For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Posts tagged ‘Caving’

Into the Dark

The weekend before last, Carl and I took our friend Greg to visit one of our favorite Indiana caves, Donahue. Although perhaps not as well-known as Buckners and Sullivan, this is still a classic and has been on Indy cavers’ radars for decades, and with good reason. It can be a fairly simple cave, if one so desires: for this reason, it was one of the first that I was introduced to when I started caving in 2016. It can also be challenging, though, with some wet crawls, including a bathtub known as The Eardipper, due to the combination of low ceiling and high water.

To me, the cave is amazing from a geohydrological aspect: the sheer volume of water that carved out the tall, tortuous canyons in the cave’s main passage must have been immense and powerful. Natural bridges can be found throughout, where the stone resisted the water’s relentless push. Once the water levels dropped, formation development began, and while Donahue doesn’t necessarily have the volume of speleothems as some other caves, the ones that have formed tend toward massive flowstone formations, and are as beautiful as any stalactite.

Access to the cave is gained through a culvert that stretches and turns around a corner before the metal gives way to rock. Apparently the intention had been to extend the culvert to cross completely under the highway for improved drainage, but plans were scrapped once they broke into the cave; the culvert was grated over and left intact but building ceased. Not far from the entry, we reach a large flowstone dotted with rimstone dams that blocked the way; we maneuvered over it, careful not to damage the formation. We climbed up into the upper passage and Carl pointed out the connection into Doghill, an adjacent cave, though we declined to navigate through; a somewhat sketchy canyon marked the beginning of Berg’s Squeeze, so we turned back and returned to the stream passage.

We spent the majority of our time exploring the area known as Over/Under Stream, due to all the natural bridges, most low enough to require either clambering over or crawling under them. Being the stream passage, of course, meant that we were in water for the majority of our time, which was generally not problematic but came into play when we were crawling. That said, although we came out wet into the chilly evening air, it was still a fantastic trip, and just like with Wayne’s Cave and many others, each time I have returned to the cave I have found myself in amazing new places.

I have been asked before why I got into caving, and the story has been told before, but it is one that I love to tell regardless. Alison and I had just returned from Isle Royale, which had been my most ambitious adventure to date; we had spent five days backpacking on the remote island, the mainland far out of sight and no resupply options on the trail. It was wonderful and empowering, and terrible and exhausting, all rolled in together; but when I returned back home and to the corporate day job, I felt that wave of depression that hits me every time: the adventure is over. All of those unique, amazing places and things were then closed off to me until I would get a chance to take another vacation.

But in one of those first few days back, while talking about the beauty out there in the wild, a customer suggested to me that I should try caving, and of course the rest is history. I took her suggestion, and suddenly found that it didn’t necessarily take days and distance to see something remote and beautiful. Obviously, having some extra time and traveling farther doesn’t hurt matters at all; but to be able to have an adventure, to see something new that many others never will, well. I couldn’t imagine where my life would be now if I hadn’t listened to her idea, and gone to that meeting.

Time tried to sneak away from me again with this post. As I’ve mentioned before, this time of year is a particularly tough one: the retail job is ramping up to crazy mode, and school is headed the same way. But I do want to reiterate that while I may end up a day or two late (or in this case, a week or so) I do intend keep having adventures throughout the winter and to keep sharing them with you. At the same time, I would love for you to share with me- what are your favorite ways to spend the winter months? And what would you like to see more of on here?

Until next time, keep wandering.

Wayne’s Lost Cave

This weekend, I made my way to Bloomington with the illustrious Carl and our good friend Sam in order to spend the day navigating Wayne’s Lost Cave, an Indiana classic known for its difficult crawl. Both of the guys have already been there several times this year, although this was my first time since October of last year. We were attempting to make it to survey camp 4, effectively at the back of the cave; this would be a first for both Sam and myself, and only Carl’s second time back there, the first being two years ago.

