Caving in West Virginia

November, 1996 and May, 1997

by Debbie Enns

I have been a member of the Outers Club for about a year now, and during that time I have been involved with a number of exciting events. However, the most memorable of my experiences to date did not take place on the hiking trails of Ontario or even within the mountains of British Columbia, but rather deep within the caverns of West Virginia. True, caving is not for everyone, but if you are a geologist, a geologist wanna-be like me, or just an outdoor enthusiast who likes the idea of a holiday adventure beneath the rolling hills of West Virginia, a caving trip is definitely worth trying.

Although I have only been caving twice, I have been familiar with the concept of caving for about 3 years now. When I first started school here in Waterloo, one of my housemates was a guy named Keith Pomakis, who at the time was an avid member of the Outers Club. One day in November of 1994, Keith asked me if I wanted to go on a caving trip with him and a few people.

Caving? Who the hell does that, was all I could think. Caves have bats and spiders, and they’re cold and damp. Yuck.

So I asked him, “Why would I want to spend 3 days underground in a dark, wet hole with a bunch of insects and flying rodents?”

“Because,” he replied with a smile, “it’s just sooooo cool!”.

At the time I politely declined the invitation. After all, I had courses, research, and other mundane things to think about. He took off the next weekend with 4 other people, one of whom was Kyle McKenzie. I didn’t know Kyle at the time, but that was soon to change.

They got back 4 days later, alive, well and mostly happy. Although Keith seemed exhausted, he couldn’t wait to tell me about his adventures. He talked at length about all the new “cool passages” he’d explored, he threw words around like “stalactite” and “sump”, and he also mentioned this mysterious beverage he simply called Zima. When I asked him to describe it, all he said was that it was “a unique alcoholic beverage”. Through all of this, I found myself growing increasingly interested in the idea of actually doing this crazy caving thing. And it wasn’t just my curiosity about Zima that made me finally do it. Well, okay, that was most of it.

My first chance finally came last November. There had been a few other caving trips between the time I’d first heard about it and then, but unfortunately I was always too busy to make it. I set off for West Virginia with Keith, Kyle and about 10 others, many of whom were exchange students. I learned a lot of valuable things on that trip, such as: (i) if you’re ever stranded anywhere, duct tape is the only survival tool you will ever need; (ii) trips to West Virginia can actually occur without major car trouble; (iii) Pittsburgh really isn’t worth the detour unless you’re getting a car photo; (iv) Zima really is a unique alcoholic beverage, and (v) West Virginia suffered a great loss with the closing of the Midway Tavern, also known as the “redneck bar”.

We only got to spend two days caving on this trip, which wasn’t really enough for the avid cavers, but enough for beginners like me to get a flavour for it. On the first day we hiked down to the Salt Peter entrance of Snedegar’s cave, and spent most of the afternoon exploring what turned out to be only a small portion of a very large system. Because this was November, there was already a bit of snow and ice at the entrance. This led to a bit of a hairy moment during the afternoon when we tried entering the same system from the North entrance and had to crawl along an ice-covered 30-foot ledge located directly above a raging river. Luckily we managed to work our way back to the main entrance from this entrance, and saw some great sights along the way. My personal favourite was the mud slidečthis was a small sloping passage where you literally slide down to get to the next area. Your backpack goes down ahead of you, then once you hear it hit the bottom you basically plunge into the blackness. Other than that, there weren’t a lot of tight crawls in this cave; in fact, there were some amazingly large areas such as the Amphitheatre that were just breathtaking. Because this was such a large cave, most of our time was spent either walking or crawling over large boulders. We did go through some watery pools, and as Tuan Ngo will attest, there were many passages where “it is wet,” but the true sump-like passages were being reserved for a future caving expedition.

