When you think of going for a 10 mile hike, you typically think of being outside somewhere. Sure, you could maybe hike 10 miles indoors, but it would be pretty difficult to accomplish, unless you happen to live close to a mega mall. But then there is caving. My earlier experience with a "big" cave took several hours to cover just a few miles of passages. There is lots of crawling and climbing, route-finding, and general gawking at cool cave formations. Actually covering real distances just didn't seem like it was part of the caving experience. That is, until you visit a truly lengthy cave such as Blue Spring Cave near Sparta Tennessee. Currently the longest cave in the state with over 40 miles of passages.
I had made plans to visit the cave with my geocacher friend Natalie a few weeks back and had been reading up as much as I could about the cave. Getting good information on caves is fairly difficult, unless you are well connected with cavers. Cavers tend to keep information about caves off the public domain, mainly to dissuade "non-cavers" from knowing about the cool places and keep them from getting trashed. But that means that if you are just getting into the sport, it can be difficult to get much good information at first. Fortunately, Blue Spring Cave has a published book that I was able to get a copy of in my local library. The book chronicles the exploration of the cave as told by the early explorers. Most of the exploration occurred in the early 90's, and I absolutely devoured the book. Reading through the accounts, I could feel the excitement of making new discoveries, charting new passages, and mapping miles of virgin cave. It struck my explorer nerve hard, and after finishing the book in a few days, I was eager to get in there and see it first hand. My guide, Natalie, has been in the cave dozens of times, so she would be an excellent leader. But even as the day of our expedition approached, she still wasn't exactly sure where we would head. I was game for pretty much anything, but wanted to do as much exploration as possible. The other member of our team, Natalie's boyfriend Mitch, would be nursing a sprained ankle though, so we would play it by ear concerning how far we would go in.
|Mitch pointing out some fossilized coral|
On November 27th, Black Friday, we got an early start driving out to the cave. Natalie drove and got us there ahead of the supposed "crowds" that would be in the cave on this holiday. We were the first car in the parking area and were quickly geared up and heading into the cave. The Carr entrance, where we went in, is an artificial entrance dug into the hillside to bypass the original entrance which had a tight crawl. Not that we would mind crawling, but this entrance gives quicker access into the cave. There has been a lot of work put into this first passageway, with raised gravel walkways, a bridge over a pit, and even wood walkways. The impact of hundreds (or thousands) of cavers is evident and it is good that it is being managed. The first big passage, also known as Johnson Avenue, has a lot of nice formations in it, stalactites and mites, ribbons. The area must get pretty wet at times, and was fairly wet as we went in, but not so much that we got wet. There are a fair number of scrambles over breakdown which would make this passageway difficult for "tourists" and a few pits would make me nervous about bringing my little ones in here. Natalie would stop and point out cool features and landmarks along the way (cavemarks?) and also gave pointers as to where you can get confused or turned around. The passage we were looking for was a small crawl-hole on the north side or lefthand side of Johnson's Avenue called the BO passage (named after the mapping survey). It would be extremely easy to miss, but this shortcut gives access to the really big borehole passages deeper in. I was using a new pair of kneepads, which was good since we had about 1/4 mile of crawling on our knees. Even so, my kneepads kept sliding down off my knees and I found myself constantly having to make adjustments to them.
Crawling for a long period of time makes you feel like a real caver, whatever that means. The passage was rarely tight or claustrophobic though, so I found it rather pleasant going. It was also fairly dry and clean, which compared to my previous caving experience in Petty Johns was a huge step up. We eventually popped up into a junction passage although it was heard for me to get a really good feel for the junction. A lot of places looked like junctions, but were just rooms that dead ended up over a mound of breakdown. Somehwere though, off to our left, or north, was the original FH survey passage that people used to crawl and climb through to get to the big boreholes that we would be visiting. But we wouldn't be going that way. Instead we got into the "M" trunk. This is where the going got easier. A lot of the passage here was high ceiling, wide and with easy almost flat paths leading through them. It was pretty easy to make good time traveling through such passages, but there were also loads of "distractions" to keep us from moving quickly. By distractions, I mean interesting and cool cave features. We passed the set of Pleistocene Jaguar tracks, there were all sorts of neat fossils to see sticking out of the cave walls, and some not so obvious ones that Natalie would point out. And every so often a passage would be covered with fascinating gypsum crystals and formations. These came in all manners of shapes, from flowing ribbons, to sharp needles, to clumpy rounded mounds or snowballs. A lot of the areas with really cool formations had flagging marking off the trail to help minimize impact of all the cavers coming through, but many were in odd places that we may not have noticed if not for our experienced guide. And the walking was so easy going! Even now, I am amazed at how easy it was to stroll along through miles of passages seeing amazing sites. If it weren't for the long crawl needed to reach this part of the cave, it would be an ideal spot to take visitors. Heck, it still is, but not everyone will be able to handle getting in this deep.