Outside Wayne’s, October 2017

As I begin writing this piece, I face an issue in deciding exactly who this is written for. By this I mean, do I assume that there is some understanding of caving jargon and layouts, or do I start from zero? As many of my readers are not necessarily cavers, I will do my best to be clear in my explanations. It’s a practice that I find especially meaningful regarding this particular cave, considering my own history with it, and the chaos that was my first trip there.

Wayne’s is one of Indiana’s more difficult caves, boasting an incredibly varied topography. The entrance is secured with a heavy slatted gate, designed to keep people out but to allow free passage for bats; once that is opened, the cavers climb down an about 11 foot chimney, avoid a hole that waits to catch a leg, and then make a second climb-down of about the same height. From there, there’s a crawl of a few feet to get into the area known as Historic Wayne’s, which is a large decorated borehole passage. We strolled through this and took a few pictures, then doubled back to enter the infamous crawlway, an uninviting hole in the wall off to the left when facing away from the cave entrance. We drop down to hands and knees and enter the crawl, thankful for our kneepads as we navigated over river rock, which eventually evens out to just muddy rock. Over its quarter mile, the crawl varies in height and difficulty: the entry, though irritating as one splashes through puddles of water, is the least of it, considering that the crawl constricts, resulting in such areas as the Why-The-Hell Squeeze and the Torpedo Tube. As one can imagine from the names, these areas are small, and the type of crawling required through the crawlway is varied: in some places, hands and knees are appropriate, but others require a belly crawl, and the Torpedo Tube particularly is a question of pulling with your arms while pushing with your toes, as there is no more room than that in order to get leverage to move forward. Thankfully, there are some places where the crawl opens up a bit: not enough to walk, but enough to at least sit up and take a break.

Break time! Photo by Sam Richey

At the end of the crawl, cavers must negotiate a slot canyon that opens up below. This canyon is narrow and tortuous, so the best bet is to continue above it; the canyon opens along with the crawlway then, and in order to not fall into it, one must keep left onto a shallow ledge which skirts the rim, sloping down into the canyon.

Welcome to Camp 1.

On my first trip to this cave, a friend (with the best intentions but not always the most sense) decided to bring some friends of his along. Introducing people to caving is great, and in itself not necessarily problematic, but they had never been underground before and quickly discovered claustrophobia. It was near the end of the crawlway that this came to light; behind me, I kept hearing snatches of conversation, mostly consisting of different iterations of “are you okay?” and “what’s wrong?” I turned around when I reached an area open enough to do so and headed back toward the conversation, which was falling further and further back behind. I found some of the new people then in the next open space back. One was crying, and another didn’t look to be faring much better. The others were willing to continue, but lingered as to not leave them behind. Sam was also along on this trip and had taken the “tail-gun” position, bringing up the rear of the group; he sat with them, trying to determine what to do. Meanwhile, the group was separating, as another one of the new people had also declared himself claustrophobic early on, but insisted that he would be fine as long as he kept moving; we had placed him in line directly behind the trip leader, and when I turned back to check on the rest of the group, they continued on. Sam and I discussed, and ended up deciding that he would take the people willing to continue on to catch up, and I would lead out the ones nearing panic. I saw no reason to encourage them to continue; at that point, they were becoming a liability, and although I wanted to continue on, I was not willing to endanger the rest of the trip in the hope that they might calm down.

So we backtracked. Although it was my first time in Wayne’s, the crawl is pretty straightforward, though painful, and in the few places that I was unsure of the way, I was able to pathfind based on the traffic marks. Slowly, we made our way out of the crawl, breaking often to rest, eventually making it out of the crawl, through the historic section, and back to the drop-down at the entry.

Crawling- photo by Sam Richey

Here we ran into another issue, as by this point, the two who I led out were exhausted and demoralized and unable to make the climb up and out. I tried to boost one up on my shoulders, but unsuccessfully; the other didn’t try. After a few minutes of this, I told them to stay put and went to make the climb out myself to get rope from the vehicles. The friend who had brought them had backed out himself at the beginning of the crawl, and would be somewhere outside hanging around. Between him and the rope, we would get them out.

I made the first climb up, then the other, unlocked the gate, and pushed. Nothing happened.

