored it while I dug at one of the nearby springs. As it turns out, they found the place we were aiming for: Middle of Nowhere Cave. It was fun naming the other FROs we discovered along the way: East Edge of Nowhere, Going Nowhere Fast, etc. We chose not to survey that afternoon since half of the party had already departed. Everyone liked the idea of going back at OTR or Fall VAR when it’s drier. Maybe Lisa should add that cave to her trip list for the Fall VAR.

When we returned to camp early in the afternoon, Ericka Hoffmann and I wandered through Durbin with her camera shooting some interesting black-and-white shots of the railcars and store fronts. I put on one leg of the convertible pants and explained to the Baltimore folks that it seemed that the best way to find the other leg was to advertise the missing one. Fifteen minutes later someone returned my missing leg. I now have my own Cinderella story.

I got even luckier later that evening. Gordon Birkheimer set up a poster showing twenty different cave entrances, and the goal was to name as many as you could. I teamed up with Ericka, and we nailed ten of them. That was enough to tie Craig Hindman and Carol Tiderman, and a coin toss won us a T-shirt, some stickers, and the title.

Diana and I left Durham around 2:30 on Saturday amidst one of the more beautiful sunny days we’ve had in some time; the weekend was to be so nice there was a brief right side / left side struggle in my brain. Perhaps the weekend would be better spent outside than underground. But the desire to connect the two entrances prevailed, even if we had to connect the two by a surface survey.

Getting into Marion around suppertime was a pleasant variation to most trips. It was nice to enjoy a relaxing dinner and conversation with Tanya, and still get to sleep before 11pm. I even got a chance to walk Tanya’s dog, Daisy, that evening before the sunset. Our start was a bit slow on Sunday, but after breakfast we rolled out toward Rowland Spring.

The plan was to continue to survey in the upper entrance. There were two leads to complete before trying to figure out how to navigate into the lower section. And, of course, to leave ample time to perform an overland survey should it be necessary.

We started the survey off of station C20 that lead us generally west for a few shots before ending. We proceeded to the lead off of station C12, leading general southeast. There were several deep rim stone dams along this passage, and a formation choke that was blowing copious amounts of air; I would guess air from outside based on the location.

The second lead brought us back to the hole in the floor that leads to the lower section. Since Diana and I brought our vertical gear we decided it would be better to drop the vertical section and determine the best route to safely get all cavers to the lower level.

As Diana prepared to drop the pit, the airflow passing though was clearly evident by Diana’s carbide flame curling in the direction of the pit regardless of which way she faced. The pit ended up being much deeper than expected, 48ft to be exact. I was going to drop the pit and help her look for the lower entrance climb; but she found the station left from survey B quickly. We opted to pass Diana the cable ladder and rig the other side. Tanya and myself cleaned up our gear and left for the lower entrance.

Upon getting to the climb, there awaited the cable ladder. Soon we were all in an enormous room. From this room we were able to detect the sound of the stream on the northwest side of the room. While taking a break; I checked out a possible lead to the north of the room and found continuing passage, and a dead possum.

Getting back to the survey, we had the task of trying to sketch the room. We started with the south end since it appears to have no going leads. It wasn’t long though before the continuous airflow in this room chilled us to the bone. We opted to connect the two entrances and call it a day.

We surveyed 292ft of passage, with only one set of instruments…that is another story. The surveyed passage is now over 1000ft and has a vertical drop of 116ft. The most significant statistic though, there is more cave to be surveyed!

March 10-11, 2007

The best laid plans are still subject to nature’s whims. Dave Duguid had assembled two teams of experienced surveyors willing to brave the Funnel Tunnel in Hancock Cave for the expected booty on the far side. Our December survey had indicated that we’d have lots of leads to survey through major maziness. Such was not our fate.

Bob Alderson, Gordon Bolt, and Matt Jenkins formed one team while Dave and Joe Fortuna joined me. The six of us arrived at the Funnel Tunnel to find water pouring from it. There was no air space at all in the low part. After some stream clearage there may have been an inch of air at the lowest part. It hadn’t rained or snowed all week, but the Funnel Tunnel flowed full charge. Gordon speculated that some of the Funnel Tunnel’s flooding likely reflects seasonal changes rather than just weather changes. Maybe winter snowmelt had finally thawed and trickled down Walker Mountain from near the top.

