Our flashlights showed an eerie landscape --- sharp-edged boulders scattered haphazardly across the damp, sandy ground. The echo of trickling water told us a stream ran somewhere nearby. There was no sky overhead, just a ceiling of ragged rocks.
We were deep underground in a cave in western Pennsylvania, exploring part of a system of caverns still being mapped. Perhaps only a dozen other people ever stood here. Probably only a few hundred ever will.
Topside, mobs of outdoor lovers clog trails in their designer hiking boots and state-of-the-art backpacks. Underground, tightly-knit groups of cavers strap on well-dented helmets, stuff extra batteries into the pockets of their worn jeans, lace up scruffy boots, and leave the daylight behind.
An Adult Jungle-Gym
A cave is a grown-up's jungle-gym. It's a mark of pride to get as covered with mud as a 3-year-old in a playground. Caverns are filled with oversized building blocks kicked over by careless giants. Rock formations as bizarre as any found in the desert Southwest tower overhead, except that they are a 100 feet below the surface. Some caverns are as big as a ballroom, with ceilings so high flashlight beams never find them. A few minutes later, you're squeezing through holes so tight you think you're toothpaste in a tube.
Caves result from eons of long, slow erosion. Ground water seeping into the earth slowly dissolved minerals in the rock and washed it away. What was left were the non-porous rocks and the holes where the minerals once were.
During those million or so years, the water sources retreated or dried up, leaving sediment behind. This slowly solidified, creating more bizarre shapes that often look like junk food from a troll's pantry. Petrified mud flows of hot fudge ooze over rocks, knobs of caramel corn are splattered on the walls, and curvy ribbons of geologic taffy hang from the ceiling.
The best way to enjoy the sport safely is to link up with a caving club or take a special tour at a commercial cave. (The sport is "caving," by the way. "Spelunking" was the term used for caving for decades, but it is now considered archaic my modern day caving enthusiasts. Spelunking is a greek word meaning "having to do with caves.")
About 30 commercial caves in the U.S. offer 'exploration' tours. Laurel Caverns, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, sends novice cavers into the undeveloped underground with an experienced guide. There is no set itinerary; the guide decides what the group can handle.
"Let there be light" is the motto of the caver, since without that, you aren't going anywhere. Spare flashlights and spare batteries are at the top of the checklist of supplies. Gloves and kneepads aren't required, but make gripping and crawling a lot more comfortable. Sturdy shoes, however, are nearly as important as the hard hat. Good ankle support and tread are vital. Hiking boots are the best footwear.
It might be sweltering topside, but temperatures underground always are in the 50s. A long-sleeved shirt that's expendable if it's torn on rocks or gets too grimy to ever come clean again are part of the uniform, as are jeans or other long pants made of durable material. All cavers end up having a few pairs of jeans with unusual ventilation --- usually in the seat --- as souvenirs of their trips.
Points Of Contact Key
There is one basic rule of caving: never have less than three parts of your body touching something solid. Cavers speak about "three, four, and five points of contact." That means two hands and a foot; two feet and a hand; a hand, a foot, and your rump. The steeper the path, the more points of contact. "Five points" is tops --- both feet, both hands, and your bottom. It's not elegant, but it's an effective way to work down a slope or through a crawlspace.
On the surface, the size of something is gauged by what's around it --- trees, buildings, a car parked nearby. Underground, those points of reference disappear. Unless there's someone standing beside a rock, there's no way to tell if it's the size of a fist or the size of a Winnebago. We stepped slowly and felt our way carefully while our depth perception adjusted.
Laurel Caverns has nearly three miles of surveyed passages that are not used for standard tours, and we clambered through most of them. Our guide carried maps of the caverns, but even after studying them, we non-cavers couldn't figure out where we were. Most of the stone-lined corridors looked alike to our inexperienced eyes.
We slid down dry, sandy conduits and channels slick with water seeping from above. We stepped through shallow streams and pulled each other up boulders, then wormed through the tube-like opening bored through the top of them. When we found a large clearing, we switched off our flashlights to sit in the darkness and rest. At first, the absolute blackness was unnerving, but after a few well-earned rest stops, it felt almost natural and was actually relaxing.
By the time we reached the unmapped cavern, even our spare flashlight batteries were starting to die. Reluctantly, we climbed back to the surface. Stepping into the daylight, we saw a panorama of mountains and pine trees. A lovely landscape, but our guide had a point; sometimes the best views are underground.
For more information on exploring Laurel Caverns, call 800-515-4150, or visit its website at www.laurelcaverns.com. Laurel Caverns is open March through November. Other information on caving is available from the Appalachian Caverns Foundation at 423-323-2337, www.appalachiancaverns.org, and the National Caves Association, 931-668-3925, www.caverns.com.