As we ambled along, we passed dozens of side passages that showed evidence that cavers would strike off in different directions. A lot of these Natalie was familiar with and would relate where the went. But others she wasn't as familiar with. We poked our heads into a few, but didn't allow ourselves to get distracted by some of these adventurous side passages. Staying in the main borehole was easy going and would allow us to penetrate deep, so that's what we did. Eventually we campe to an immense room with 100+ foot ceilings. This was Mega Junction, a junction between a couple of large passageways, and was a nice spot to take a snack break, and in Mitch's case, pop some ibuprofen. So far his ankle was doing just fine, so after refreshing up, we pressed on. Pressing on actually meant backtracking a short ways and then taking a left hand junction into the "N" survey passage. This branched off again a short ways down and we took the "NA" passage also known as Bosnak's Borehole (or possibly Walter's Way). Apparently, the N survey passage can get wet as it follows a stream.We cam upon the stream shortly at a junction known as First River Crossing. This also gave us a chance to "relieve ourselves" since the stream offers a natural flush. I'm still not entirely clear on caving etiquette for this, but it seems like that when a stream is known to flush down away from drinking sources, than it is considered acceptable to use it as a bathroom. It certainly is better than making "latrines" inside the cave somewhere, but it is probably somewhat less pure than simply packing out all waste. I did have a suitable water bottle for packing out, but was happy not to have to use it this time.
The NA passage was another mile or so of easy going with amazing cave features to see along the way. I am still amazed out how easy going this passage is. Parts of it are nice enough to drive a vehicle down, like a ready made subway tube. Our next big junction was at the Second River crossing and here my memory may fail me a bit, but I think this one was a steep mud slide down, then back up the other side., We looked for cave creatures here but didn't note any. Somewhere along the way we also ate a lunch, although I honestly don't remember where now (I really should have written this account right after the trip, rather than waiting almost a month). The next part of the NA borehole is known as sand land, as it contains deep, soft sand for large stretches. It reminded me strongly of White Sands National Monument, although the sand wasn't as bright white. Thinking about how nice it was to walk barefoot at White Sands, I spoke my mind aloud, and soon Natalie was taking off her shoes. I followed suite (Mitch abstained) and soon we were laughing and playing in the soft sand. We all thought it would be especially funny if we could leave footprints that other caver's would then see, and wonder about who would be this deep into the cave barefoot. We did indeed find some places that we could leave recognizable footprints (rather than boot-prints which is what we saw) but whether they ever get noticed by cavers will forever remain unknown. Still it was fun. The sand eventually petered out and we were "forced" to put back on our boots by sharp rocks.
