They are a netherworld beneath our feet, time capsules and windows into history and geology, vast areas of both darkness and color, home to few and fascinating to many. They are the wild caves of the Blue Ridge, and they are increasingly vulnerable to misuse and vandalism by thieves looking for artifacts and careless humans exploring them for sport with no consideration for their fragility. But thanks to a handful of cave conservation societies and dedicated cave explorers, more and more of the region’s wild caves are not only being carefully surveyed, they are also being protected and monitored for responsible visitation.
Preservers of “Wild” Caves
While many of us have visited at least one of the region’s caves, our experience probably centered on a brightly lit commercial cave with paved pathways and hundreds of lights. But there’s more beneath these mountains than meets the eye. In fact, the mountains west of the Blue Ridge, rich with limestone eroded into tunnels and rooms by centuries of seeping groundwater, are home to caves by the thousands, most of them in the limestone-heavy regions of Virginia and West Virginia. The majority are privately owned and not accessible to the general public.
But the general public still gets into caves sometimes and not always in the most careful or responsible way. Gregg Clemmer, president of the Butler Cave Conservation Society (BCCS), which is devoted to the protection of Virginia’s 4th largest cave with over 16 mapped miles, says, “You’d be surprised how many people use sink holes as dumps.” Apart from the general pollution of the environment, using a sink hole or cave as a dump represents a serious threat to groundwater. Caves are major repositories of water. After all, water is what formed them.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that something like that is going to pollute your water supply,” Clemmer adds.
But cave conservation isn’t easy. It’s not governed in the same way land use is by local zoning regulations and permitting processes. “A lot of people don’t realize they’re screwing up their property when they desecrate a cave,” explains Clemmer. And concern about keeping caves healthy and pristine is what led to the formation of the BCCS in 1968.
“This is really about stewardship,” says Clemmer.
Butler Cave, which is located in remote Highland County, Virginia, was discovered in 1958 by CIA cartographer Ike Nicholson. At the time, Butler Cave was Virginia’s largest, but it has since been eclipsed by three others. In 1975, the BCCS raised enough money to buy Butler Cave and 65 surrounding acres. “The purpose,” says Clemmer, “was to control access to the cave to preserve it. And it’s worked. After nearly 50 years, the cave is a good reflection of good cave management policy.”
Today the BCCS has about 45 members, all of whom have a key to the cave entrance. This doesn’t mean the cave is off limits to non-members, but BCCS members must accompany any visitors into the cave.
While it’s illegal in Virginia to take or touch any biological or archaeological artifacts in caves, not everyone is respectful of this law. Clemmer notes that caves feature “very delicate environments” that should be treated with care.
Apart from caves’ often unusual natural formations, they can also be home to fossils and ancient artifacts of human history.
“You have to get into the mindset,” Clemmer says, “that the stuff you’re seeing may go back to the age of dinosaurs.”
Clemmer had an up-close and personal experience with the ages when he found footprints of a fisher, a fox-like marten, about 400 feet from the entrance of a cave he was surveying. “Fishers haven’t been seen in Virginia since 1810,” he explains. So he knew he had discovered footprints that were at least 200 years old. After further investigation, Clemmer discovered that flowstone in the cave had covered some of the fisher’s tracks, which appeared to stop abruptly at a steep drop-off.
“The flowstone came after the fisher,” he explains, “and that flowstone was thousands of years old, meaning those well-preserved footprints were also thousands of years old.” It’s discoveries like these that Clemmer is concerned about protecting.
“The notion of cave and land stewardship doesn’t get enough ink,” says Clemmer. “If you buy property, you should leave it better than you found it.”
Among those who have adhered to this idea is Phil Lucas, president of the Virginia Speleological Survey (VSS) since 1974. Lucas, now retired, devotes himself full-time to the exploration, mapping, and surveying of Virginia’s caves and lives on a 160-acre farm in Highland County, Virginia, that is also home to six caves. He says there are 4,279 known caves in Virginia, most occurring in 26 limestone-heavy counties west of the Blue Ridge.
“Most people think of caving as caving for sport or as a hobby,” he notes. “But caves are a finite natural resource deserving of protection.” Lucas says the mission of the VSS isn’t to go tramping around the state’s wild caves but “to collect, protect, and disseminate information on caves.”
The basement of Lucas’ home is VSS database central. Here he has some 1,900 maps of Virginia caves, almost all of them surveyed by volunteers like himself. He also keeps on file information on individual cave lengths, formations, features, artifacts, and organisms. But all of this data isn’t publicly accessible. VSS doesn’t advocate sending the general public into the state’s fragile cave systems, and most of the data is collected for the purpose of scientific study and to provide assistance to government agencies like the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Division of Mines and Minerals.
In his lifetime of spelunking, Lucas says he has surveyed or helped survey hundreds of wild caves, noting geological formations, hydrological patterns, as well as archaeological and historic features. “It’s a very slow, tedious process,” he notes. But it’s also a process rich with discovery. “A cave is like a time capsule,” he explains. “Generally, it doesn’t have weather, so everything inside is well-preserved.”
Are You Ready For It?