I pushed harder, balanced on the edge of the drop-down, trying to stand to leverage my leg strength against the gate. I put my head against the gate too, and pushed as hard as I could.

The gate opened an inch, and fell shut with a clang; the two who I had left below heard this, and started shouting panicky questions to me about what was going on. Finally I lay on my back over the ledge and kicked the gate open, yelled down that I would be back, and headed up the hill to the parking area. Thankfully, the friend who had backed out was napping in his car, so I woke him up and we retrieved the other two.

Thankfully, this more recent trip had none of that drama, although we may have whined some about the grit in our kneepads and a stinky stagnant puddle. We negotiated the crawlway and the ledge into the Camp 1 canyon, then headed down borehole passage toward Breakdown Mountain. This is a huge pile of rubble fallen from the ceiling in what would otherwise be an expansive chamber. We scrambled up it, calling out loose slabs and stones to each other, then we headed on through the main passage, littered with more breakdown, until we reached Deep Gorge, approaching Camp 2. Here we reach an area similarly sketchy to the ledge leading into Camp 1, but with heavier consequences for a misstep- a tumble into the Camp 1 canyon means a fall of maybe fifteen feet, while the Camp 2 canyon’s depth is more like forty to fifty feet. A natural bridge hangs over Camp 2. Following it would lead to an area of the cave called Helictite Holler, and other passages break off here as well, including the one that would lead us to Camp 4. Here our pathfinding failed us, though: although we started down a few different passages, none led us where we wanted. We ended up following the American Bottoms passage, which boasted some formations, then ended up back at Camp 2; we pulled out the map and compass at that point and tried to find our missing passage. A major difficulty with cave maps, especially in a multi-level cave like Wayne’s, is the fact that these two-dimensional representations tell us little about whether a desired passage is on the same level as us, or perhaps above or below. We bandied around the idea of heading instead to the RPI Passage, a passage that breaks off near Camp 1 known for its “pretties,” but eventually we made the decision to just head back, research, and make another attempt on another day, armed with better information.

Camp 2- photo by Sam Richey

Although brutal, Wayne’s is also beautiful, and though I may complain about the bruises I always wear afterwards, this cave is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. Each attempt I make, it gives up more of its secrets; perhaps next time, we will finally make it to Camp 4.

Sinks and Stones

This week’s post is something a little different. It’s a write-up of Kentucky’s Sinks of the Roundstone cave, and it is available exclusively on As We Wander’s new Patreon page! I’d love for you to check it out. If you’d prefer to wait for free content, stay tuned and next Monday we will return with The Land of the Spiders, a hardwood forest that only looks empty.

Aladdin’s Cave

A journey through Aladdin’s Cave

Fellow wanderers- it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, so let me start by apologizing for my absence. In doing so, I can’t help but mention some of the projects that have claimed of my time, as 2018 has felt like a juggling act. While the corporate day job remains perpetually understaffed, I managed to carve out the time to re-enroll in college this spring in order to complete what has been sitting on hold for the last half-decade. As long as schedules continue to fit together, I will have not one, but two bachelor’s degrees by next spring. There’s commitment involved beyond just waiting out that time frame, though, so as I write this, I *might* be procrastinating on studying for an exam. The family seems to like attention, too, and those additional characters of Carl and Arwyn that I presented a couple of years ago didn’t run off to Siberia after all- in fact, Alison and I started the year by moving in together with them, so my previous roles of mom/ boss have expanded to mom/ stepmom/ girlfriend/ superhero/ budget keeper/ still the boss.

In the midst of it all, though, we’ve still found time for adventure. Last weekend, Carl rappelled into a pit here in good ol’ Indiana (a trip that I was sorry to miss!) and at the end of the month we head to Montana for the National Speleological Society’s annual convention. Despite my restrictive schedule, I’ve been able to sneak in some hikes and the occasional caving trip, not to mention working on SCUBA training, too- more on that in a future post. You could say that I’ve spent this last year doing field research on the adventurous family, and there are stories that want told from over the course of it, and before. Today we look at an environment, nestled in the American South, that seems straight out of a fairy tale.


