Under the Shenandoah Mountains, a West Virginia caving adventure

|     John Briley     |

IN THE moist, elemental rind of the Earth, the balance shifts. I am on my belly, twisting through a subterranean, mud-slicked limestone passage in West Virginia, and for the first time legitimately trying to keep up with my 10-year-old son, Kai.

I’m here with him, his friends Curtis and Finn, and a guide on a late-March Tuesday exploring one of this state’s 5,000 known caves, most of which (like this one) have no parking lot, interior lighting, gift shop or even signage. In fact, our guide, Lester Zook, agreed to take us in this cave on the condition that I reveal neither its name nor its precise location. So: We’re somewhere outside the one-stoplight town of Franklin, above a bucolic valley west of the Shenandoah Mountains where hills choked with oak and hickory trees rise and fall like banjo rolls.

Like many parents of preteens, I toss around cliches about how my kids run circles around me but, honestly, if it came down to a footrace or weightlifting or free throws, Vegas wouldn’t even post odds. But here, in the slippery, potholed dermis of our planet, the boys move like fully adapted insects – nimble, flexible, flowing – while I lurch about like, well, a 52-year-old dad in need of a yoga routine.

Fortunately, Zook has my back.

“When you move in a cave, do so sloooowly,” he says as we stand in early-spring sunshine beneath a rock wall, pondering the pumpkin-sized hole at our feet – our portal to adventure. “There’s seldom a reason to be in a hurry.”

Zook, 58, is a wiry five-foot-six, an ideal build for crawling around underground. He’s clad in well-worn blue coveralls with integrated knee and elbow pads, and hiking shoes. As he instructed when I called him, we’re dressed for mud (as if 10-year-olds ever aren’t), and for the near-constant 52-degree Fahrenheit air of this cave. The temperature in caves holds steady at the annual mean temperature of a region, plus or minus a degree.

Zook views backcountry activity as an antidote to the smother of safety and structure children face in the modern world. “The outdoors is basically a giant gymnasium,” he tells me. “And it’s different than traditional sports. There’s no coach, no screaming audience, no humiliation or bench time. The kids can just be themselves.”

With, of course, a few rules.

Guide Lester Zook (C) chose this cave in Franklin, West Virginia for its kid-friendly passages

He leads us through a safety briefing, checks our helmets and headlamps, ensures everyone has a whistle and asks the boys how they think people find their way through cave systems. Yes, Zook confirms, some mark walls with spray paint, but that’s bad eco-juju and, in many places, illegal. No, people don’t leave trails of crumbs. As for those who rely on their memories, Zook says, “We have a word for them: lost.” He then pulls out his favoured method – a map and a compass – and gives a brief primer on how to use them before dropping to hands and knees and leading us underground.

The hole opens to a descending crevice and we down-climb 15 feet of puddle-laden ledges until we reach a relatively level path narrow enough that we can touch the walls on both sides.

After a few twists and turns this alleyway opens to a dome the size of a large dining room. We’re in a rock world. On one side the ages have stacked multi-tonne slabs of limestone like hastily shuffled playing cards. Shadows dance across the walls, ceiling, floors and geologic clutter, which run the gamut of brown – russet, sand, walnut, tan, chocolate, khaki.

Water drips from stalactites that finger down from the ceiling, the smallest of which are known as soda straws, with each drop leaving behind a residue of calcite that further extends the formation, a geologic process set on hyper-speed. In many places the calcite is fashioning stalagmites on the ground, glossy nubs that appear translucent white in the centre. Some of these have bubbled together into flowstones, alluringly smooth formations that resemble miniaturised caramel mountain ranges.

There is nothing uniform or familiar here, although the faint mineral smell nudges at my ancestral memory and my mind, after decades above ground, conjures likenesses: a construction site demolition pile, an earthquake-crippled bridge, a stream bed, a coral reef.

