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.

As the great adventurer, Bilbo Baggins, once said, “the key to exploration is to get lost before Elevensies, and find your way by second dinner”.  Or something like that; but he’s also the one who said it’s okay to put your good non-stick ware in the dishwasher, so what does he really know?  You know what a fancy magic ring of power doesn’t do? Make that baked on tomato sauce come off your pan any easier…  So, ha!


A long, long time ago there was a little girl who was very indecisive.  Her name was Lilea.  Every Summer she was forced to spend a week with her Daddy, who is very mean, and this Summer he was determined to make her go caving.  Initially, the little girl was very excited to go caving, but as the Week of Despair got closer (like, the day before), she asked her Mom to inform her Dad that she no longer wanted to go caving; she wanted to go to the beach for a week instead.  Her Daddy, who again is very mean, said, “too bad, people already took off work for this trip, and if we don’t go there won’t be enough people for anyone else to go.” What was uttered next made her Daddy reconsider his rule that he’d rather his daughter “use bad language and be a good person, than be a bad person and use good language”.

Irregardless (it’s a work of fiction, made-up words are allowed), that’s how, mere hours later, our intrepid little adventurer, Lilea, found herself in the town of Blacksburg, at a Mediterranean restaurant, with people she’d not yet met but once before at the Spring of VAR (Alexa and Ava).  After asserting her dominance over her new companions, by having her stuffed animal stuffed defecate into every water glass, a traditional sea-side meal of cheese burger and chicken tenders was shared by the two girls.  The adults meanwhile were reduced to eating scraps of grilled fish over a bed of rice and a Greek salad.  After consuming their wretched fare, the adults were then commanded to transport their overlords across the street to Kroger for S’more’s ingredients and additional supplies before driving the remaining way to the Bat Ranch.

After introductions, the adults set up camp while the children ran about the front field running from small bugs intent on falling in love under the pale light of quick moving headlamps.  After camp was set the party was given a quick tour of the Bat Ranch; including a healthy collection of both Play-Dough and exotic animals before settling down for the night.  Of particular ‘coolness’ was that the fireflies gravitated towards the tops of the trees that line the edge of the field—so even though the sky was somewhat cloudy and not many stars were visible, there was a halo of twinkling lights around the tents.  After nostrils and throats were cleared of all offending six legged passengers the children were tucked in, and after making a plan for the morrow the adults soon followed.

After a breakfast of oatmeal, cereal, and sadness (because Lilea had to eat oatmeal, like I said, her Daddy is mean) the crew packed up and got ready to hit Tawney’s Cave.  After signing in, leaving something of value (i.e. a small, feral kitten) to ensure good behavior while in the cave; Alexa, Ava, Eric, and Lilea headed across the street and up a small hill to the gated entrance of the cave.  It should be noted that by design the locks are particularly difficult to access for people with hands.  It should also be noted, that this fact will not register, despite repeated explanations, to children under 10 who will constantly spew ridicule at how long it’s taking an adult to do something as simple as turning a key in a lock. After far too much of a struggle, the gate was opened; the adventurers passed through, and locked themselves into the darkness.

The entrance opens up into a large formation room; with flowstone, draperies, columns, and other various formations present across most of the floor and walls.  The floor tiers down towards a stream, which cuts across the room on a diagonal, and the steps back up on the other side.  We initially headed down towards the stream, helping the girls down across some of the larger, slippery steps along the way.  Once we got down there we couldn’t find a way to ford the stream without getting wet, so we went back up and headed towards the left where we found a side passage that led to a few rooms.  In one, there is a bulge coming out from the wall that is covered with mud sculptures created by travellers in the ‘before times’.

The girls made a cat (Lilea) and a snake (Ava) and left them on the altar in order to procure us safe passage from the heavens.  After a short crawl to explore a small mud room, we headed back into the formation room and proceeded to walk along the left side in search of a way to cross without getting wet.  We found a sloped area of hard packed mud that could have potentially been used, but as it ended in a short cliff, which had a small ledge before becoming another cliff that led directly into the stream we decided against taking the kids that route.  I didn’t particularly want to go that route either, because my foots couldn’t find good purchase when I was testing it out and I am not sure I would have made it across safely myself.

We decided to go back to the lower tiers on the right side and ford the stream.  This was not a particularly appealing option for me because I have pancake feet. They’re short and wide and that makes finding boots that fit rather difficult; so while everyone else was in Wellies I was in my hiking boots.  Nevertheless, he persisted.  Alexa went in first, and carried Ava across before pushing her up a steep mud slope on the other side.  I hopped in next, caught Lilea as she jumped on me before I was ready, crossed over and pushed her butt up the mud before attempting the climb myself.  It is also worth nothing, that mud that already slick, becomes slicker when the weight of your foot squeezes all of the water out of your boots.

