Sunday, January 19, 2014

Murderers, Conspirators, Pirates and Lifesavers

"...And that is why caves are some of the coolest ecosystems on the planet and we're so lucky to be here," my co-instructor finishes. "Do you have guys have any questions before we head in?" A kid in our audience raises his hand. "Yeah, do the cows live in the caves?" He points across Gandy Creek to a small herd of cattle, regarding us with looks of blank awe, an expression we are returning, mirror-like, to them. "Also, do the cows help make the caves and can they see in the dark?"
Up at Spruce Knob Mountain Center, instructors have been taking school groups into the caves since the '70s, and the cavernous topography of limestone-rich Pendleton County is one of the reasons the founders of The Mountain Institute first started exploring the area. For school groups travelling to West Virginia from the city, though, their attention can be distracted from the caves by the herds of cattle that roam the rolling hills around the "modestly celebrated" Sinks of Gandy and nearby Stillhouse Cave.

The cattle are owned by local landowners, the Teters, who own the farm at the upstream entrance, while the Tinglers own the land by the exit. Both families graciously allow cavers to explore the cave. The Teters have been taking cattle to pasture in the mountain valley since the 1880s. Several other farmers in Petersburg and other nearby areas also use the Sinks to graze their cattle in the warmer months, and the cattle drives from the lowlands to the mountain valleys is even the subject of a children's book entitled "Tail, Trails, and Pies" by a local author. Cattle are not the first animals to graze the land, following in the tradition of buffalo and elk who might have once looked curiously at Native American hunters and European settlers before their extirpation in the 19th century.

Before we enter the cave, we point out Yokum's Knob. According to a story published in the Journal of Spelean History, "Next to Yokum Knob is the unpainted cabin of Andy Tingler, a typical West Virginia mountain man. He too loves this wild country and the amber-tinted water which flows in Gandy Creek. These people enjoy their privacy and have been known to shoot at government mail planes flying overhead. Andy states that they don't fly over anymore and neither do the revenuers come around anymore".

The same journal further embellished the legend of the Sinks of Gandy: "The area causes some to feel eery and lonely as the mysteries of the past evade their minds, for within the cave thieves, rustlers, murderers and conspirators all made their rendezvous.  The broken bodies of their victims have also been cared for by the Sinks". As any adventurer knows, a spine-tingling story can sharpen the senses during exploration, and it's the same for the students. We gauge our group, making sure the experience is exciting, but not terrifying. One kid seems nervous, so I tell him he can give me a high-five every time he's scared. He stays close until we enter the big chamber in the heart of the Sinks, where he runs to investigate graffiti on the walls. A perennial favorite is the scrawled, "Batman rules this cave".

While maps of the caves exist, the water level changes throughout the year, sometimes revealing and other times obscuring side passages. The route from entrance to exit is relatively straight-forward, but there are always surprises. Perhaps it is no surprise that Life magazine editors were lost in the cave for a few hours in the '50s. During the '85 flood, the whole cave was flooded, and a VW bug was caught in the current at the entrance, where it swirled in a whirlpool for several days.
Inside the cave, we crunch on lifesavers to produce little fireworks in the dark. We turn back and count our group, their headlamps spread out in the narrow passageway like a starry constellation. We scramble past cave straws, cave bacon, cave popcorn, and other cave formations. We practice listening. We look underneath rocks and catch glimses of salamanders, fish, our own imagination. Just before the turn in the tunnel which takes us out of the one mile stretch of cave passage and into the sunlight, we have folks turn off their lights and spot the halo of light that marks the exit. We tell them pirates wore eyepatches not to hide their disfigurement but to prowl the holds of galleons. Once in the belly of the ship, they'd pull off their eyepatch peer into darkness with an eye accustomed to the dark, able to make out the lumps which might be treasure or danger. The kids spot the light and call out, their voices echoing off the walls of the cave .
White Nose Bat Syndrome has threatened the population of the bats living in the caves of West Virginia, and the disease is spreading. Check out the Smithsonian's recent video on the subject: Killer in the Caves.


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