June 2019 - RECREATION
Brave the Cave
By Dr. Tom Denham
If you think getting extremely dirty, underground, in the dark, in tight spaces is your idea of quality time, then you might want to explore the neglected art of caving. Insiders know that the Capital Region is one of the sweetest spots for caving in the entire Northeast. At the beginning of my most recent adventure, I was quickly corrected when I called “caving” by its outdated term, “spelunking.” Caving was on my bucket list so I had to do it, but let me be clear, it is definitely not for everyone. Caves are inhospitable and messy places. There are some things you need to know before you go, so you will have a safe and memorable experience.
Getting Started – The very first place to being is the Northeastern Cave Conservancy (necaveconservancy.org). NCC is a non-profit organization focused on cave preservation, acquisition, research, educational outreach, and teaching about the significance of groundwater pollution on this sensitive underground ecosystem. The organization combines the resources and expertise of affiliated cave explorers, educators, scientists, landowners and conservation officials. The group is dedicated to keeping caves open to the public, free of charge, and owns several including Clarksville, Knox, Onesquethaw, Merlins, Ella Armstrong, Spider, Bentley’s, Benson’s, and Sellecks Karst Preserve.
What to Bring – Proper equipment and clothing is essential so be prepared. This includes work gloves, knee pads, helmet with a chin strap, and a mounted light – as well as two other sources of light. In addition, bring a sturdy pair of hiking boots with a rugged tread and ankle support, not sneakers or cross trainers! Cave temperatures are in the 45-to-50-degree range, so it is perfect activity if you want to beat the heat in the summer. I suggest dressing as if you are going on a spring or fall hike. Don’t wear your favorite outfit; it will get ruined. Cotton attire should be avoided. Expect that your clothes will get dirtier than your filthiest hike you have ever been on. Bring a complete change of clothes that you can leave in your vehicle for when you return from the cave.
Know the Risks – The caves are typically open May 1 to September 30. Entering the caves outside of that date violates state and federal endangered species laws due to bat hibernation. Exploring caves are a good rainy-day endeavor, however some of the caves fill with water, making them extremely dangerous and impassable. It’s good to do your research ahead of time.
Cave exploration involves risk of injury, even death from hazards, including slippery and uneven ground, open pits, injury by acts of other people, falling, being struck by falling objects, becoming lost, the presence or sudden appearance of water and hypothermia. I know the disclaimer is not very motivating, but it’s gotta be said. Cavers should abide by the accepted rules of safe and conservation-minded caving, as outlined by the National Speleological Society. Caves are a special natural resource, so please don’t take anything out of the cave except trash, memories and photos.
Clarksville Cave – Caving is best done with people who are already familiar with the cave and safe caving practices. Recently, I toured the Clarksville Cave with some of my rock climb partners, and an experienced leader – there was no way I was going down there without one! I learned pretty quickly how easy it is to get lost in the multitude of passage ways. The minimum group size is three and the maximum is 15. The NCC can tell you if your group needs to have a permit and insurance.
Located in Albany County, it has approximately 4,800 feet of passage it is arguably the best-known and most-visited wild cave in the Northeast. The cave preserve is open to the public from 7am to 11pm. It is an easy five-to-10-minute walk from the parking lot to the entrance on a trail that is clearly marked.
After squeezing through the cave opening, we entered “The Big Room,” and took some time to discover all of its features. It was damp and pitch black. Next, we journeyed the long passage way called “Perry Avenue,” which was flowing with water in certain sections. Finally, we arrived at the Lake Room at the North Entrance (closed). At one point we had a moment of silence and turned our headlamps off. It was a bit creepy, but fascinating and mysterious to listen to the drips of water. Experiencing true darkness was one of the best parts of the adventure.
We then back tracked our way to The Big Room navigating strange rock features and plenty of mud. Our leader then took us through another long route down the more challenging side the cave. I’m not going to sugar coat it; there were plenty of tight squeezes. One part is the aptly named “Cork-screw,” and yes, that’s how you have to maneuver your body down this narrow hole. Next, we trekked toward the “Root Room.” It is appropriately named since roots from the trees above ground penetrate the surface and dangle below the ceiling of the cave. After about two and half hours, I had enough and was ready to be done. We explored a bit further on Pixies Passages and then headed back to The Big Room. Emerging from the cave was like entering another world filled with light and abundant life.
Decontamination – We hiked back to the trailhead, which includes a private changing area and informational kiosk, that outlines safe caving practices and guidelines for the preserve. In the changing area, we took off all our grimy clothes, and put them in garbage bags to be washed at home. White-nose syndrome is caused by spores of a fungus, which kills bats. The spores can cling to clothes and equipment and stay viable for a long time. We learned how to properly decontaminate our clothes and gear to prevent spreading the fungus from one place to another. If you plan to visit places where cave bats hang out, go to the NCC website, and learn how to follow proper clothing and gear decontamination methods.
After three solid hours underground on a Sunday morning, I found it to be a full body workout, and I was spent for the rest of the day. Truly, it was an amazing experience that had really added to my life. In addition to the multitude of outdoor options available, caving made me feel even more proud to call the Capital Region my home. I enjoyed my experience so much that I’ll be exploring the Knox Cave this month. If you have an adventurous spirit, I would highly recommend you put caving on your summer to-do list. Reach out to the NCC and they can help get you started. There is a whole underground world worth exploring.
Remember my friends, life’s a playground so play on it every day, and make it happen!
Dr. Tom Denham (email@example.com) is a career counselor, motivational speaker, and enthusiastic high adventurer. He loves to share his passion for high altitude mountaineering, kayaking, curling and especially ice and rock climbing with others, but only when he is not trying to win his age group in running, duathlons and triathlons.