Caves have been a curiosity for thousands of years, initially just as shelter from the elements, and later as a haven for explorers seeking new adventures. While light from torches used by early explorers danced on cave walls, modern means have allowed caving to become a popular recreational pursuit. Cavers seek uncharted underground territory, hoping to find a passage that could lead to a previously unknown new world, and northeast Alabama is part of one of America’s most popular caving destinations.
Called the “TAG Corner” by cavers, the area where the states of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia come together is one of the most cave-rich areas in the county. Beneath Lookout Mountain and the Cumberland Plateau is the ideal playground for new and experienced cavers.
For newbies to caving there is one rule above all others—don’t go alone. There are caving clubs, called grottos, that happily accept new members. Along with this number one rule there are a few others, and it’s always good to know what to expect when tackling a new activity. To help, we’ve put together a guide full of insider knowledge to fuel your most ambitious adventure yet.
Enter the Grotto
If you have any interest in caving, your first step is to get in touch with a nearby grotto. There are more cavers around than you may think. Clubs will do trips, and once you and the group get to know each other more, private trips among friends are common. This is the approach recommended by Mark Ostrander, chairman of the Huntsville Grotto. “In the Huntsville Grotto, we will take you caving at least once a month, sometimes more,” he says. “Don’t go caving alone, and always tell someone outside where you are going. If you get overdue, they will at least know where to look.”
With this approach, you will be with people who know the cave, know what passages to take, and know what to expect.
Get Your Gear
As with all new endeavors there is some must-have gear. Most important is light. “Darkness can be a major issue if the batteries on your flashlight go out and you’re an hour from the entrance,” says Ostrander. “You should carry three sources of light, and at least one of them should be mounted to your helmet.” Experienced cavers also know to have multiple layers of clothing to deal with the cold temperatures, and non-cotton gear is best because caves are wet.
Along with your three light sources, other essentials include a hard hat, sturdy shoes, and gloves. You should also carry a small pack containing food and water, and it’s wise to pack a folding knife, rope, and spare batteries.
What to Expect
Each cave has its own unique features. There isn’t a ranking system like you’ll find while hiking, rock climbing, or skiing, which is another reason not to go alone. It is a given that they are cool and usually wet. Sometimes water is limited to a small pool, but there are caves that might require swimming—preferably with a wetsuit due to the cold. A cave with horizontal passages is preferable for beginners, as vertical features can be challenging and sometimes scary.
“Every cave has a personality and can be very different,” says Ostrander. “Some caves are extremely friendly, with no real hazards along the way. Others are confusing, and you could get lost.”
Follow the Rules
When taking up a new pursuit it’s important to know proper etiquette. And like most outdoor activities, it is geared toward keeping the human imprint on the place as minimal as possible. The motto of the Huntsville Grotto, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time,” sums it up.
If you’ve ever been to a commercial cave, there is no doubt you have seen a name carved into the centuries-old stone. This is a major faux pas according to Mark. “Don’t break anything. Don’t write or paint on the wall, and don’t take anything out, no matter how cool it looks. Everything has taken a long time to form, and if people remove stuff it will soon look bare and forlorn.”
Sights and Sounds
Over the course of centuries flowing water creates the magnificent cave formations we know as stalagmites and stalactites, and flowstone takes the appearance of a frozen waterfall. You will also see chimneys, cavities, and chambers. One surprising aspect of caving is what you hear, or more likely what you don’t. Caves can be eerily quiet when combined with the darkness, but when water flows through a cave it can be extremely loud.
Caves are also home to thriving ecosystems. Fauna in northeast Alabama caves is considered some of the most important in the country. Species of fish, salamanders, and crayfish have all adapted to live in the dark and damp cave conditions, including the Alabama Cavefish, which may be the rarest fish in the world.
Written by Hap Pruitt for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.