It takes considerable effort, and—for the claustrophobic among us—plenty of nerve to squirm through the tight, snaking entrance to this cave on the middle tier of a wooded West Knoxville hillside, a slope that looks down through the veil of trees on the limpid green corridor of Fort Loudoun Lake. Scraping along on our bellies, backwards, our heads cocked in weird half-turns, we shimmy through the narrowing entrance in sideways patterns of ever-diminishing oscillation, the yawning earth closing about and sucking us into ravening depths of crushing black stone.
Thank god for helmets.
But when the passageway opens up again, into a huge subterranean ballroom with weathered limestone walls and glorious cathedral ceilings, the payoff is sweet. Ornate stalagmites—spires of rock that form on cave bottoms—line the gaping entrance to the cavern, the floor of which becomes, shortly thereafter, a precipitous tumble of broken, muddy rock steps.
Most impressive of all is the huge rock formation to our left, which resembles nothing so much as an enormous 12-foot wedding cake, its exquisitely crafted layers drizzled and shaped by the eons-old hands of erosion and pressure.
"Wook—a sa-wamander," squeals 4-year-old Wyatt Brace, the youngest member of our cave exploration party. Sure enough, when the rest of us turn our helmet-mounted cave lights Wyatt's way, we see him snatching eagerly at a spotted black salamander about six inches long, allowing it to wriggle frantically through the loose grip of his gloved hands. The salamander is one of a handful of hardy creatures that would call a cave its home in East Tennessee, a brotherhood of species that includes spiders, bats, and certain varieties of fish.
Wyatt's caving gear—a diminutive fluorescent-green helmet, a tiny backpack, a child's flashlight—looks like it could be just for play, but it's all real, functional equipment. His father (and our party leader) David Brace of the Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Squad has seen too many inexperienced cavers get themselves into trouble due to poor or inadequate gear to allow anyone in this party—much less his own son—to enter the cavern unprepared.
For much the same reason, he was more than happy to show me the ropes, so to speak, when I asked for a hands-on primer on recreational caving in East Tennessee. Cave safety and etiquette take on heightened significance in this area, given that the tri-state region of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia is a particularly fertile one for cave exploration. "There are a bunch of world-class caves within a two-hour drive of Knoxville," Brace says.
But the combination of vandalism and liability concerns has made access to caves, many of which are located on private property, more problematic, at least for those cavers who go about it the right way.
"For the last 30 years or so, it's been largely impossible to get landowners to let people come into caves on their property," says Jack Thomison, also a rescue squad member, a broad-shouldered, 50-ish fellow with vast experience crawling through the nether regions of some of the world's best-known caverns. The access issue has become so pressing, he says, that some caving organizations have actually taken steps to acquire property.
"This cave is a special case," Thomison says. "When the gentleman who owns the land bought the property, he asked us to help him with it. We came out and hauled several bags of trash out of the three entrances, put up signs at the entrances. He understands what we need as cavers, and he's happy to give us access, because we respect the space and we respect his concerns as a landowner."
There are more than 9,000 caves in Tennessee, says Thomison, and maybe a couple hundred in Knox County. Knox is not quite as blessed with subterranean wonders as some other counties in East Tennessee. Many of its caverns are of the smaller variety, what Brace refers to as "nerd holes."
But there's still a fair portion of decent caves to be had hereabouts, Brace says, including fair specimens representing different types of caving: horizontal caving (i.e. crawling a lot), vertical caving (climbing a lot), and water caving (getting really wet).
The cave we're visiting today isn't big, by the standards of an enthusiast, but it's more than a nerd hole, and it offers nice fodder for an afternoon of relatively casual exploration. There are a handful of short but curious passageways to be explored, and also some easily accessible, open areas that, come a dark night, are well-suited for just sitting on big rocks under a venerable old ceiling and telling ghost stories by the light of a Coleman gas lamp.
Brace calls it a "Friday-night-in-high-school, let's-go-out-to-a-cave kind of place." He sheepishly admits to visiting such places without invitation during his own teenage years.
When I was in college, I occasionally went out—or in, as the case may be—with a group of four or five friends who fancied themselves cavers. We were respectful, inasmuch as we didn't litter, vandalize, or scribble on cave walls. But we never asked permission from property owners, rarely told anyone where we were going, and our equipment set-up was a hodgepodge of borrowed gear, and found items. (Bad Caving 101: using ropes left behind by other cavers.)
As the least enthusiastic member of the crew, I didn't own a helmet, and generally didn't borrow one—a decision I rued mightily on one particular occasion when, in the middle of a precarious, pitch-black climb down a steep muddy slope, a pal above me dislodged a brick-sized stone that landed square on top of my noggin with a resounding clunk.
Veteran cavers refer derisively to explorers like my buddies and me as spee-lunkers—they prefer the term "cavers" for themselves, wearing its lack of pretension as a sort of badge of experience.
About twice a year, the rescue squad gets called in to rescue trapped or injured cavers, Brace says; and usually, the victims are of the spee-lunking variety. Last March, the squad pulled four such young explorers out of Rainbow Falls Cave in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"That entrance has three vertical drops," Brace says. "They didn't have the right gear. They could get down, but then it was too wet and cold for them to get back up. The one thing they did right was that they told people where they were going." That they did take that precaution proved especially vital, when the noise from a waterfall at the mouth of the cave prevented passers-by from hearing their cries for help.
When our own party circles up and around the hill to explore the next cavern entrance, we get a taste of the ugly side of spee-lunking. This is the largest of the three entrances, and the most accessible. We can walk, with careful steps, from the trail down into the huge open room at the mouth without stooping or crawling.
It's a much wider room than the one the previous cavern entrance opened into, though it's somehow less grand. The lofty ceilings are absent, and the rock formations—save for a few tiny stalactites (the opposite of a stalagmite, i.e. rock hanging down from the cavern top) in a couple of dark corners—are of the more pedestrian ilk. This one's mostly a long, muddy room with a lot of broken rock, less ballroom, more high school gym.
And this gym's got a locker room, too, complete with graffiti, scrawled on cave walls in pastel chalk. The graffiti is notably unimaginative—mostly names, dirty words, and declarations of arrival, as if in answer to some unstated but requisite dullard's role call. There are a couple of plastic soda bottles, plus a few other small pieces of trash, also left behind in and around the entrance, all of which are picked up and taken out by Brace and Thomison in their knapsacks. "It happens, once a cave gets to be known by kids," says Thomison. "They bring in trash, beer cans, spray paint. And sometimes they break the rock formations, rock formations that literally took millennia to create."
For that reason, cavers don't like to publicize their favorite holes. On this trip, Brace asks that I omit the name and exact location of the cave from the resulting article. Instead, he and Thomison suggest that would-be cavers enter the world of spelunking under the auspices of established caving organizations, or "grottoes." Locally, both the East Tennessee Grotto and Smoky Mountain Grotto offer guidance and training, as well as means for legal cave access, to neophytes. For more information on joining those or other regional caving organizations, visit the National Speleological Society website at caves.org.
"I really got hooked on caving when I was in college, and it can be a lot of fun," says Brace. "But it can also get you in trouble. If you're interested in caving, but you've never done it before, get with a local grotto. Don't just try it. I can't emphasize that enough."