Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Underground Wilderness

By Jay Jorden

In the rock prairie of Southwest Texas, explorers unlock and open a heavy steel gate at the base of a windmill that marks the corner of four sections of dusty ranchland. It's a window to a wet, underground world.

Using a mirror to reflect the sun's rays, they can see the light sharply reflected on water as it flows downstream in a cave passage 127 feet below them. A nylon climbing rope is rigged as two explorers don wetsuits and rappelling gear. In turn, they lower themselves with mechanical ascenders down the vertical fissure in limestone that is the entrance pit to Texas' seventh deepest cave, 0-9 Well, managed by the Texas Cave Management Association. The subterranean stream flows a mapped distance of 1,372 meters and down three main drops, including the 55-foot First Waterfall, to a pool and a siphon, or flooded passage.

About 50 miles away to the southwest, visitors to Caverns of Sonora, the state's fifth longest cave at 20,000 feet, enter an underground fairyland of rock formations-stalagmites (might reach the ceiling), stalactites (hold tight to the ceiling) and the world-famous Butterfly of Sonora-all viewed from lighted trails and stairways. Above ground is a visitor center with gift shop, snack bar and nature trails.

These two caves portray the range of experiences in the underground wilderness below this nation. The first, 0-9, is a "wild cave" recommended only for explorers-"cavers" trained and equipped to safely negotiate sometimes tortuous passages and navigate down deep pits. But in "commercial caves" such as Caverns of Sonora, visitors are offered similar underground vistas and the opportunity to share that sense of exploration that cavers experienced when they first entered and drafted their maps.

It is recommended that those who learn about caving through reading books on the subject or coverage in print or electronic media, first visit a commercial cave to determine if it's really an activity that's vital and interesting to them. In this country, more than 200 commercial or "show" caves are open to the public. Some are privately owned while others are on government parklands. Like Caverns of Sonora, most offer tours which feature trained tour guides who lead visitors on graded or paved walkways, which are equipped with handrails and stairsteps to make any ascents or descents safe. Artificial lighting highlights a cavern's unique formations. A few, such as New Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, offer more primitive "lantern tours" which may or may not be along developed trails. Caves, in the dawn of our civilization, were a refuge and shelter. Today, they are a challenge to our understanding.

An organization comprised of commercial cave owners and operators, The National Caves Association, sets and maintains standards for caving operations in the United States. Members of the nonprofit group must meet a number of requirements, including operation of a "true natural attraction presented to the public with good taste, courtesy and hospitality." All association members also promote safety as well as the conservation and preservation of caves-a nonrenewable resource. For more information about caves you can visit without special training and equipment, contact the National Caves Association at Cumberland Caverns, Rt. 9, Box 106, McMinnville, TN 37110, 615-668-3925 or 668-4396.

If a visit to a show cave or two only whets your appetite, cave exploring may be for you. The National Speleological Society (NSS), based in Huntsville, Alabama, is the largest organization in America for the scientific study, exploration and conservation of caves. The NSS and its members, in both cave exploration and volunteer work, strive to preserve subterranean resources, many of which are still unspoiled wilderness, from destruction. The Society, affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, seeks to promote safe explorations through its training program in techniques and equipment at grottos in 44 states, the District of Columbia and Russia. Experienced personnel assist cavers in learning how to "cave softly." The Society's motto is "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time."

The Society and its members have been instrumental in passage of the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act as well as state laws against vandalism and other destruction. The NSS believes that caves have unique scientific, recreational and scenic values, but they are endangered by both carelessness and intentional vandalism. Once gone, these values cannot be recovered. Educating the public is an important goal, since even well-meaning explorers who aren't aware of the fragile nature of speleothems can destroy that which took millions of years to grow.

It is estimated that some 50,000 caves exist in the United States, including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, recognized as the longest known cave in the world. These caverns contain both geological and biological phenomena unlike any above ground. Investigation of these phenomena sometimes requires strenuous trips into areas never before seen by man. Special equipment such as flexible ladders, ropes and diving equipment, as well as the skills to use them, are frequently required to extend our knowledge of caves.

Whether you prefer the comfort of our nation's fabulous show caves, or if you're considering an exploration into an uncharted, wild cave-whatever path you choose to take in our underground world, a final phrase and a byword of the NSS: "Cave Softly!"

A cave explorer since 1971, Jay R. Jorden is chairman of the National Speleological Society's Public Relations Committee. He is also Vice Chairman of the NSS Conservation and Management Section and a director of the Texas Cave Management Association and the National Cave Vandalism Deterrence Commission. In caving publications, he edits the Cave Conservationist and the Dallas-Fort Worth club's newsletter. He co-edited the 1989 National Cave Management Symposium Proceedings and is a contributor to several other books. Among caving activities, he is a joint venturer of Cave Research Foundation and has caved extensively across the United States, Mexico and England. Jay lives in Dallas with his wife, Sheila.

We recommend you learn to go caving safely and responsibly. To do so, contact the National Speleological Society, Cave Ave., Huntsville, AL 35810, (205)852-1300, to locate a group of cave explorers near your home for proper training and safe caving. NSS grottos, or chapters, and regional organizations provide a framework for enjoying and studying caves. These groups sponsor trips, offer training and teach and practice cave conservation.

Excerpted from Woodall's Plan-It·Pack-It·Go...