Portraits of Explorers

It was already after dark Friday night when we pulled into the Lonestar Preserve, Louisville Grotto’s gem in central Kentucky. I was happy to get out of my hometown for Memorial Day weekend, as a larger event than the one I was attending was gearing up to occur: the 101st running of the Indy 500, taking place just walking distance from my house. While the race day celebrations are fun and my neighborhood appreciates the revenue, the approximately three hundred thousand people (not including the ones hanging out but not attending the actual race) that appear are a little much for my taste. So we loaded up for the three-hour drive south and fled to a different event, Speleofest. Attendance here numbered in the hundreds instead, but the camping area was a smaller version of the scene playing out a few hours away in the Coke fields. There is no reference to drug lords there, if the term is unfamiliar; it is simply the main camping area for the Indy 500, owned by Coca-Cola, encompassing an area that stretches a mile across by another half mile at its longest point.

Every year in May, a tent city springs up in the field, dotted with parked vehicles and parties, with crowds of people flowing through like the tides. This was no different, except for much less need for the crowd control measures that are a given at the race. Although cavers are a strange lot, the passion that unites us in subterranean exploration also encourages us to maintain the land and the community, and it’s a distinct bunch that heeds the call of underground. I’ve caved with sewer workers and CFOs, doctoral recipients and dropouts; and this weekend, I found myself in a microcosm of that world, passing around a bottle of moonshine and another of Wild Turkey in a group of friends hailing from all over the region. George, originally from Romania, had driven down from his home in Chicago and slept in his car; others came from Alabama, Tennessee, and Ohio, and we sat in our camp chairs under a tarp rigged up against the rain pattering overhead. A band was playing at the pavilion down the way, and when they finished, a radio. The music drifted up, punctuated by cracks of thunder and lit by an LED lantern hanging by a carabiner from the climbing rope that held the tarp in place above us.

Grilling in the rain

That was the second night, when the moonshine came out, and we all had stories to tell about our day’s successes. Carl had originally been on the roster to lead a trip to Bland Mill Cave, but due to the weather and propensity for flooding, his trip was cancelled. So instead we signed ourselves, Arwyn and Ali up for a trip to Glass Cave that morning, after which Arwyn continued on with the group to a second cave, Robert’s Hollow, and the other three of us returned to camp. Glass Cave was a photo trip, with the hardest part being the hike to the cave mouth from the cars, but the late drive in had exhausted Ali, so we bundled her into the tent for a nap, each grabbed a beer, and sat down to check out each other’s pictures. 

Glass Cave, to me, was a cave of faces. The cave was dominated by an enormous formation room, highly decorated with soda straws, crystal pools, and rimstone dams that weave and overlap as if designed by MC Escher, at the foot of great columns that bear melted, roaring visages better attributed to Salvador Dali. Water dripped from the ceiling in rivulets- the growth process at work- the speed of which, flowing over time, created the fantastic shapes that appeared out of the darkness around us.  

Views of Glass Cave

The second cave was apparently similar, although the formations were dead, and Arwyn was able to score a praiseworthy salamander photo, which I couldn’t help but copy here (with permission).

Salamander at Roberts Hollow- photo by Arwyn Tuttle

Other caves that were visited included Roppel, McCamish Crystal Cave and Floyd Collins, named after the legendary Kentucky cave explorer who died in 1925 after becoming trapped in a cave. Born in 1887, Collins would have been about six years old when Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison were battling for the chance to show off their respective electric light models for the 1893 Chicago World Fair, and he came of age during the Kentucky Cave Wars, a period in the early 1900s dominated by an interest in commercially developing the area’s numerous caves as tourist attractions. It was for this reason, coupled with his thirst for adventure, that Collins was in Sand Cave that fateful February day, when a dislodged rock trapped him in the crawl that he was exploring. Rescue efforts went on for two weeks, but ultimately failed. This story serves to illustrate the inherent dangers of caving, where errors can be fatal, and the cave was finally closed to the public after being purchased by Mammoth Cave National Park in 1961. 

This trip, therefore, was particularly special, due to the associated history and the rarity of being able to enter. The group was determined by a lottery, and while some friends were able to attend, we did not get chosen; they brought back stories though, and pictures of gypsum-encrusted passages and gravity-defying helactites that twist in every direction. As opposed to stalactites and stalagmites, which are formed of calcium carbonate deposited by dripping water, helactite formation is a product of pressure rather than gravity, as the same mineral-rich water is pushed through pores in the rock in tiny droplets that linger on the surfaces of the cave. Over time, these droplets leave their own deposits, which build up slowly upon each other, following the path of least resistance in whichever direction it may be, resulting in gorgeously curlicued formations.

