Thursday, December 23, 2010
...from long ago and not so far away....
A few miles north of Covington, Virginia just off State Route 220 lies the entrance to an alien world visited in winter by Richmond area educators on a teacher adventure sponsored by the Mathematics and Science Center. Our field trip leader, a science teacher in Hanover County, had gotten permission for access to the cave, which is on private property.
We drove off the main highway only a few hundred yards. There we parked the van that had brought us from Tawny's Cave near Blacksburg where we had explored the day before. On the slope of a hill near the road there was a misty cloud floating up from the ground into the cold December air. The temperature was only in the 20's so we bundled up carefully before getting out. We walked toward the rising column of steam and discovered a pit with sheer sides about eighty feet deep.
After receiving instruction from our leader we free-climbed down the rock walls of the pit clinging to small jagged toe holds and jamming fingers into small cracks in the frozen rock being cautious not to step on any icy spots. At the bottom of the hole there was a wall of steamy air, and as we stepped through it into the entrance room of Warm River Cave all of a sudden we were out of the cold. It was warm!
The day before we had left Richmond early in the morning and had spent most of the day exploring Tawny's Cave. Just off the road to Mountain Lake, Tawny's is a cave that very likely matches your mental image of the way a cave SHOULD look, complete with sinuous interconnected passages, stalactites, drip stone formations and even a few bats hanging from the ceiling.
Warm River Cave is very different. It is a limestone cave but it doesn't' have many stalactites or stalagmites. Instead it consists mainly of "breakdown". Water flowing underground has carved away so much rock that the whole inside of the mountain appears to have caved in on itself. The huge jagged boulders dropped down in tumbled confusion, leaving lots of space to crawl between the rocks. It was like climbing through the spaces in a jumbled pile of building blocks.
We left a change of clothing in the entrance room and began to climb down and down and down, ever deeper, sometimes squeezing through openings so small that we had to hump through them stretched out flat like caterpillars, scraping rock a little on all sides.
Before long we came to an eerie part of the inside of the mountain where the entire rock structure of the mountain had dropped a short distance without breaking. Imagine a crack three and a half feet wide, tipped at an angle of forty-five degrees, stretching up past your head for fifty to a hundred feet, and just below your heels jammed onto a three-inch ledge slanting down, down, down, out of sight beyond the reach of your helmet-mounted light. It was like a mountain within the mountain. It stretched off into the distance below me and as far to the left as I could see in the dim light of our headlamps. It was spooky, but exciting!
We wedged our way sideways across this subterranean rockfall for a least another ten minutes before reaching another area of tumbled breakdown where we could continue our descent. Now whenever we stopped to catch our breaths, we could hear the murmur of water rushing across rocks somewhere still deeper ahead of us.
A few more minutes of scrambling and sliding down over rocks brought us to an underground stream five feet wide and a foot or two deep, its rushing waters plunging off downhill into the blackness. There was enough space to climb along the tumbled rocks at the edge of the water for another hundred yards before we came to a spot where it was evident that two underground streams joined each other. A cold stream welled up from under some rocks to the left, and was joined by a smaller stream rushing out of a low passage to the right. It was obvious that if we wanted to go any farther, not only would we have to crawl, we would have to crawl IN the water! The water felt just slightly cool to us as we got down gingerly on hands and knees, but within seconds it felt comfortable. It must have been at least 70 degrees!
For the next two hours we were rarely off our hands and knees, and that was usually to drop to our bellies to pull ourselves along in the water with forearms, elbows, and toes as if we had been attempting to bypass an enemy outpost in some jungle war-movie!
In a few places the roof of the passageway dropped so low that we had to take off our helmets and float through narrow openings on our backs, noses a half-inch above the surface of the water and an inch from the roof, rocks pressing in to within inches of our cheekbones. In one place, not even that technique would work. We had to submerge to get under the rock that just barely cleared the surface of the water in order to be able to continue on the other side. It was challenging!
Occasionally we would come to small rooms or the passageway would open out wider, providing enough headroom to stand up and walk, splashing along in the streambed for a hundred feet or so. More than once in these rooms we could see other passageways leading off in different directions higher up. The cave evidently has many different levels.
Finally we came to a larger room with flow stone cascading in petrified falls down the walls. There were beautiful shallow rimstone pools here, with chuckling four-inch waterfalls. Off to the right side of the room was a deep pool of water. Shining our lights into the pool we could see it slanting back steeply under the rock wall forty or more feet deep, crystal clear and beautiful sky blue, to a point where we could see no farther. This was one of the warm spring sources of the underground stream that we had been following.
Far back into the mountain, we came to a larger chamber that had steep, slippery clay banks slanting up out of the water thirty feet or more. Like children, or uninhibited otters, we spent the next half hour scrambling up the incline to take turns slithering back down our improvised mudslide into the warm, muddy water, while the passageways of the cave echoed back our whoops, shouts, and laughter.
Traveling back through the water-filled passageway was easy: the hard part was the long climb back up to the surface over cold rocks, in air that felt even cooler on our wet clothes. As we climbed out of the pit into a fierce snowstorm and raced for the warmth of the vans, we knew we'd had a real adventure!