This left me with the difficult task of figuring out what else the teams could do. My team had vertical gear in the cars with them, but the others did not. My survey notes for the near side of the Funnel Tunnel had been left at Tanya’s house in Marion. I sat down and concocted a plan that avoided letting Gordon and Matt leave the cave to see the pretty weather outside.

Bob, Gordon, and Matt headed for Not-in-the-Face and You-Don’t-Know-Jack Pits, places where vertical gear can be more of a hindrance than an aid. They had digging tools, a bag of assorted vertical supplies, and two leads to survey. Dave, Joe, and I chose to exit the cave, retrieve vertical gear and a cable ladder for the others, despoil my first rope, and head for Hickory Dickory Pit.

Dave and I descended the pit while Joe listened to our gruntings. The pit drop is more a series of lips than any free pit. At the bottom of the drop, we found a mud wall that I dug my way up to get into the passage. I had never been down there before, and I finally understood why Linda Andrews had sketched the passages down there in such a strange way: they all overlap one another. It was very pretty and remained pristine, so I worked hard to avoid making muddy tracks across the formations. I was able to determine that the area really had no remaining leads, a fact that I was pretty sure about but unable to totally discern from the three-dimensional nature of the sketch. I applaud the survey efforts by that group through twisty, muddy passages with undisturbed formations.

The climb over all of the Hickory Dickory lips with a stiff, muddy rope was a real challenge for me and my ropewalker. When I reached the top, the steam I generated became so thick that Joe and Dave lost visual contact just ten feet apart.

Our next hurdle was the Whine Cellar. Dave yo-yoed it three times until he convinced himself that the right way was definitely that tight hole where the rope naturally dropped. When Dave got to the bottom, Joe was sure that he heard Dave’s voice from the direction of the Toilet Bowls. Joe found Dave below him in that four-inch crack that only Linda Waters will fit through. Not even Joe could climb down that, and so we knocked those off as potential leads. No new survey but useful notes to help complete the map.

The other team managed to survey one of the leads at the base of Not-in-the-Face Pit during that time. Sixty grueling feet down an additional pit. We found them giggling about the connection over to their other lead. Matt and Gordon seemed unwilling/unable to make the connection. Eventually their team joined us outside.

The next day took us to Rowland Springs Cave. Tanya McLaughlin, Dave Duguid, and I surveyed beginning at the upper entrance to the cave while the underground screech owl surveyed us from his perch. He was quite safe halfway up the wall, among the thirty-foot high flowstone formations. I was surprised to see such a well decorated dolomite cave.

The survey began easy, until we discovered passage beneath formations. We surveyed past many rimstone dams and the dolomitic stalactites, marked by their stubbiness. We Sunday-surveyed 336 feet in just over four hours, roughly 80 feet per hour. Meanwhile, Joe had generously watched the stream launder my vertical gear and new rope. Returning to Raleigh with clean gear is always a plus.

February 17-18, 2007
Diana was interested in photography, and Hayden and his buddy Rick were more interested in sport caving. To please them both, I took Ericka Hoffmann up on her invitation to join her on a photo trip during the Sligo Grotto trip to Franklin. I figured that Hayden, Rick, and Howard would cave over at the John Guilday Preserve on Saturday where they could stay dry. I got most everything wrong.
Diana backed out, along with the folks that planned to go to the John Guilday Preserve. Instead Howard, Hayden, and Rick joined Meredith and Alan on a trip to Mystic Cave, the same place the photographers planned to go. Pretty brave of them considering that the temperatures the previous night went down to 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ericka, Steve Rexrode, and I entered Mystic Cave near Seneca Rocks with Howard’s group. Ericka laid down in the stream to photograph some ice-mites, but I wasn’t ready to get that cold that soon. I waited until we got further inside and pulled out my camera in a room where we heard Hayden and Rick chasing crayfish. Unfortunately the last time I’d done cave photography was Labor Day, so I had a tough time figuring out why I couldn’t get the flash to work in bulb mode. I read the manual for a while and then just used the flashes I was carrying in the Pelican case.
Ericka and I took turns setting up my camera and remote on the tripod for room and passage shots, so I didn’t dare change the settings back to snap closeups. After an exhaustive series to get one good shot (see the TriTrog photo gallery), I needed a break from posing. While Ericka did a lot of closeup photography in that room, I wandered off to scope out my next shot in the trunk passage.
I set the camera up on a tripod and practiced how I’d get the shot when Ericka and Steve joined me later. I think I like these practice shots better than the well-lit one because they just show my shadows and a yellow streak from my carbide lamp moving down the passage. I captioned the photo “Tinkerbell chasing Peter Pan’s shadow.”
After another series in the main passage, Ericka posed for a set of shots for me. I had to explain to her that both Steve and I were too tall for the shot. I managed to backlight a waterfall in a strange way, and the flash decay actually makes the water drops look as though they’re dripping up instead of down. Too bad I can’t remember which electronic flash we were using for that shot.
We then sport-caved for a while, and I got wet up to my waist (Ericka and Hayden up to their chests). However, we found one more shot to set up (notice the dampness of my bottom half) and didn’t leave the cave until 6:30 PM to a chilly 17 degrees.
The next day we wandered into the New Trout maze and were duly impressed by the walls covered by brachiopods and other fossils. I chopped ice in an attempt to get us up to the Trout Cave entrance but determined that we could walk to Hamilton Cave faster than I was making progress. We spent just a few minutes in Hamilton before Hayden and Rick led us back out and down the hill. Then the long drive back home.