Aladdin’s Cave*

Georgia, November 2017

It was just days after Thanksgiving and here we were in Georgia, amid herds of cattle that eyed us suspiciously as they stepped between their calves and our vehicles. Miles of unprepossessing farmland surrounded us in the land of cotton and cattle, where brilliantly white scraps litter the roadsides after harvest time. But that was not what we were here to see. In a farm field guarded by bovines we found the fenced-in area we sought, and within, a culvert that looked no more extraordinary than the rest of the land surrounding it.

Georgia Cotton Fields

We had left late the day before and driven twelve hours for this adventure, arriving in Georgia shortly before dawn on the same day that we were supposed to meet up with the local grotto member who would lead us on the trip. Carl was beaming when he first told me about the invitation.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. This cave, *whose name I have withheld at the request of the conservancy who manages it, is exquisitely beautiful, but equally fragile; very few people are allowed to explore its passages in any given year, and most who do enter are engaged in restoration efforts, due to previous vandalism and the damage that even well-intentioned but poorly informed people could cause.

We slept for a couple of hours in the Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot, met up with some friends from Kentucky who had also made the drive down, and our trip leader, who apparently was not quite local either- she hailed from Tallahassee, Florida. After the typical greetings and gear checks and gas station coffee, we made the forty-five minute drive to the cave.

A blast of air made the dead leaves dance and threw grit in everyone’s eyes as we opened the culvert. A ladder stretched down within, and one by one, we began to descend into the darkness.

The ladder led into a corkscrew canyon, wallpapered with densely packed helictites. They were sand-daubed and gritty, and brought two distinct images to mind: the extravagance of an aged coral reef, or piles of wriggling earthworms, fruitlessly attempting to burrow into the rock. Helictites are the troublesome siblings of soda straws, ignoring such burdens as gravity; instead, the path of least resistance is their way, and fantastic growths ensue. In the heavy airflow of this entrance, the detritus nearly obscured the gorgeous calcite.


The canyon led into a passage named the Hall of High Hopes. There’s a clear double meaning to the name. It winds and it’s cramped and ironic, but for many the high hopes in this cave are sincere: this is Aladdin’s Cave, or so it seems, and just around the corner are the glittering diamonds and jewels. Coming out of the muddy passage that bears the illustrious name, we headed into the Sand Room. This name seems ironic as well- much more salient than any sand were the gorgeous formations of clean calcite, almost transparent in places. Though the air was warm, around seventy degrees, the entire room looked full of ice sculptures.

Angel Wings

Further on, we reached the Crystal Pools, another one of the cave’s otherworldly features. Here, the floor was a mass of calcite crystals, thousands of them, growing in the pool that stretched wall-to-wall. It would be easy to get carried away in description, just as I got carried away with photography, shooting nearly 700 frames that day; it seems only reasonable to let some of the pictures of this glorious place speak for themselves.

Calcite Creations

We exited after dusk, the setting sun no more than a red smear on the horizon. The culvert was easier to exit than to enter, as this way we were able to avoid looking into the blowing grit that had complicated the journey down; it was difficult to say goodbye, though, to the rare beauty that lay under Georgia fields. We upgraded the previous night’s accommodations to actual beds in a hotel, then spent the next day en route back to Indianapolis, ready to plan the next adventure.

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Headlamps and Dark Glasses

As August nears completion, I find myself looking back yet again to wonder where the time went. Work, ever greedy, has been taking more than its share lately, and 3rd grade for Alison means facing the chaos of order, to which we must now readjust. When we add in some tackling of the to-do list and its items that have, in some cases, plagued me for years, there hasn’t been much time left for anything else.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

So when the possibility arose of two glorious, consecutive days off coinciding with last Monday’s solar eclipse, I jumped at the chance to squeeze in as much adventure as possible. 

Carl and the kids were ready and waiting when I got off work on Saturday; I changed my shirt, slung my duffel bag in the back of the Jeep, and we hit the road, heading south to Kentucky. Down in Somerset, about four hours from home base in Indy, is Wells Cave, stretching eight miles according to some sources, and fifteen to others. Our own source was an article in the guidebook for the National Speleological Society’s convention in 2001 and an incomplete map included as an illustration. 