The next big junction was the third river crossing and is a somewhat confusing junction since there are a couple ways to get down to the river. I slid down a muddy bank in one section and thought about exploring the river passage south to meet up with the NA passage in the location where most people cross, but was persuaded not to go that way since it looked pretty muddy. I'm glad I didn't because I wouldn't have wanted to miss the 3rd river crossing which is a super exposed crawl on a narrow ledge. Fun and not too scary, as long as you don't mind heights. Beyond the 3rd river crossing is a junction with the S passage which is over a mile of though passageway. Natalie mentioned not ever having been down it before, so perhaps it is a destination for a future trip? We didn't want to press that way this time. In fact, we were reaching our turn around time already. Looking at the maps, I wanted to go just a little bit further and see if we couldn't return via some different passages, the RA survey. We decided to at least go far enough to see where this passage was. Natalie had been beyond this junction before, and into an area called Norman's Conquest. There are some really interesting looking passages that way, but again, something to be done another day. The RA passage on the other hand was a bit of an unknown. I thought I recalled reading about it as a dry and good alternative to the NA passage, especially as a means to avoid "Sandland" which for some reason people dislike. Natalie had never been down it, but we decided to at least start going down it. It fairly quickly lowered to stooping and crawling. I was all for continuing though, and though Natalie and Mitch grumbled a bit, and made noises about turning back, we pressed on. We did have to do a fair bit of crawling, but were rewarded by seeing some excellent gypsum flowers along one of the crawls. There was also some impressive dried mud formations. Eventually the passage got a little higher and became easy walking once more.
The RA passage meets up with the stream passage (N survey?) north of where we did the 2nd river crossing earlier. This is what I was most worried about, since we had no way of knowing whether we would have to travel some wet and muddy passageways. We knew we would need to travel along the river passage for a ways though. Turns out it was pretty easy going, over nice gravel bars. We even spotted a blind cave crawfish! To connect back to the NA passage (Bosnak's Borehole) we were looking for a smaller passage off to the left of the stream passage, and we almost missed it. Natalie was pressing ahead down the stream bed, when I noticed a well worn trail leading up a muddy bank to our left. After consulting the map a bit, we thought we should check it out, and sure enough, it was the right passage to take us back to the NA survey. IT also had some really neat water carved rock formations in it. If we had continued along the river passage, we would have gotten lost, merely we would have a long and possibly wet walk back to the first river crossing. Again, this passage is one that Natalie hadn't been down before, but she avoids wet and muddy passages when she can.Considering the pain that cleaning your caving equipment can be, I don't blame her. Less having to clean equipment means you can go on more frequent trips. Still, it was nice to know that even if we had taken a wrong turn, we wouldn't have gotten lost.
Once we were back in the NA passage it was smooth sailing and we made quick work. At this point I was relying on Natalie as a guide more, she knows this route extremely well. How nice it is to have a guide such as her, this cave is huge and there are a ton of junctions and side passages that you could end up spending a lot of time in should you accidentally take a wrong turn. I also tried to take more pictures, as I hadn't taken very many on our way in. Sadly, most of my pictures didn't turn out to be very good. Cave photography is a finicky thing. And unless you have very good equipment, it is almost impossible to capture the grandeur of being deep underground in an immense chamber or borehole. Still, I couldn't help but try. As we got to the BO crawl, we decided to time ourselves going out. The time to shoot for was 15 minutes, which for a 1/4 mile crawl is really pretty good. I'm not sure what the record is, but I'm guessing 10 minutes or so is probably as fast as anyone could go through this passage. We grunted and sweated and pushed ourselves through, and ended up emerging from the final crawl-hole right at 15 minutes. Pretty darn good.
It was on our final walk out that we heard our first sounds of other cavers. So this is the holiday crowds in Blue Springs Cave. We passed a group of 4 cavers, older gentlemen and a lady, not far from the entrance. They were on their way out too, we only beat them out by 15 minutes. We emerged into the twilight air, unseasonably warm it seemed, at around 5pm. We had been underground for 8 hours (more or less?) and had covered quite a lot of ground. Looking back at the maps, and reading through the book, I'd judge that we covered about 10 miles of cave. Could that be right? A 10 mile hike in that amount of time would be reasonable, but to do it underground, with large sections of crawling? That seems like something else entirely. Except, this cave, with its huge borehole passages and miles of easy walking was kind of more like a hike, than a "caving" trip.
Even covering 10 miles, there is still a ton of exploration left for me in this cave. I'm not sure what the current tally is, but I'm guessing that there are nearly 40 miles of mapped passageways. And the 10 miles we covered was really only 5-6 miles of mapped passageways since we came back along many of the same passages that we used to get deep under the ground. So yes, I'd definitely love to return and try a new area, explore deeper, stay under longer. This cave is certainly one to ignite a spirit of exploration. Can't say how thankful I am that Natalie agreed to guide us in there.