The survey at Rowland Springs was the focus of an upcoming trip back to Marion. Tanya and I thought one more trip we would be able to complete the survey based on how we figured the cave would run. In addition to Rowland Springs, we thought Wide Mouth would be a good cave to continue surveying as a Sunday cave. Turn out for this trip was solid; Lisa Lorenzin, Joe Fortuna, Melissa Miller, Mary Frazer, Mark Little, Tanya Mclaughin, and myself.

People were slow to get started Saturday morning; it could have been the effects of stopping at Foothills Brewer in Winston-Salem (thanks to Lisa for the suggestion). Eventually we convened at the cave entrance. Based on the presumptions made by Tanya and myself a loosely organized plan came together. One team was to start at the top entrance and figure out how to descend into the cave and to meet the survey team, which was to use the lower entrance.

After a quick tour of the section of cave already surveyed, the groups set to their tasks. I was part of the surveying effort, which also included Mark, Tanya, and Mary. We started the survey at station A3; A3 provided direct access to the canyon Tanya and I avoided survey on last time. We surveyed for an hour or so before we heard voices from the other group of cavers. I figured they would be appearing before us any time; however that never happened, and eventually their voices faded completely.

After about two hours in the lowest portion of the cave and faced with an “interesting vertical challenge, everyone in the survey team opted for a break. We decided to exit and locate the other group. Upon getting to the other entrance Melissa was extremely excited to have located a screech owl in the cave; yes a very odd place of such a creature. Joe and Lisa explained what they have found. They were describing much more cave than Tanya and I ever imagined. The cave probably quadrupled in size and the sketching became much more complex given the massive rooms, multiple levels, and plentiful formations.

We all got a case of cave fever and put the survey effort aside; Lisa, Joe, and Melissa gave the survey team a tour of the cave. Some time was spent trying to determine how to get into a lower level not yet scooped out. It was eventually decided not to push the upper cave entrance any further, but to go back to the other entrance and finish a known side passage. Then continue to push forward toward connecting passage.

I relieved Mary from “the book” so she could join the others trying to figure out how to ascend the wall the survey team stopped at. After surveying the side passage and returning to the previous stopping point the other team had climbed the wall and put the cable ladder into place. From the room above, Joe mentioned this was a room he had dropped into from the other entrance earlier. We surveyed a few more stations before calling it quits.

After a well deserved Italian meal, a few of us headed up to Marion Quarry Cave for a 15-minute, causal tour. Part of Marion Quarry is a walking cave, no gear and no major disruptions to the food replenishing each and every cell in our bodies.

Sunday brought a quick breakfast at the Apple Tree in route to Wide Mouth cave. The goals here were for Lisa and Tanya to survey the known going passage. Joe and I were to continue to dig a section of passage that had previously been started. Mary and Melissa were going to explore Wide Mouth and the adjoining cave, Anderson.

Joe and I led into Wide Mouth; I was a bit taken back by the amount of dung in the cave entrance. The previous day’s talk about bear sightings around Rowland’s had me questioning my quest to get into the cave. Not being an expert on dung, I drew a tentative conclusion the dung was too small for a bear. After reaching a soft, mud area, I relaxed a bit more noticing the tracks were that of a raccoon. The dig ended up being a wash; previous rains had filled much of the passage back in. With little airflow, the effort was abandoned.

