By Jake Maynard
A crescent moon rises over the ridge, and little wisps of foxfire lilt from the hollows. The last pale light in the west turns the horizon to the color of peaches, and the fireflies blink in the pasture. A farmer transverses his fields and heads off to his clapboard house. There are crickets chirping, peepers peeping, and everything looks and sounds exactly as it should be under the late summer twilight.
I can’t see or hear any of it, though, because I am about one-hundred feet below it all, crawling through a cave behind a bearded guy that I barely know. This is one of those surreal life moments where nothing else exists. I’m not sure how exactly I got here—writhing through this tiny hole like an inept worm—and I am not exactly sure how to get out. I am following local caver Kyle Mills. Kyle knows every turn and passage in this Monroe County cave. He knows its geological and human history, its flora and fauna. He shows me cave salamanders, eyeless cave crickets.
In contrast, I know almost nothing about caves. And I am unequivocally lost down here—my sense of direction and time has been completely eroded.
At least I’m not the first person to feel this way in this cave. Kyle tells me that this cave, now owned by the West Virginia Cave Conservancy, has been explored for hundreds of years. As early as the mid-1700s, miners hauled saltpetre from the cave’s depths. As the main ingredient in gunpowder, the material helped arm militia forces during the American Revolution. The artifacts of the miners are perfectly preserved in the cave’s cool, dry climate. Ancient plank bridges span some of the cave’s crevasses. A primitive pulley system sits at the edge of a deep chasm. Miners used the pulley to lift buckets of saltpetre from below. As we look at it, Kyle mentions that it could be 300-years old. It’s simple, roughly carved, and entirely intact. It looks like it could have been made last week.
Passing the artifacts, we come to a narrow hole in the cave floor, leading straight down. Kyle wriggles through it, and I follow. We emerge in a long, high-ceilinged room—a tunnel, really. Kyle says that it is the remains of 10,000-year old river. “This is it,” Kyle says, pointing to a tiny, fresh hole between hard ground and boulders.
Kyle must be all beard. He easily slips through the hole, like a ferret, and I struggle behind him, barely contorting my shoulders through the passage. We emerge in a conical room, redolent of the inside of a giant road cone. Our voices echo upward. Most of the room’s floor is covered with the broad base of a stalagmite, frosted smooth with deposited minerals. The top of the stalagmite flattens and bowls inward. It holds dripping water like a basin; the water is improbably clear and still. Kyle found the passage into this room last night. Other than him, I’m the only person to set foot in here. The cave is relatively small—only a mile or so long—but after hundreds of years cave explorers are still discovering new areas.
“There have only been two people in this room now,” Kyle says. “More people than that have been on the moon.” Kyle goes on to tell me that new rooms, new passageways, and even entire cave systems are discovered all the time in Appalachia. According to some estimates, cavers have only discovered thirty percent of all the caves in the region. “We know more about the bottoms of the ocean than we do about caves.” Kyle says. “Caves are the last real wilderness.”
Here’s the thing—wild caves are not for everybody. It takes years of knowledge and experience to explore what is right under our feet. Accordingly, it is ill-advised and often dangerous to explore caves without the appropriate gear or experience. Don’t go into a wild cave without a guide. Just don’t do it. What you can do, though, is get started by exploring one of the area’s famed commercial caves.
Owning a commercial cave is a lot of work. Just ask Steve Silverberg, owner/manager of Lost World Caverns just outside of Lewisburg. As one of region’s premier commercial caves, Lost World attracts visitors worldwide that want to take in the grandeur of its rooms. Steve and I talk about cave management as we descend through the concrete tunnel to the cave’s opening. To access the cave with Kyle, I had to hop over a fence and walk through a half-mile of woods. At Lost World, wide steps lead me down to the cave’s spectacular opening.
Steve tells me that natural caves have no light, so they have no vegetation. Commercial caves, though, require artificial lights. The lights allow for algal growth. Algae is bad for cave formations. Some cave managers use strong chemicals and herbicide to remove the algae, but Steve understands that cave systems funnel our fresh water. So he has worked to develop new methods of protecting his cave formations and our fresh water. He’s developed safer cleaning solutions for algae removal, and is currently working on a system of lighting that restricts algae growth.
Steve’s mission is to always balance Lost World’s accessibility and integrity. After buying the cave fifteen years ago, Steve made agreements with other local land owners to guarantee access to the entire length of the cave. Then he set to work inside the cave itself—removing garbage (the cave had been a dumping site for farmers of a previous generation), updating the cave’s entrance, building new walkways, adding new lighting systems, cleaning the cave. Lastly, Steve built Lost World’s huge gift shop, featuring educational toys, minerals from across the world, and a small, interactive natural history museum.
Our conversation lulls as we enter Lost World’s gigantic first room. The ceiling is over 100 feet. high. That’s twelve stories! Stalactites, frosted in smooth, white calcium, hang from the ceiling. Lights illuminate the sparking minerals that coat the walls. Features hang from the ceiling that look like great chandeliers. Others features look like white curtains in a breeze. On the floor—areas of calcium as smooth as ice; a boulder field that was once the bottom of an ancient lake; underground hills; columns dripping minerals, resembling giant candles beading hot wax. Multiple waterfalls. A circular tube to the outside world above. At the end of the enormous room, a boulder field with a path leading up and disappearing into the darkness. That’s where my tour ends, and Lost World’s wild cave tour begins.
Lost World meanders under the Greenbrier Valley for four more miles, and the wild cave tour covers most of it. Led by a guide, guests hike, climb, and crawl through tunnels and tubes until the reach the furthest most point in the cave. Then they come back using different routes, and are offered lunch and a hot shower (cavers get filthy). The cost? Seventy dollars. Throughout the tour, visitors learn about the cave’s rare ecosystem. Many different species call Lost World Caverns home, including seven species of salamander, rare crickets, and little brown bats. At the back of the cave, where an above-ground watercourse runs through the cave briefly, visitors can sometimes see fingerling trout and Allegheny Hellbenders—an endangered giant salamander.
Between the cave, the gift shop, and the surrounding property, Steve has a lot to maintain. He works on his grounds throughout the warm months, and spends his winters in the cave. He suggests the same to his guests: “Come in the winter, when there’s less to do outside. It’s always 52 degrees in the cave.” Steve also recommends augmenting a visit to Lost World Caverns with a trip to one of the region’s other commercial caves. Organ Cave, an enormous commercial cave nearby, also serves guests year-round.
I’ve been fortunate enough to do a handful of awesome things so far in my short life. I’ve watched wild wolves in Alaska and dangled my feet from 300-foot cliffs in Ireland. But caving is one of the most bizarre, strangely beautiful things I have been lucky enough to experience. I was shocked. In a cave, natural and human history coalesce. You can step ahead five feet, and go back thousands of years. You can see a landscape unchanged for centuries; artifacts unaffected by time. Caves are like mountains or oceans or rides in airplanes—they allow us to take in the scope of the world and our relative smallness in it. Caves are also just pretty cool. You should check one out. Really, you should.