As published in Thicket magazine
Alabama’s caves challenge both serious and novice adventurers.
With over 4,000 known caves and countless more undiscovered or “virgin” caves throughout the state, it’s no surprisethat Alabama is home to a close-knit community of adventurers who explore an intricate, underground environment. Alabama is part of the tri-state area of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia, “TAG” as cavers call it, which has over 14,000 known caves, perhaps the highest concen-tration of caves of any place in the world.
Over a quarter of Alabama caves, carved from water percolating through a bedrock of limestone, have been mapped by the Alabama Cave Survey. Alabama caves provide a habitat for different species of endangered cavefish and bats; for example, Key Cave in Lauderdale County is home to the Alabama Cavefish, an endangered species found only in this one location. Key Cave, along with Blowing Wind Cave and Fern Cave in north Alabama, was established as a national wildlife refuge to protect the different endangered cavefish and bat species.
Another rare “species” indigenous to the region is the TAG caver, considered one of the most hard-core and serious cavers in the country. TAG cavers represent the largest number of the National Speleological Society’s (NSS) 12,000 active members. Appropriately located in Huntsville (where the city’s courthouse sits atop a small cave and is supported by an eight-foot concrete piling), the NSS is dedicated to conserving caves, facilitating cave rescues, and overseeing regional and local caving groups referred to as “grottos,” or caving clubs.
Caving enthusiasts encompass a wide variety of people in age and profession, with more men than women. From lawyers to laborers, they represent a large cross section of the population, though a ballerina would fare better than a football player because smaller is better in tight spots. “If you put all of them in a room, you would have a hard time figuring out the common factor,” says Bill Torode, the librarian at the NSS since 1976, who has been caving and mapping caves since 1959 when his family first moved to Huntsville.
Explaining his love of caving, Torode says, “Most of the surface of the earth has been explored. Caves are the last frontier on earth. You can go in a cave where no one has been before.” That’s precisely what happened in 1961, when Torode found a large sinkhole on a mountainside and discovered a cave. About 500 feet in, a stream dropped into a pit over 400-feet deep. At 437 feet, it was the deepest pit in the United States until a 510-foot-deep shaft in Georgia was later discovered in 1969.
Torode advises people interested in caving to check out a commercial cave first, visit a grotto, as well as attend rope-training classes. Caving possesses a certain mystique, and grottos have the allure of a secret organization, but grottos welcome novice cavers, educating and mentoring them about the sport.
In this area of the country, caves are found on privately owned land unlike out West, where cavers have to obtain a permit from a federal agency for access. Alabama caving protocol always involves contacting the landowner to ask permission. Winter is the best time to look for undiscovered caves when undergrowth is not so dense. Be aware, however, that winter poses the potential danger of encountering hunters.
Cavers tend to be close lipped about where they go, and for good reason. Caves are fragile environments, easily damaged, and non-experienced cavers may unwittingly hurt themselves or the caves. And for every organized caver, there are at least four unorganized cavers, estimates Scott Fee, past-president of the Birmingham grotto, past-president of the NSS, and a caver for 25 years.
Julie Fee, introduced to caving by her husband Scott, has been caving for 10 years and is also a member of the Birmingham grotto. Inside a cave, Julie finds a certain peace and even meditative quality to her experience. “You can forget the world outside, and you’re concentrating so hard and paying attention to what you’re doing, you forget anything else. Nothing else makes me feel this way,” she says.
Julie considers herself an “easy” caver, while the hard-core cavers go into very difficult caves and stay underground for 8 to 10 hours at a time. Scott, who says he used to be hard-core caver and a “pusher”now considers himself a recreational caver,but he found himself recently in a cave he’s wanted to explore for the past decade. “I was crawling three or four inches at a time with my chest pressed to the floor and my back pressed against the ceiling in half an inch of water squeezing myself along for 25 to 30 feet until I could crawl on my hands and knees and then rappel down a 30-foot pit into a borehole [large open passageway],” he says blissfully.
For most people, crawling, swimming, and rappelling in a wild cave is unfathomable; the controlled environment of a commercial cave is enough excitement. But for the rare breed of TAG cavers in Alabama like Scott, caving is much more than a hobby or even a sport. “It’s a life choice,” Fee says.
Always have three sources of light.
Go with at least three people.
Let someone know where you’re going and when you’re returning.
Once in the cave, look back occasionally, because the route doesn’t look the same going in as it does coming out.
Bring an extra change of clothes for the car ride home.