Cavers and Spelunkers
What do you call a person who explores caves...a caver or a spelunker? I once saw a bumper sticker that read: "Cavers rescue Spelunkers." That would suggest, for one thing, that cavers consider themselves of a higher social order than spelunkers. Technically, the difference is that cavers are enthusiasts who venture underground for sport or adventure while spelunkers are often novices who go into a cave for educational or scientific purposes...and so tend to be less experienced than a veteran caver.
Whatever you call yourself, southern West Virginia is a great place to explore caves. Here at the AAA Adventure Outdoors, we run highly organized caving expeditions into some of the state's most beautiful and remote caves. The best region for underground exploration is the southeastern part of West Virginia near the city of Lewisburg...about an hour and a half drive from AAA Adventure Outdoors. As you approach this area and look out over the beautiful rolling fields and pastures, you'll see sinkholes...an indication that more extensive caverns lie underneath.
Another indication of subterranean caverns is the "karst," another name for a stream that flows underground. Countless small creeks in the limestone region of Greenbrier, Monroe and Pocahonatas counties will be flowing along normally and then suddenly disappear underground...often to re-emerge several miles away. Such a stream flows under the city of Lewisburg itself. If you stand on the corner of Court and Foster streets in downtown Lewisburg, you can hear the rippling sounds of Lewis Creek as it flows along some 65 feet below the city's streets. Lewis creek springs about 10 miles north of the city, disappears underground, flows beneath Lewisburg and emerges south of town at the foot of Muddy Creek Mountain...near the town of Fort Springs. From there, it flows a short distance and empties into the Greenbrier River.
If you choose to do your exploring with AAA Adventure Outdoors, our veteran guides will choose the right cave for your group's ability level and make sure that your trip is run safely. We also make sure that the group has permission from the property owner to explore "his" cave. If you choose to explore on your own, do NOT go caving alone! Many times, lost and injured spelunkers have been rescued (or "recovered") only after someone noticed a strange car parked in the area for a long time and subsequently began a search. It's also vital to your safety that you only go underground with someone who's been there before and knows the peculiarities of that particular cave.
Caves are not nice, neat, straight tunnels cut into the mountain. Caves follow a tortuous, convoluted pathway as they trace the ancient upheavals of the underground environment. They can go in any direction, including straight up and straight down. There can be huge rooms and tiny narrow passages. Sheer cliffs and drop-offs often make rock-climbing skills and equipment a necessity for cave exploration. To complicate the situation, there is total darkness at all times. Your only light is the one you bring with you and, if it fails, you are almost helpless until someone finds you. Another real and insidious danger is hypothermia. No matter what the temperature is outside, it's between 52 and 55-degrees in a cave. Without proper clothing, a lost caver will begin to suffer the debilitating effects of hypothermia within a very short time. Veteran cave explorers bring lots of redundant and backup equipment. Warm clothing and extra lights and batteries are essential...but your cell phone is not. It won't work underground. Sorry.
Besides the wild caves that we explore at AAA Adventure Outdoors, there are two commercially developed caves in southeastern West Virginia...Organ Cave and Lost World Caverns. Both have large lighted pathways into huge lighted rooms. These are perfect for the less-adventurous sort who doesn't want to crawl through dark, damp, claustrophobic tunnels.
Organ Cave was discovered in 1704 and has been visited by many scientists including Thomas Jefferson in 1791. This famous amateur naturalist unearthed the skeletal remains of a prehistoric three-toed sloth. Organ Cave gets its name from a huge formation of stalactites that resembles a giant pipe organ. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers hid out in Organ Cave, even holding religious services in one of its huge rooms.
The cave also produced nitrites, saltpeter, which was an essential ingredient of black powder. Several wooden hoppers, left over from the gunpowder manufacturing process, are still there today...perfectly preserved underground in a dry section of the cave. Saltpeter was extracted from the cave's dirt by using lye water. Water was poured through wood ashes and collected. Then the dirt was shoveled into the hoppers and the warm lye water was slowly mixed with the dirt. The lye water leached out the saltpeter and, when the water was boiled off, the saltpeter remained. This process was used in many limestone caves throughout the South during the war.
Lost World Caverns is a Registered Natural Landmark located just north of Lewisburg. Although slightly smaller, it is often compared to the famous Carlsbad Caverns. Lost World is about a mile and a half in length and reaches a depth of some 235 feet below the cave's entrance. A karst, or stream, flows along the length of the cave. The main room is nearly 1,000 feet long, 75 feet wide and has a ceiling that's 120 feet above the floor...a huge room! Lost World's most impressive feature is the Snowy Chandelier, one of the largest compound stalactites in the country. It is made of pure white calcite and is estimated to weigh over 30 tons.
While the commercial caves offer easy access to some spectacular subterranean formations, it's the wild, undeveloped caves that appeal to the truly adventurous caver. If you'd like to get a taste of this unique underground ecosystem, join one of AAA Adventure Outdoors' wild cave trips. Bring your old clothes and hiking boots...you will get dirty. We'll supply all the lights and safety gear...just bring your spirit of adventure!