Joe backtracked to check out Anderson cave with Mary and Melissa. I located Lisa and Tanya and assisted with the sketching. Joe joined us some time later; it wasn’t long before we opted to stop the effort and return another day. On the way past Joe gave Lisa and I a quick tour of Anderson cave; no owls here, just a lone Harold Moth. Before leaving the area we received permission from the adjacent landowner to ridge walk his property. Ridge walking did produce a few more possible entrances into caves. Further investigation will have to be another day.

For survey-oriented individuals, we surveyed approximately 200ft and reached the lowest part of Rowland’s thus far; 40ft below the lower cave entrance. I would guess the upper level entrance is 60ft above the lower entrance.

In 1952 Gerry Law visited the back of Hancock Cave and left behind his signature and school affiliation (UNC). In 1998 Tanya McLaughlin tracked him down in Texas and interviewed him about the exploration of the cave. He remembered leaving his signature in only two caves but recalled that cable ladders were strung together to enter the cave through dome pits. Tanya dismissed his account as belonging to another cave because Hancock Cave had no known domes.

On December 16, 2006, Matt Westlake, Bob Alderson, and I traveled back through the Funnel Tunnel to this part of the cave. TriTrogs hadn’t been back there since 1999, and we were anxious to figure out what happened in the remaining seventeen potential leads. The weekend was finally dry enough to allow us passage through the Funnel Tunnel, after a relatively short dig through the loose sand at the low point.

We emerged on the other side and headed for the first leads on the right wall. The first two pinched out (easy to sketch in), and the third side passage had already been mapped out as the Ice Box, a mess of loose, wet breakdown.

Bob looked down the fourth lead and told us to pull out the survey instruments. Using a right-hand wall rule, we first entered a high area filled with wet rubble that reminded me of the Ice Box, but it eventually pinched down in an old passageway. The left side of this passage was marked by BIG breakdown slabs that mostly held the rubble in place.

We then returned to the level of the main passage and started surveying the lower leads. They were surprisingly different than the upper passage: water had created solutional passage beneath the big breakdown slabs ranging from hands-and-knees crawls up to ten feet high. From the breakdown hung more of Hancock Cave’s characteristic pendants.

We surveyed over and through the breakdown slabs and pendants, encountering wide rooms and tall rooms with many junctions. They eventually led back to the Harvest Domes, a series of dome pits that we estimated rise up to thirty feet high. The most climbable revealed no human-sized passages at the top, but our survey may have revealed a dome that we looked into, thought we had been there, and failed to enter. Maybe Gerry Law was right about entering Hancock Cave through some dome pits.

We continued closing loops for a while to survey 39 shots for a total of just 429 feet, a good number of shots for Matt’s first survey trip. The problem with the short shots occurred because we hit so many real junctions in the passage. The water had carved out a full maze, and then the daddy-longlegs covered entire walls.

The remaining cave survey beyond the Funnel Tunnel is now down to sixteen leads, and several of these leads promise to be as exciting as the Harvest Domes. After surveying until 9 PM, we blew past the leads in a whirlwind tour to help Matt justify dragging a camera through the Funnel Tunnel. Hopefully his digital camera helped photodocument some of the prettiest formations in Hancock Cave.

The cave length is now up to 2.16 miles, the longest in the county and number 37 in Virginia. There are now 49 loops in the cave; it’s easy to get lost.

Howard, Hayden, and I got to see how well organized the scouts were Friday night when they began to set up their canopy, a smaller version than the one the TriTrogs own. Troop 822’s efforts made the TriTrogs look really well organized.

Outside New River Cave a swinging vine and the story about drunken George’s fall caught the scouts’ attention. Inside the cave keeping thirteen people in one group was quite an effort. I chose to do this because Hayden and Howard had spent so much time lost in Hancock last summer with a map and a guide; I still felt guilty about leaving them to fend for themselves in another maze.

Marvelling at the passages along the way, the group descended to the Lunch Room and ate. One of the Scouts brought along a box of powdered doughnuts, or powdered doughnut powder, much to the dismay of the others looking forward to it as Sunday breakfast. Everyone had a good time going down the China Slide (the first time).

I gave a short lesson about the funny word chert, but the scouts were more comfortable asking Hayden questions about caves. Just to be like him, they all fought to keep their feet dry and out of the stream–overkill for Hayden who wore Sealskin socks.

