“I’ve heard caves are the last unexplored surface of the earth,” long-time caver Scott McCrea says. “We’re going where most people would never go.” Caving offers a level of raw exploration that few sports can match, with miles of underground labyrinths yet to be discovered. “The mystery is exciting,” McCrea says. “We’ve mapped the bottom of the ocean. We’ve mapped the moon. But some say we’ve only mapped ten percent of the caves on earth.”
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]t was this gorgeous new environment,” Lori Wilkins says, recalling her first caving experience a decade ago. “I was hooked from the moment I saw the entrance.” Since then, Wilkins has literally and figuratively submerged herself in caving. She is the current chair of Flittermouse Grotto (a ‘grotto’ refers to a caving organization) and has been for the past two years. “I love exploring and seeing new, beautiful parts of this spectacular world we live in,” Wilkins says, “and caves are like no other place on earth.”
Caving is simply the exploration of caves, but to do it safely requires a good deal of knowledge, equipment, and some training. “Caving is a team sport,” Wilkins says. Experienced pros like Wilkins, who is a wilderness first responder, and McCrea, who is in an instructor for the National Cave Rescue Commission, would be great teammates to have.
“The friendship and bond with the cavers you’re with is important,” McCrea says. “When you’re that far into a cave, there’s nobody who can come and rescue you. If you’re hurt, you’ve got to rely on the people you’re with to get you out.”
“I enjoy the camaraderie of fellow spelunkers, no one else but cavers understand the passion we have for such strange environments,” Wilkins says.
As a caver descends below the ground, darkness engulfs them and the temperature changes. The temperature inside a cave remains steady year-round at the average air temperature for the region. In Western North Carolina that’s approximately 52-55 degrees. So, in the winter it is warmer inside a cave and in the summer it’s cooler.
Cavers will tell you that caves have a very distinct musty smell. Caves do have airflow, but they can be extremely humid in the Western North Carolina area. “One hundred percent humidity in some of them,” Wilkins says. A decade of caving seems to have sharpened Wilkins’ senses. Inside a dark cave, she knows where the entrance is even when it’s completely dark outside. “I’ve noticed near the entrance of a cave I’m breathing a little more clearly,” Wilkins says. “There’s a sense that the humidity decreases even when it’s very humid outside the cave.”
Which begs to mention that caving can be done at any time of day or night. Cavers wear headlamps to free up their hands so they can maneuver their bodies through the varying surfaces and openings that make up a cave system.
Horizontal caving involves walking, crawling, climbing, scooting, and sliding, and can include the use of hand lines and ladders. “Sometimes the passages are so small you can’t keep your pack on your back so you drag it along behind you,” McCrea explains.
McCrea started his company Swaygo Gear in 2001, which manufactures and sells caving equipment. One popular item is the ‘chicken loop,’ which is a multi-purpose little belt that you wear around your ankle. Chicken loops can be used to attach your pack to your ankle if you’re crawling through a passageway on your belly.
Vertical caving involves specialized equipment because cavers ascend and descend via rope. They may use ropes to enter, exit, or travel through a cave. It requires extra training and proficiency above ground first. It also requires more endurance and time commitment once underground.
A good spot for vertical caving is Ellison’s Cave, the 12th deepest in the United States, located in Northeast Georgia. “At Ellison’s cave you’re going to drop almost 600 feet on a rope, repel down, go caving, and then climb back out,” Wilkins says.“It’s going to take a while to get down and it takes endurance. It’s a whole different world when you’re going in the deep like that.” Ellison’s Cave is recommended only for the most experienced and advanced cavers.
But for some cavers, part of the fun is discovering new caves. “Ridge walking is when cavers go out in the woods and walk around until we find a new hole in the ground,” McCrea explains. “Sometimes it’s not even a hole, but there are geological signs that a cave is there.” Winter can be a good time to spot a hidden entrance, because typically the entrance will not have snow around it due to the higher temperature inside the cave. McCrea opened up a cave in West Virginia that he has mapped for seven miles so far, one of the most extensive caves he has yet discovered.
>In February 2015 cavers surveyed an additional 6557.65 feet in Jewel Cave, located in South Dakota, expanding the known length to 175.13 miles long, with plenty of unexplored leads waiting to be surveyed. This makes Jewel Cave the third longest known cave in the world. But located nearby, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system is the longest known cave at 400 miles.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Caves can be home to insects, fish, salamanders, and crickets, but most species are washed into the cave by a stream or rain, or live near the entrance. There are species that live their entire life cycle in the dark parts of caves; scientists refer to them as troglobites. They tend to be distinguished by not having eyes and appearing white or translucent in color. The only cave-dwelling mammal is the bat, but they are not troglobites because they do not live exclusively inside caves; they hibernate and sleep in caves, leaving to hunt at night.
The sport of caving has changed drastically since 2007 when ‘white-nose syndrome’ was first discovered to be affecting bat populations in New York. White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which affects bats during hibernation. Distinctive white patches can be observed on the muzzle, wings, and ears of affected animals. Although this disease has no known affects on humans, it has been associated with the deaths of more than 5.5 million bats since it was first identified, and the environmental impacts remain to be seen.
When white-nose syndrome was first discovered, scientists were not sure how the fungus was being transferred. Human beings were among the possible transfer agents, perhaps via shoes, clothing, or equipment. As a precaution, public caves closed, hoping to rule out human transfer of the spores.
“We stopped caving around here in 2009,” McCrea recalls, “we pretty much just quit. It was the only safe thing to do.”
