Caving in West Virginia

November 1994

by Kyle McKenzie and Keith Pomakis

It was an overcast November day in Waterloo, when five adventurers set out for the backwoods of West Virginia in hopes of finding some holes in the ground. The journey from Waterloo to Buffalo was uneventful, but crossing the border turned out to be more challenging than we expected. The border guard asked us a multitude of questions, many in German. Fortunately our driver, Philipp Bergmann, knew a little German.

Our vehicle was quite spacious and luxurious. This came in handy when we found ourselves out of gas at 2 a.m. on Sandstone Mountain in backwoods West Virginia. We were rescued by a local fellow who just happened to have a truck full of enough weaponry to kill "anything large enough to die". After getting enough gas to get us to the nearest closed gas station, we snoozed in the back of the van, only to be woken up by the sound of an oncoming train. We were quite relieved to discover that we had not parked on the tracks after all.

The next day we arrived in Renick. We stayed in a rustic cabin on the grounds of the Friar's Hole Cave Preserve. Although we had nothing as luxurious as indoor plumbing, the owners' house, with its satellite dish, was only a two minute walk away.

After our morning nap, we suited up for our first day underground. We hiked to the Salt Petre entrance of Snedegar's Cave. With over sixty miles of mapped passages, this system is one of the larger ones in the United States. The major challenge when first entering a cave is vision. Total darkness is something which must be experienced to be understood. In large chambers or passageways, the light of a flashlight disperses so quickly that you find yourself stumbling over everything. After ten minutes or so, our eyes became adjusted to the limited light and we found ourselves in a long well defined passageway perhaps 10 - 15 metres wide and 15 - 20 metres high. This led downward until we found ourselves in a huge chamber known as the 'amphitheatre'. From here we had several choices of direction.

Off of the amphitheatre is an area know as the 'maze'. Seemingly endless passages twist and turn in all directions but miraculously all tend to come back to the same spot. One can have a great deal of fun in the maze, exploring parts such as the 'mud slide', the 'worm hole', the 'crevice', and the 'bridge'. In the maze we discovered half a dozen 'salt petre boats'. These are large hollowed-out logs used in the production of gun powder during the American Civil War. To imagine people actually dragging huge logs so deep into the caves without necessities such as flashlights and helmets is awe inspiring.

After finishing in the maze, we returned to the amphitheatre and proceeded along the main passage to the room of cairns. Some of these cairns, which are piles of rocks intentionally laid by previous visitors, were quite impressive. Others looked like piles of rubble.

Another interesting place we encountered on our first day was the rimstone room. An inclined surface of smooth, slippery looking flowstone led up to an area with a floor potted with round holes. These holes were formed by water dripping from the ceiling and slowly dissolving the limestone. Our first day underground was topped off by a trip to town. In the local grocery store we found some mythical Zima. This unique alcoholic beverage became the focus of much of the remainder of the evening.

On day two we headed to the North Entrance to Snedegar's Cave. Our task of the day was to find a way from the North Entrance back to the maze and then out the Salt Petre Entrance. On our way in we were quite surprised to discover a sublimation experiment left by the University of Minnesota Geology Department. After an hour or two of climbing, crawling, and walking in search of the maze, we were equally surprised to find the same experiment. We may not have known where the maze was at this point, but at least we suddenly knew where we were (back at the North Entrance)! Once again we headed into the cave looking for the maze.

This time we were successful. After re-exploring parts of the maze, we headed out into the main passageway and proceeded to go farther down into the cave system than we did the previous day. We walked as far as the beginning of what is known by all as the 'terrible crawl'. We contemplated this, as well as the 'sump' on the other side. We then contemplated our cozy cabin, soft beds, warm fire, and cold Zima. Zima won out.

The Bone Cave was our first destination for day three. We had to pack up and actually drive back toward town to find it. The Bone Cave is a rather fun, although easy cave. Its name comes from the fact that it is 'bone dry' inside and very dusty. Dust masks are essential for anyone not interested in coughing up limestone dust for several days. In the Bone Cave we encountered such attractions as the 'alien's chamber', the 'organ room', the dreaded 'bath tub', and finally the 'echo chamber'. We took plenty of pictures in here and will be happy to show some of them at the next slide show night.

We returned to our cabin with the intention of heading back into Snedegar's Cave and tackling the terrible crawl and the sump. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a remarkably warm and sunny day for mid November and we just couldn't bring ourselves to go back underground. We sat in the sun and consoled our weak characters with a few bottles of Zima.

Once the Zima was gone, we decided we should at least go look at some caves. We hiked around through the back woods and eventually found some cave entrances. Cruikshank's Hole was a gaping hole in the side of a hill that was so large we couldn't even see over the edge of it. It is known to drop over one hundred feet vertically. We were content to simply look at it.

That evening we somewhat reluctantly packed up and headed back home. We vowed to return someday soon; if not for the caves, then for the Zima.

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last updated July 16, 1998