We traveled all the way to the waterfall. The scouts that managed to keep their feet dry didn’t seem to mind standing in the spray of the waterfall and then continuing to stay out of the stream.

On the way out I couldn’t find the China Slide, despite the fact that I knew I was within ten feet of it. When I found the other way out of the stream, we backtracked to the rest of the group who had found the correct way up (and came back down the China Slide to retrieve us).

We also tried to teach the scouts how to push on the ceiling to increase their foot traction. Beginners don’t always comprehend the power of flat friction on rocks, but they’re willing to believe me in theory.

The only woman on the trip chose to change out of her dirty clothes in a more isolated space at night. She turned out to have much less privacy than she thought when the train’s lights caught her on the track with her pants down.

A dedicated group of VAR cavers have been working on “Cave Hill” for a couple of years in an extensive survey effort. All caves known to exist, several new caves have been found as the result of ridge walking, are being surveyed and plotted onto a single map. Caves include Grand Caverns, Fountain, and Madison among others. Many intriguing mysteries have presented themselves during the work. One of the outstanding mysteries is an underwater cave known as Steger’s Cave. The originally survey from November of 1980 resulted in a rough sketched map; the map generated more questions than answers.

Several scheduled dates had been planned, but fell through for various reasons. Brian Williams and Dave Duguid met at Grand Caverns on a perfect fall day on the 11th of November. The sun was shining and the temperature according to the forecast was to be in the 70’s. The intent was to get a handle on any riddle that Steger’s may hold. Bob and Jim were to assist with surface support.

Steger’s entrance is a Karst window near the base of Cave Hill. The window is a vertical fissure approximately five feet long and two feet wide; from the window to the water level is approximately 10 feet. Less than 25 feet from the cave is a river that happened to be running high and slightly milky.

After installing an aluminum ladder, a loose plan was put into place. The first step was to verify the correctness of the previous map and look for any additional passage not on the map. The second step in the plan, well that would be worked out after the completion of the first step.

I suited up, worked myself down to the water column, rigged my dive configuration as the individual components were lowered down, and submerged with a time limit of 30 minutes.

Dropping down the fissure it immediately became clear the cave was not well represented in the map. The 80-foot visibility enabled for a very good view of what lay ahead. The fissure cracks are more narrower, deeper, and more pronounced. I continued my descent and observed that the left wall consisted of a crusty clay substance that flaked off. Particles from percolation ranged from clay to small chunks of debris. The larger pieces were a bit unnerving as they rained down; I could feel them hitting my legs. The right wall was solid, though it did have large thin blades that with a little effort could be pulled off.

Following the pre-existing line, though not using it, I descended all the way to the bottom. At the bottom there was a six-foot karst window on the left leading to another vertical fissure. The two fissures were completely traversed at the bottom looking for additional passage. The only additional passage was a window the size of a softball. There were many isopods to be found swimming around.

Retreating along the line in a rainstorm of debris and rapidly falling visibility several short “jumps” off the line were made to insure there was no other passage at a shallower depth that was missing while descending. 28 minutes after the dive started I breached the surface.

After getting all equipment and myself out of the cave I updated all on my findings and drew a simple map. The second part of the plan was established; Brian would make a dive to gather the survey data and to take a few pictures. We waited over an hour before Brian geared up and descended into the cave. 30 minutes later Brian surfaced.

Brian’s first statement was the visibility did not clear up despite waiting. It would probably take days for the cloud to settle. Brian continued to describe his actions; he retraced much of my path through the cave with a few extra minutes spent at shallower depths hoping to find a new lead.

Both Brian and myself were satisfied, though disappointed, there was no more cave to be explored; and that we had sufficient data to generate a map that is a more accurate rendition of the cave.

Being that it was still early, we drove over to Madison cave. Madison is rarely open as it has historical significance as well as endangered isopods. The cave was open today as part of a resurvey effort. Jim provided us with a very thorough tour of Madison.

I found out that Madison was a commercial cave in the late 1700’s and early 1800s. The soot from the torches used remains present in the cave, thus giving the cave a dark appearance. Stopping to see George Washington’s signature in the cave was an unexpected bonus. The tour ended at the back of the cave where two sumps are present. The water clarity and surrounding cave looks very much like Steger’s.

The dive profile was as follows:
32% nitrox mix
89ft for 28min
Estimated distance of 200ft covered
No deco required, five minute safety stop done