Regardless of these precautions, affected bats were noticed in Western North Carolina by 2011. Local public caves such as those in the Bat Cave Preserve (property of The Nature Conservancy), and those in Chimney Rock State Park, remain closed to this day. “I know people who quit caving for years,” Wilkins says.
But now that white-nose syndrome has spread throughout 25 states in the United States and five Canadian provinces, cavers have ventured back, but with new protocols. “Now we use new gear for each cave, or clean the gear after each cave to avoid contamination,” McCrea says. “Most cavers go through that now after every trip to be sure we’re not transferring spores.”
At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, public tours do not enter areas that bats use for hibernation. But since bats do occasionally fly through toured sections of the cave, visitors must walk across a bio-security mat to remove spores and dirt when exiting the cave. There are also guidelines for cleaning shoes prior to entry and not bringing equipment or clothing from one cave to another without being cleaned. The goal is to contain the disease and prevent healthy bats from contracting it. “Bats are a major part of the ecosystem,” Wilkins says. “It’s important to take care of them.”
What began as a sport for McCrea blossomed into a business and has now become a cause. In February 2015 McCrea guided the North Carolina Wildlife Commission through caves in the Nantahala Gorge area, where historically there has been a large bat population in the winter. Every other year scientists enter the closed caves to count the bat population. McCrea helps them locate the bats and navigate the cave safely.
With white-nose syndrome literally underground, cavers are in a unique position to shed light on a subject many have not yet heard about, and they see the effects first hand. The February count at Nantahala says it all. “There were 1,200 bats in this cave in 2013,” McCrea says, “and last week there were 56.”
THE IN CROWD
With some public caves remaining closed indefinitely, you might think caving is on the way out. But there are caves open for exploration—that is, if you know the right people.
In Western North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, many caves are on private property. “Most of the time it’s farmland or forest land that has been in families for generations,” McCrea says. “Cavers work for a long time to build relationships with landowners.” Some of these relationships have been established over 40 or 50 years and several generations.
Each landowner may have different requirements. Some charge for parking, some require waivers, and for others it’s out of sight out of mind. That’s where a grotto is invaluable; they know the locations, the owners, and the arrangements. “The landowner sees a car they don’t recognize, or catches a stranger walking to or from the cave, and shots have been fired,” McCrea warns. “Somebody trespassing on a farmer’s land in East Tennessee is liable to get shot.” Cavers’ secrecy surrounding the location of caves arose from a desire to protect access to them, since even one unwanted visitor could change an owner’s mind. “It’s a bummer when somebody goes in there who’s not associated with the caving group and ruins things for everybody else,” McCrea adds.
A grotto can help you know where to go, as well as when to go. “You definitely don’t want to go in some caves on a rainy day because you can get flooded in,” Wilkins warns.
SPELUNKING VERSUS CAVING
>Wilkins: “Spelunking is an international term. Speleology is the study of caves, so spelunking is used everywhere, but in this country spelunkers are considered to be novices without the equipment. But it’s a great word, I’m a linguist, so I do call myself a spelunker.”
>McCrea: “Nowadays the term tends to designate someone who is not trained and doesn’t use appropriate gear, an amateur. There’s a bumper sticker that says: ‘Cavers rescue spelunkers.’”
With so many branches of caving, from cave photography to mapping to scuba diving in underwater caves, it’s a challenge to find one common trait that defines cavers.
“When you’re looking for caves and find a hole in the ground, some people will say ‘what’s in there?’ And they just go right in,” Wilkins says. “It does take a certain kind of gusto.”
Wilkins has guided beginners inside caves for years. She has seen people afraid to go in, but once they do they love it. Others are excited to give it a try, but once underground it becomes a psychological challenge for them. “You never really know until you get into that space,” Wilkins says. “That’s true with a lot of things in life.”
McCrea says cavers can span the spectrum, from PhDs to moms. Wilkins has observed that problem-solvers tend to be attracted to the sport. “I know a lot of cavers who are very intelligent,” Wilkins says. “Engineers, or people working with computers, the types that use their minds a lot.”
Perhaps for some, the only way to truly unplug from the modern world is to descend beneath the surface of the earth.
A CAVERS COMMUNITY
Grottos are organized under the National Speleological Society and are a great way to locate fellow cavers and find out about upcoming trips. Caving with a group of four is an ideal number, according to both Wilkins and McCrea. “If someone gets hurt, two can go get help while one stays with the injured person,” Wilkins explains.
Flittermouse Grotto has many members trained in basic cave rescue and encourages all new members to take a class. But they don’t take any chances. “When we go caving, we always let someone (the ‘call-out’) know where we are going and when we plan to be back,” Wilkins explains. “If the call-out doesn’t hear from the caving party by the expected time, a rescue effort ensues.”
But if all this talk of rescue makes caving sound risky, it’s good to remember the precautions are intended to diminish those risks, not a red flag of impending doom. “I’ve never been injured in a cave,” McCrea says.
Flittermouse Grotto typically leads one beginner horizontal caving trip per month and a few vertical practice sessions each year. As cavers advance in their skills, they are encouraged to join one of several trips in the region that happen each month.
Wilkins’ passion for caving is contagious, and she hopes to entice new explorers to join their underground society. “I appreciate taking people underground that have never seen the likes of such gorgeous stonework, forming new rock right in front of their eyes,” Wilkins says.
“I encourage everyone to try it,” McCrea says. “There’s always the option to turn around and go back.”
>Bryson City Grotto
PO Box 791, Bryson City, NC
>South Carolina Interstate Grotto
PO Box 1171, Greer, SC
For more information about caving, including where to find a grotto near you, visit The National Speleological Society at caves.org
To find out more about white-nose syndrome visit whitenosesyndrome.org
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