Entrance to Wells Cave

On Sunday morning, accompanied by our friend Squirrel, we set out to go off the map. 

The yawning cave mouth slopes down into mossy piles of breakdown and fragments at the bottom into a collection of passages, some circling around to where they began, and others continuing off toward unknown end points. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time pushing passage, mainly staying in the larger walking passages, due to Ali’s presence; at eight years old, though a fledgling explorer in her own right, she has yet to develop fully the drive and the stamina required for an extended trip. 

In the midst of the breakdown in the entry, we found a drop-down to a passage extending nearly perpendicular from that front room which then split off into a few directions, many of which looping back around to the starting point. Aside from a large, curious salamander, we didn’t find much down there and returned to the upper level. To the left of the breakdown room was another passage, roomy with a ceiling some twenty or thirty feet overhead, which led into a second breakdown room sloping down to the stream level, which gushed out from between the rubble at the lowest point.

Arwyn and the salamander

Left again and the passage narrowed to a slot canyon which jogged around the stream, and at one point opened up to show a rather sketchy ladder, bottom rung missing, leading up to a ledge from which I could see a knotted rope dangling above. I ascended the ladder and tried the rope, which held my weight but without any decent foothold or safety measures I abandoned the idea and descended again. The last passage we investigated was a long crawl scattered with copious river rock, the kind that wreaks havoc on the knees, even with appropriate padding. Carl and I went back a ways to before turning around, but as the passage didn’t open up, we opted not to drag the kids back. We regrouped in the second breakdown room and headed out shortly thereafter, though not before discovering claw marks in the walls and ceiling, apparently left by a frustrated bear who had found its way in at one point and had trouble finding the way back out. 

After we finished up at Wells, we parted ways with Squirrel and headed on south to Sevierville, Tennessee, where we spent Sunday night.

Monday morning we headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to scout out a place for watching the eclipse; apparently hordes of others had the same idea, though, so we drove on south through the park into Cherokee, North Carolina to try to find a better spot. A campground that we discovered was equally full, so we followed the road through the mountains out of town. It seemed like every field was packed with cars and people, camp chairs set out and waiting. We drove on.

We turned on to a back road, then another, and Carl and I both saw the sign at once for Bumgarner Cemetery, hidden away behind a cornfield, and the decision was made. 

Exploring Bumgarner Cemetery

We were amazed to find a car already there, but compared to the crowds elsewhere, we were willing to compromise, so we shared the cemetery with four ladies local to the area, or perhaps it’s better said that they shared it with us; while we stumbled upon it by chance, they had scouted out the area the day before. The site was located on a hilltop, ringed with mountains, buttressed by the cornfield on the south side and strangely enough, a pen with llamas and donkeys on the north; to the west extended the cemetery’s newer plots, with the eastern end nearly crumbling to dust, some barely legible markers bearing dates from the 1800s, others having worn down beyond any ability to decipher. 

We watched the world darken from our hilltop perch as the moon began its transit of the sun. At first it was like a cloudy day, the light breaking through, and then a darkness grew, but strange, without the slanting shadows that the evening sun will throw. It struck me more like looking through eyes filmed with exhaustion, where darkness lingers at the periphery and fills out the details. 

“Sunset” in the cemetery

We lay on our backs on blankets, spread there in the graveyard, and watched the sun disappear. Behind us sprang up the colors of sunset over the mountains like a southern aurora, glowing over the town beyond our view and its multicultured population, evinced by street signs bearing names in both English and Cherokee. 

Totality was a breathtaking two minutes when the sun, still fiercely opposing any darkness, refused to be occluded by the moon and flared out around it. The crowning moment was as totality ended, when the sun began to peek out again, sparkling like a diamond. My camera failed to capture the beauty of that moment, but Carl was able to snap some beautiful shots of the end of totality, as below. 

Totality- photo by Carl Tuttle

As the eclipse ended, we returned to the reality of a long drive home and work until the next adventure. 

May it be soon. 

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