Most of the world’s caves are limestone, formed over eons as water filtered through the ground and combined with decaying organic matter to create carbonic acid, which in turn bored through seams in the rock. This process has yielded some spectacular systems, like the 400-plus miles of passages and chambers in Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky and Vietnam’s Hang Song Doong, which is the world’s largest cave by volume and contains its own rainforest and river. The one we’re in covers less than half a mile.

We sit and switch off our lights. Total darkness. As in, can’t-see-your-hand-an-inch-from-your-face dark, 10,000-feet-under-the-sea dark, or – yeah – deep-in-a-cave-in-West-Virginia dark.

“I can’t see anything!” Finn says, in what I hope is more amazement than terror. Total darkness is one of the factors that makes a cave a cave, versus, say, a hole; to earn the label, caves (or caverns; there’s no difference) must also have formed naturally and be big enough to hold a person.

I’m enjoying the complete shutdown of one of my most-used senses, and wondering what it would be like to try to find my way out of here blind, when Zook turns his headlamp back on.

He assigns Kai and Curtis to Navigation Team A and helps them orient to generate a hypothesis. “We think there’s a passage around that corner,” Curtis says, pointing toward a shadow. Sure enough, the route squeezes through a notch before widening into a room decorated with stalactites and stalagmites, including some in an upper corner that have grown together in three-foot floor-to-ceiling columns.

Around the next bend Zook points out a hibernating little brown bat, about the size and cuteness of a mouse, dangling as if its feet were super-glued to the underside of a ledge.

Bats are always a welcome site – they eat mosquitoes, end of discussion – but especially so these days. A fungus called white-nose syndrome has killed millions of hibernating bats across North America since 2006. The condition, which confuses the animals and causes them to fly around burning fat they need to survive the winter, gets its name from a white fuzz it leaves on some bats’ faces.

The disease has waned in the Mid-Atlantic region but, based on a theory that humans might inadvertently carry the fungus into caves on their clothes and shoes, the US government has closed many of the caves on federal land.

We see few other signs of animal life, just three spiders and a small pile of bones, including one that appears to be the vertebrae of a sizable mammal.

“No clue,” Zook says when I ask the species. “Maybe some bear fell in here and couldn’t find his way out.”

Of all the emergencies I imagined – claustrophobia, ankle sprain, boys sprinting off with compass and map – I never considered that we might stumble upon a predator. And Zook says such a confrontation is highly unlikely. “Mammals don’t wander too far underground,” he tells me, although he’s heard of cavers encountering groundhogs and coyotes.

I also never figured that, 460 million years ago, the ground beneath my feet might have been a beach. But as we move along Zook points out clusters of seashell fossils, some so perfectly preserved that I instinctively reach to pick them up, remnants of the vast inland sea that once covered this area.

Zook appoints Finn and Kai to Navigation Team B and, in what an astute student would take as a harbinger, counsels us on how to negotiate extremely tight spaces.

“If you feel like you’re getting stuck or claustrophobic, focus on breathing. Next, work on micro-movements; often you’ll find you can move one body part a little, then another. Don’t fight the cave: You’ll only make things worse.” He adds to never pull or push a person in a tight spot, which might get them entrapped.

He recounts a story of a big dude who got stuck in Utah. “His friends went down the road to the cave-rescue supply store – also called Walmart – and bought some Vaseline. They came back, stripped their buddy to his boxers, coated as much of him as they could [in the Vaseline] and managed to slide him out.”

We face two crawls where I have to back out a few times and reorient my helmet-shoulder-torso alignment to shimmy through. But none are what cavers call chest compressors – spaces so tight that one must fully exhale to make it through – and all open to larger spaces quickly enough that I don’t freak out.

Our last stop is the Art Museum, a loft-like nook where visitors have plastered the walls with mud sculptures – a cartoonish skull, an impressive rendition of the James Madison University ‘Duke Dog’ mascot and other 21st Century references that detract, ever so slightly, from the ancient vibe down here. Text and Photos by The Washington Post