After passing through several wide passages, with the stream off to our side, we ended up in the Moon Room.  It’s worth noting, that up to this point I had a lot of difficulty with the map because the information wasn’t matching up to what we were encountering.  Alexa, who was using the map more as a pocket warmer, did much better in determining where we were.  The Moon Room is a dome shaped room, most of which is a mud flat with an occasional pool, and ringed by the stream.  We stopped here for a snack.  I ate princess fruit snacks, granola bars, and a Clif bar.  Lilea convinced Alexa and Ava that she was a poor, abused little creature and managed to score some rice crispy treats and a pepperoni roll in addition to the ‘inadequate gruel’ I attempted to feed her.

Our short break over, we proceeded to scale the large breakdown area behind us.  Ava Pope mentioned that to get through the breakdown we would need to go up and over it, before proceeding down the other side.  According to our map, which was at least 50 years old, if we went up and over in the middle we would encounter a “T” junction, and we could take it to the left towards fossil pools and the “Emerald Room”, and if we went to the right we would walk the stream passage towards the sink hole at the ‘end’ of the cave. We were unable to find the left hand route (a newer copy of the map shows that we needed to find a secondhand left turn that was misplaced on our map), so we continued on to the right through the ‘canyon’ at the back of the breakdown pile until we came to a tunnel with a mud and pool filled floor.

(Exhibit A. Old Map)

(Exhibit B. Slightly Less Old Map)

Ava and Lilea walked in on the right hand side, through the mud, but because of the low ceiling I walked straight through the water. This is right after I previously fussed at kiddo for stomping through water because the cloudy water makes it harder for animals that might be living in it to breathe.  I don’t know if that’s technically true; I mostly said it because I want her to take her footing seriously when she’s caving and not get hurt goofing off.  However, while I was destroying Kevin Spacey Land (he’s apparently not the star of “Water World” per IMDB), I saw three small salamander larvae swimming in a shallow pool, and we saw an adult (orange with black spots) off to the side in a different pool under a low overhang.

Thanks to a recent presentation by another Grotto member, Kim, we knew that all salamanders have a Cloaca, which when threatened, they can use like an “Angry Bird’s” type cannon to ward off predators or knock down towers of pigs (I’ve never actually played “Angry Birds”, but it sounds about right?).  Unfortunately, despite a lot of name calling, in multiple languages, and numerous attempts at verbal agitation we were not able to get any response from any of the salamanders.  It’s 2018, and salamanders apparently no longer care if their father was a hamster, or their mother smelt of elderberry.  In a way, I get that.  We passed on into a room that sloped down to the right, full of slippery, sticky mud. At the bottom was a deep pool where the stream went under the rocks, and moving forward was tall, wide, stream passage.

The stream passage was pretty easily traversed.  Alexa and I walked through the water, and supported the kids as they walked on the muddy side slopes, occasionally carrying them as necessary.  The first branch to the right that we took, near a well pipe that extends down through the ceiling to the floor, was a dead end and not the lead to the sinkhole like we expected.  We backtracked and took the next right, near the saltpeter mounds, and walked to the end to what appeared to be a dead-end with the exception a tight crawl.  The crawl itself was through small shards of breakdown, and was labeled the “Crawl of Despair” about three feet in, and the name continued as I went in about 20 or so feet, struggled to turn around in the small end room, and crawled back out.  This delicate flower was bruised, but unbowed.

While I was making the long, arduous trip back from my decent into the Abyss of Hopelessness, Alexa found the actual passage located about 15 feet to our right.  We went in towards the sinkhole, which I should mention, had been smelling gradually riper as we moved further in and away from the stream passage.  We moved over a patch of breakdown that was covered with something of a very bright white nature, and looking over, we saw a pair of ribs.  It turns out, we were traversing over the moldy, rotten, remnants of a cow that had fallen in the sinkhole and had to be put down inside the cave.  Turns out, moldy dead cow adheres to your clothes rather well, and also makes small children feel rather nauseous.  With that in mind, we moved forward into the sinkhole, and some fresher air, with all due haste.

We walked around the sinkhole a little bit, found another salamander, and then returned to the cave via the other side of the sinkhole. The route back to the stream passage was relatively easy, with a few areas where the kids needed help down a ledge or embankment.  After that, the return trip was mostly a matter of retracing our steps back the way we came.  We again, made a short snack stop in the Moon Room, but it was a short one as the girls were anxious to get above ground again and into the sunlight.  We didn’t really spend any time taking pictures during the actual trip; so Alexa and I took a few pictures near the entrance of the girls.  Again, it took a while to unlock the gate and Lilea and Ava were extra judgmental and impatient because they both had to use the restroom.  I made my best calming stream noises to try to placate them, but to no avail.

(Photo credit: Alexa Simmons, also, apparently, not Tawney’s Cave.  Oops.)

All in all, a good trip underground.  When we went back to the Bat Ranch we discovered a map that was about 25 years newer, and much more accurate and detailed.  Unfortunately, we only discovered that after I’d given our spare, unused, old map to a different group the following day.  And they were never seen again… (we can only assume?)  Big thanks to Ava and Mike for letting us crash at the Bat Ranch, and for tolerating two small terrors and two adults that might not have been as prepared for everything as they should have been.


**Certain events ‘may’ be slightly exaggerated, falsified, or patently untrue.  The editor quit after the second paragraph, so professional polish may be lacking in the final product.

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