Of course, all of the research and mapping cavers like Lucas and Clemmer engage in couldn’t be done if they weren’t willing to get wet and dirty and didn’t spend hours, sometimes days, exploring the deep bowels of the earth. “Caving is arduous,” says Clemmer. “You have to be in good shape to do it.” That doesn’t mean you have to be marathon-ready, but caving can be dangerous if you’re unprepared, physically or mentally.
Rick Lambert, owner of Highland Adventures in Monterey, Virginia, knows all about the arduousness of spelunking. He’s been leading wild cave tours in western Virginia and West Virginia since 1991. He, too, cannot emphasize enough the need to be physically fit to enjoy caving. “You need to be able to pull your own weight up over a door,” he says. “If you’re over 200 pounds, you probably shouldn’t do it.”
And caving is a dirty sport. Cavers can expect to be covered from head to toe in mud both inside and outside of their clothes, and swimming may be involved as well as crawling through incredibly tight places. “Most first time cavers come in jeans and a cotton T-shirt,” says Lambert, “but in caving, we say ‘cotton kills.’” That’s because cotton holds moisture close to the body. Lambert says the ideal attire is long polypropylene underwear and a nylon outer coating to keep warm and dry. With the cool temperatures inside a cave, someone who gets wet and cold can find himself suffering from hypothermia very quickly.
Lambert also says one should never go caving alone. “The smallest group should have at least four,” he notes. That way if someone is injured, there’s someone to stay with the injured person and two people to go for help. Lambert rarely takes fewer than 10 people at a time into caves and usually works with organized groups like college classes or corporate groups. His minimum charge for a half-day caving trip is $400, and that’s for a group up to 10.
Lambert says anyone interested in trying out caving should be prepared ahead of time, not just physically and equipment-wise, but also mentally. “Make sure you know what kind of cave you’re going to,” he says. “You could run into a pit where you have to rappel or a place where you have to swim.”
Wild caving isn’t like touring a commercial cave where everything is well-lit. A wild caver lights his way with a head lamp and/or handheld light source. And what one sees underground can vary from one cave to another. Some are rich with colorful formations; others may be mostly mud and rock. And there’s a lot more to caves than the well-know stalactites and stalagmites so familiar in places like Luray Caverns. One of the caves on Lucas’ property, for instance, is rich with its namesake formation—helictites. These are curious curling calcite formations.
One could also come across human artifacts. Lucas says some Indians placed their dead in caves along with beads and other artifacts that remain well preserved because of the consistent cool cave climate. Some caves were mined for saltpeter, particularly during the Civil War, and might have remnant artifacts of those operations.
One might also see bats, amphibians, crustaceans, flat worms, insects, and beetles. Creatures who live in caves year-round and don’t just use them for shelter and hibernation (as bats do) are called troglodytes. “The food supply in caves is very limited,” says Lucas. “It’s only what gets washed in there, so organisms in caves are very small.” Lucas says most of the new species discovered in recent years have been discovered underground.
Take Only Pictures and Memories
Anyone who wants to give wild caving a try should first consider the caver’s creed: “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” Clemmer says cavers who follow that rule will ensure the region’s wild caves continue to be repositories of timelessness and beauty for a very long time.
“You’re never really going to see it all,” says Clemmer, who has explored many of Virginia’s wild caves. “The underground is too vast and exploring it too arduous.”
But even though this underground world seems a final frontier that man will never fully conquer, Clemmer says, “That’s the lure. In a cave, you’re in darkness. You can only see where the lights go. You don’t know what’s around the next corner. We don’t cave because it’s there but because it might be there.”
Lucas agrees, “When you step into a black void, you don’t know what to expect. It’s really special.”
And that’s something Lucas and Clemmer hope to preserve long into the future. In the end, all the dirt and bone tiredness of caving is worth it to these modern-day explorers. “Caving is humbling,” notes Clemmer, who has spent as many as five days and four nights in a cave. “And what’s really wonderful is when you come back outside again; the world is so green and colorful after all that color deprivation. It’s a natural rush.”
More Information: If you are interested in learning more about wild caves or in helping with wild cave research and surveying, check out the sources below. But remember that organizations like the Virginia Speleological Survey, which has grottoes (or clubs) in many Virginia localities, and cave conservation groups are seeking serious and dedicated people who don’t mind hard work, getting dirty, and who are respectful of the fragility of cave environments.
National Speleological Society (NSS)
Virginia Speleological Survey (VSS)
West Virginia Caves Conservancy (WVCC)
Butler Cave Conservation Society (BCCS)
Safe and Respectful Caving:
- Most wild caves are located on private property. Be respectful of others’ property and obtain property owner permission before entering any cave.
- Remember to take nothing but pictures when in a wild cave. It is against the law in most states to take formations, artifacts, or organisms out of caves or to disturb any cave formations without a permit.
- When visiting a wild cave, make sure there are at least four in your group. Never cave alone. It’s best to go with a professional wild cave guide.
At a minimum, make sure you have the following equipment:
Polypropylene long underwear
Nylon outer layer
3-4 sources of light and extra batteries and bulbs
Plenty of water
A camera to record your experience responsibly
You can schedule a cave tour with Highland Adventures by calling 540-468-2722 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.