As a child, Aaron Atz would watch rainwater disappear through a sinkhole in his backyard. At the age of 4, he understood the concept that there was some void beneath his feet that was transporting the water to where it resurfaced nearly a mile away. This sparked a curiosity in Atz that ultimately turned into a passion for caving that defines who he is today.
To be fair, Atz’s bloodline may have something to do with this passion as well. He comes from a long line of cavers and as proof, he has found candle burned signatures on cave walls from just about every male member of his family dating back to 1900 before it was unethical to leave your mark inside a cave. His uncle, a guide at Marengo Cave, first took Atz into a cave when he was 4 years old. This first trip for Atz had such a big impact on him that he later followed in his uncle’s footsteps and began working as a guide at Wyandotte Caves, a state owned cave system in southern Indiana.
Honing his caving skills over many years of traveling to Alabama to cave, Atz recently moved to Birmingham and has started exploring the thousands of caves that are now in his own backyard. The TAG (Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia) area of northeast Alabama is famous for its large caves and the folks at SERA (Southeast Regional Association) a division of the NSS (National Speleological Society) like to say. “Come south, where the big ones are.” According to Atz, the variety and size of caves in TAG make it THE place in the southeast to go caving.
Over his lifetime of caving, Atz has been in over 450 caves and has had some pretty impressive highlights. He not only was part of an expedition to northern Mexico in which they identified 40 new caves, but he has also recently been elected to the Board of Governors for NSS which is based in Huntsville. Aaron is the chairman of the NSS’ Cave Vandalism Deterrence Reward Commission and helps promote their motto of, “Take nothing but pictures, Leave nothing but footprints, Kill nothing but time.” He jokes, “I guess I’m making amends for my ancestors that left their signatures on cave walls.” In all seriousness though, Aaron stresses the importance of promoting safe and responsible exploring in order to protect the cavers themselves as well as the sensitive underground ecosystems.
If you are interested in learning more about caving, the local branch of the NSS is the best place to start. These clubs are known as "Grottos" and the cavers of your local grotto are usually more than happy to guide newcomers to go caving in the safest and most responsible manner possible. Atz recommends finding your local grotto and attending one of their meetings. Here you can find out about club led trips and meet other cavers who might just invite you along on one of their trips. Almost every sizable city in Alabama has a local grotto and you can find out details by visiting their website, www.caves.org .
Atz is quick to note that he is not a "spelunker"; in caving circles, this is a word used to describe amateurish cave activity. Cavers are underground experts and are quick to drop the expression, he says, "cavers rescue spelunkers."