The next morning involved a journey to Bone Cave. Although Bone Cave is bone-dry dusty (hence the name), it has some of the most spectacular karst topography you will see anywhere. There were endless corridors of gigantic stalactites and stalagmites, and in some areas the walls and floor were made of a softer reddish-brown earth, giving it an almost “Play-Doh-like” consistency. There were also quite a few tight crawls in this cave. My favourite crawl (I use the term loosely) was probably the stretch known as the Bathtub. Apparently the original crawl was so tight that many people had trouble squeezing through it, so someone decided to open it a bit by chipping away at the rock on the bottom, creating a Ćsink’ of loose rock to crawl through. Even with the tub, it was still tight and slow going for many of us. Since Bone Cave only has one main entrance, you eventually come to a dead end and have to go back. The last chamber in the cave was quite large and was referred to as the Echo Dome. Although this room was spectacular in nature, I was saddened to see that many of the walls had been ravaged by graffiti. It did take away a bit of the experience of being in a cave that’s millions of years old.

After lunch we made our way back to the entrance, and along the way we noticed a side passage that Kyle told us led to the infamous Devil’s Pinch. Apparently the Devil’s Pinch is one of the tightest squeezes in the entire cave, but one that’s worth doing if you’re an experienced caver with a lot of time. Kyle and Keith, who have both been through The Pinch, told me that once you squeeze through (which is a mean feat in itself), the passage opens up into a whole new cave known as the Norman System, which is an expedition within itself. Some exploration of the Norman System was already being planned for the next caving trip, which suited me just fine since The Pinch looked a little tight for me.

By the time we made it out of Bone Cave most of us were tired, hungry and extremely dirty. We drove back to the cabin, had dinner and called it a day. Some of the more adventurous and energetic cavers went on a short journey to see a cave known as Toothpick cave, but even that journey was short-lived because it was raining so heavily. Although this was the end of my first caving experience, I knew that I would be back for more.

The second experience came just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of May. I once again went with Kyle and Keith, but this time we met up with a group of people (15 or so) from Dalhousie University. The leader of their expedition, Peter, was an extremely experienced caver, so we were looking forward to seeing and doing some new things on this trip. This time we took a bit of a detour en route to West Virginia, and, after a horrific night of almost winter-like camping atop a ski hill in Southern Pennsylvania, we spent a nice sunny afternoon in Washington DC. For you adventurers planning a trip to DC, I highly recommend dinner at Planet Hollywood. The restrooms there are quite the experience.

We made it to the first field house that night, and were so exhausted we crashed in the living room and were asleep instantly. It was a short sleep, however, as the other 15 cavers (who had arrived earlier the day before) were up bright and early for a power hike. Keith, Kyle and I took our time getting up and unpacked, since the first caving trip wasn’t scheduled until 1 PM.

Our first cave of this trip was a new one known as Trout Cave. All of the caves near this field station had to be driven rather than hiked to. Since we had no idea where this cave was, we diligently followed behind Peter and his crew. When he finally parked his car there was still no cave in sight; however, I could make out a faint trail which led up a very steep hill. It was a grueling 20-minute climb in the hot sun just to get to the entrance to the cave. However, once we got to the top we were rewarded with a large, cool cavern. Peter informed us that this cave was basically a long, front-to-back-type cave, but that it had many twists, turns and mazes throughout. We started off into the entrance as two groups of 9, but that didn’t last long. Before I knew it I was led into a series of twisting, turning passages, some of which were quite large and some of which were pretty damn tight. The day was fun and exciting, but also confusing in that I completely lost my sense of direction, not to mention most of my group, within the first hour. Although we kept on losing one group of people, we somehow always managed to hook up with another just around the next corner. We also re-traced our steps a lot; for example, at one point during the day my small group found a canister on the floor of the cave which contained a log book from the National Spieleological Society (NSS). We signed our names in it and marveled at how we had been the first group to find the book. However, as we came across the same canister again and again throughout the day it became quite frustrating, as it meant we were traveling in circles. We did finally make it out, and I was both happy and amazed to see all the people I’d lost earlier waiting at the entrance. That night we had a great barbecue and shared our stories around a massive campfire. We also made sure we got a good night’s rest for a change.

