Caving in Alabama

by Lutz Nücker

My plans for this winter originally looked more like skiing, icefishing etc., after all, this was my first full winter in Canada. So when a friend of mine (another German) told me about a trip to Alabama after Christmas, I hesitated for a moment. At Laurentian in Sudbury, the Expedition Club had just formed and their first big trip planned was a caving trip to Huntsville, Alabama. Still, this idea appealed to me after having been to a small cave on the Niagara Escarpment in the Fall, so I decided to go. As it turned out, this winter wasn't the hottest for snow-related activities anyhow. What we did not expect was that we got our share of "winter camping" down South... I went to Sudbury a few days before the trip, but at that time the ice on the lakes wasn't even safe and the snow was gradually disappearing. On the day the seven of us left it got quite cold, though. We started on the morning of the 29th and drove down to Alabama without major stops on the way. Arriving in Huntsville after around 22 hours, we had just the right appetite for an all-you-care-to-eat-breakfast. Nobody had really had any decent food before that, least of all Etien, whose Hamburger with sauce on our stop somewhere in Indiana looked REALLY interesting (kind of grey...) ("degalas" - those of you who actually speak French correct me if I spelled this wrong). Pascal, who organized the trip, was a biospeleologist from Quebec, who is currently teaching at Laurentian. He brought his brother Etien and Sylvain and Carolyne, two friends from Quebec. The rest of the group consisted of one Canadian, Janet, and two Germans, Frank and me. We spent the first day in Huntsville getting settled on the campground in the mountains above Huntsville. There was only one other group of tent-campers, another group of cavers from Quebec.

Our first cave on the next day was described as a beginners' cave. It was a largely horizontal cave, which was very easily accessible. At the entrance to the cave we were greeted with graffiti, and that didn't change much in the cave. Even in the remoter, narrower parts of the cave we came across graffiti and all kinds of garbage, mostly beer and pop cans, but also broken glass. Luckily, all the other caves we went to were not so easy to find (we spent over one hour to find the entrance to one of them), and hardly had any signs of destruction, again with one exception, but more about that later. After we had walked, crawled and climbed around in the cave for several hours we went on our way back to the campsite.

Before we found the entrance to the second cave we spent quite a while looking for it. It was on the side of a quite impressive hole in the ground. Not too far from the entrance of the cave we saw a trace in the sand that resembled a bear's paw. We did not worry about that and went on crawling, stopping for a while as our geologists (Frank and Pascal) found some fascinating fossils. But - "take nothing but photographs" - we went on. After several crawls on wet gravel (who said kneepads were for whimps?), the ceiling got higher again, and eventually we came to some very impressive large halls with formations. Now it was the photographers' turn to test the others' patience. Eventually we had to go on our way back. At one point on our way back our leader was apparently not quite so sure about the way. Carolyne and I followed one small route that was marked with arrows and a circle. We explored that way until it got quite narrow and wet and decided that it might lead to the exit, but was too tedious for all seven of us to squeeze through. So we went back up into the main hall and finally identified the right way out. New Year's eve was pretty quiet on our campsite, but we nevertheless had a little celebration, with some of us staying up at the fireplace until around 3:30 talking about Quebec. Eventually, as the fire started to die, we went to bed as well.

For the third cave we split our group in two. Frank was not feeling very well, so he and Janet and Etien went to the NASA center in Huntsville. The rest of us, two experienced cavers (Pascal and Sylvain) and two beginners (Caroline and me) went to our first vertical cave. We first had to walk up a mountain for quite a while to get to the entrance. For the first ten metres down into the cave we then had to use vertical gear. Once down in the cave the climbing did not end. This was the first cave where we actually climbed a lot, the rest only had small passages into a lower or higher system. In the evening, when we had come back from our cave, the others had already prepared dinner for us. After dinner we went back to Huntsville where Bill Torode from the NSS showed us the National Speleological Society's own cave, Shelter cave, which is situated right underneath their office in Huntsville (and Bill's own house on the other side of the street). Around a hundred years ago this cave had been a show cave which even boasted a dance floor. We saw the sad remainders of that - some completely rotten wood. Bill must have spent hundreds of hours cleaning graffiti from the formations. The cave had only been closed with a gate in 1968, when the NSS bought the cave. Bill must have spent a considerable part of his life in caves. Many surveys of caves in "limestone country" Alabama carry his name. His old construction helmet with a carbide lamp attached to it also serves him to test whether a passage is too narrow for him now. If it won't go through, he won't either.

We went towards Scottsboro for our fifth cave. There we actually slept in a cave - which was quite nice as it was about 14 degrees warm (as opposed to a few degrees minus outside). Going to the washroom was a bit awkward as you had to go back all the way out of the cave. In this cave the local grotto (caving club) was just restoring stalagmites and stalactites that had been destroyed. Just imagine having to find the original place of hundreds of them, sometimes broken into two or more pieces... We could not go any further in this direction, though. We practiced some more crawling and climbing, but basically this cave had one main route and only minor detours to get around the rubble. It was quite a feeling to come out into the sun after around 14 hours in the dark on the next day (we got up at around 1 p.m...).

For the last cave we changed our base and moved to a camp site near Scottsboro. This was when it got really cold - down to -8 degrees on several nights. We were the only tent campers on that site and our neighbours in caravans offered us to take whatever firewood we would find on the other empty sites - there was plenty of it. Hanging Sylvain's carbide lamp from a tree, we prepared dinner outside on the first night. Next morning we established our one and only washroom restaurant - hardly anybody else was using the bathrooms.

The sixth cave, our last one on this trip had a larger stream in it. It was also the one where we went the farthest inside. By now we were able to distinguish the Pipistrella subflavus from the little brown bat. We followed the stream for quite a while, changing sides with almost every turn of the river, as one bank would then be too steep. Pascal had been to this cave before and was looking for a way past the point where he got last, but in one part with a lot of rubble, we got stuck again and couldn't find the way through to the next part of the cave. This cave had really impressive terraces extending for some 20 to 30 metres. After the terraces the water got deeper, though and some of us (including me) their first wet feet. On the way back, we came to one point, where there were two exits: The one we came in and another one following the stream, where we would walk almost to the waist in the water. We had caught the caving virus by then and opted for the latter. Pascal didn't have any long trousers to change in the car, so he felt a bit uneasy, when we slowly went by a police patrol on the way back, but nobody caught a cold after this. The term had already started by now, so it was time to go on our way back. We left just in time. On the TV in the motel room in Indiana where the seven of us stayed the night, as the roads were getting pretty nasty, we watched trucks that were supposed to clear the highway near Scottsboro slip backwards on the freezing rain against the concrete barriers. The roads were better on the rest of the way until just after Sault St Marie, where it just started to snow quite heavily. Apparently this road was closed later on. We made it safely back to a now freeeezing cold Sudbury in the evening and already planned our next trip, in spring this time.

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last updated July 16, 1998