Talk soon turned to the old days, at which point I took another swig of whiskey and leaned back to listen. With not even a year of caving under my belt, I had nothing to contribute, but that didn’t make the conversation any less fascinating, especially with my love for history and interest in the evolution of cave exploration. Steve “Squirrel” Warren and Fenn Spencer, with nearly a century of experience between the two of them, began to reminisce about the days of carbide lamps. Fenn was raised by caver parents and at thirteen years old, was already descending into pits hundreds of feet deep under that very same type of light. Designed with two chambers, the lamps contained calcium carbide in one and water in the other, which would drip into the lower chamber and produce flammable acetylene gas, which is then ignited to be used as a light source. With an open flame on top of one’s head, being on rope becomes a more complex task, as burning the rope could easily end in injury or fatality. The climber would have to lean away from the rope to avoid any such occurrences, requiring a much less centered posture than what can be accomplished with the equipment now. Even with that in mind, there were still instances of rope getting singed, and Squirrel, a grizzled cave veteran hailing from Jasper, Tennessee, spoke of instances of looking up to see the rope smoking as he rappelled. This problem became obsolete with the eventual switch to electric headlamps; some (albeit few) cavers still use carbide even now, though, as it gives off a different quality of light, softer than the harsh illumination of electric. 

The moonshine soon made another round as we sat in the light of our electric fire and the talk continued well into the night, the group finally breaking up around 3 a.m. to sleep and prepare for more caving in the morning. Ali and I joined a group heading to Raymond Cave, a repeat for us, but one well worth it- the staggering amount of crystals that capture and fracture the light in all directions led one of my companions from the previous trip to remark that he felt like he crawled through a geode. An accurate statement, as long as it’s noted that the geode also contains waterfalls, copious flowstone, a pit, and gorgeous canyons that cleave the passage in several points of the cave. Helactites adorn some of the walls and soda straws protrude from overhead in a display made even more amazing by the thought of their slow formation, a drop at a time. 

Raymond Cave

Raymond was the last of our weekend’s adventures, and after camping one final night, we said goodbye to our friends and headed back to Indianapolis. My interest was piqued, however, by some of the stories that had been told and even more that had been alluded to on Saturday night, so I reached out to Fenn, Birmingham’s child prodigy, now an adult, to learn more about what that was like. 

8-year-old Fenn looks out from a cave mouth

I was able to speak with both Fenn and his mother, Kathy Stiles Freeland, a legend in her own right and the matriarch of, as Fenn puts it, “four generations of mudbugs.”

Kathy was named for her maternal great-grandmother, a herbalist in rural Alabama who used her knowledge to serve as the family’s doctor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. More than just the name, she inherited the appreciation of nature as well.

Her first caving experience was in 1965, while five months pregnant with her son; as she told me, she was tired of sitting around the house and decided she was going along on a trip to Alabama’s Lake Purdy Cave that her boyfriend at the time was attending. She said he knew better than to argue, and provided her with equipment. She emerged from the cave a “muddy wet monster” and was hooked.

“I wasn’t interested in the vertical part, seeing who could go farther or longer,” she said. Her interest was in the cave life and her moment of epiphany came upon seeing a clutch of transparent salamander eggs with the tiny baby salamanders, near hatching, swimming around inside. “It was like seeing the past, present, and future all together,” she told me. Not much later, the first Earth Day was declared in 1970, and she understood conservation to be her calling.

At this point, she had been caving with her young son and his father, Steve Spencer, for about five years and was shaking things up for the Birmingham Grotto. Established in 1958, its constitution included a clause that women could not join. The reasoning, she told me, was that if a woman were to be trapped in a cave overnight with her male counterparts, her reputation could be compromised, and her purity called into question; by the early seventies, however, Kathy had gotten this bylaw removed and been nominated for the Grotto’s presidency, winning by a landslide. 

Other archaic ideas remained, though; as an adventurous young mother, she had heard that “sons of assertive women tended to be gay,” and when her presidency was announced, a male grotto member stood and questioned the decision on the basis that she would “get crazy once a month.” She wrote off the comment as tongue-in-cheek and still secured the presidency but it was an indication of the times.

Fenn, now 51 (and still not gay), is a proponent of opening up the caving world more to women; changes have undoubtedly occurred since his mother’s introduction to it, but he still sees instances of distinctions being made. In vertical caving, for example, he commented that “they’ll teach women to climb, but not to rig, so when it comes down to it, you still can’t go without a man.” He shook his head, and took another shot of whiskey to cure the gloom. That said, it’s not all bad; he acknowledges that improvements have occurred, and as a woman, I can personally say that most cavers I have met have been generally supportive.

After forty years of caving, he suggests that he may be nearing the end of his underground career, especially after a neck injury a few years ago. Even so, he is still enthusiastic and involved in the community, reaching out to the newest generation of explorers with a message of conservation and equality within the subterranean world we love.

Says Fenn, “People are like caves. Some hard and ugly, some soft and pretty, some make you work for nothing, others make all the work worthwhile.

“No matter the question, caving is the answer.”

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