The next day’s visit was to Hamilton Cave, which wasn’t too far from Trout. Of all the caves I’ve visited, this was probably my least favourite. After walking up the same steep hill as before, we were greeted by a tiny entrance with water on the floor. Once we were in, we discovered that the maze system was much more extensive than Trout and that the passages were not only smaller, but also wetter. We lost one member of our group almost immediately. Steve, who had never been in a cave before this one, had an intense claustrophobic attack right in the first passage and had to go back. After crawling deep into the bowels of the cave for about an hour or so, I suddenly had this intense feeling that we were very lost. Since Peter (who was the only one who had been in this cave before) was not in our group, none of us really knew how deep into the maze we had gotten. It was at that time that I had my first and only claustrophobic attack. If you’ve ever had one before, you know the fear and helplessness that comes over you when you suddenly feel the walls closing in on you and your oxygen supply being depleted. I think I fainted, and after I came to my group did a great job of taking care of me, feeding me sandwiches and Cherry Coke. It was about 20 minutes before I was able to go on again, and after that experience I didn’t feel too bad. The coolest moment of the day, though, happened shortly after that. We were in the middle of an intersection and were trying to decide which passage to take when all of a sudden Peter popped out of nowhere (he tended to do that a lot). He asked us why the hell we’d been crawling around in those tight passages all day when there were lots of huge ones just around the corner. Sure enough, we took his advice and came upon some beautiful passages filled with stalactites. My energy rapidly returned as we walked fully upright down these impressive passages. However, because it was already getting late, we didn’t really get a chance to explore this part of the cave. In spite of my claustrophobia, I hope to return to this cave at a future date.

On the way back down, we accidentally stumbled upon a new cave that Peter had been searching for called New Trout Cave. Although we didn’t spend much time in it, this cave had a spectacular wide, slightly tipped shape to it, and the walls were covered with some of the most amazing fossils. It always amazes me how well fossils are preserved in a cave.

We didn’t do any caving the next day, but rather spent it hiking and making our way to the second field station near Renick, which was the same place we’d stayed in last November. Kyle, Keith and I did a great hike to a place known as Smoke Hole Cave, which is a tall above-ground cave that resembles a smokestack. Apparently natives living in the area used to use the smokestack as a place to build fires and smoke their meat, but lately it seemed to serve as more of a party house for the locals.

After our hike we drove to the second field house, which took up most of the day. That night a few of us hiked down to the entrance of a cave known as Cruickshank Cave. This cave was massive, but was only accessible by performing a 100-foot drop using a rope and ladder. Although the opening alone was impressive, we decided that this cave would definitely not be on the agenda for this trip.

We spent the next and last day of our trip once again visiting Snedegar’s cave. Although this was now my second visit to Snedegar’s, I think I was even more impressed by the absolute vastness of the system. I revisited a lot of the sights I described earlier, as well as some new ones. Since the raging river flowing through the North entrance was not raging on this particular day, Kyle, Iain (from Dalhousie) and I spent most of our time exploring the passage where the river normally flows. However, we were careful not to spend too much time in there, as there was a thunderstorm warning for later that afternoon. Fortunately we made it out in plenty of time, and had a nice lunch just outside of the North entrance. On our way back in we crawled along the same ledge as on the November trip, and I was amazed at how much easier it was without the snow and ice. We also found a great passage which led us to one of seven salt peter boats hidden throughout the cave. These large wooden boats were once used to make gunpowder for the Civil War.

By the time we made it back to the main entrance it was raining heavily, so we hiked back up to the field house. We were hoping to once again to get to Toothpick Cave after the rain stopped, but like the first trip it was just not meant to be, so we ended up staying in and socializing instead.

The next morning Kyle, Keith and I prepared for the long drive home. The Dalhousie crowd was planning on staying one more day so that they could see Bone Cave, but we had to be back in town and were unfortunately not able to stay. Although this trip involved a lot more driving than I would have liked, it was nevertheless one of the best experiences I have ever had. I hope to meet up with some of these people again next year to do some more caving. After all, once you’ve been bit by the caving bug, it’s hard to shake it. So why try caving? I know the answer to that now: because it’s just sooooo cool!

return to Kyle's Caving Site

© 1997
last updated July 16, 1998