What lies beneath

Touring a cave with local caving enthusiasts

Touring a cave with local caving enthusiasts

October 12, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. -- At times, Jerry Bowen led the tour of Donaldson Cave like a human-size worm.

After you've exited what is believed to be the largest cave room in the Eastern Panhandle, you encounter sections that could only be reached head first along the ground. Getting to other parts felt like climbing a tree with a broad trunk.

But after spending some time inside this hole in the earth, you begin to understand why Bowen has averaged 60 visits to this cave and others per year since 2002.

You begin to understand the appeal of caving.

"There are beautiful spots in caves. Each is different," said Bowen, 57, of Hagerstown. "Sometimes we'll go two or three miles just to get to the pretty spot."


Bowen is the former president of the Tri-State Grotto, a local club of cave enthusiasts. Tri-State Grotto is part of the National Speleological Society, which boasts more than 12,000 members. When he's not scouting out caves or touring them for fun, Bowen is leading caving trips, showing others why he's so passionate about spelunking.

Bowen talked about slinking down knotted ropes along cave waterfalls. He spoke of a cave in southern West Virginia so big people take white-water rafting trips and camp inside it for days.

He also talked about the dangers of caving and why he "chickened out" when a group of cavers he was with went sump diving.

Sump diving is scuba diving in a cave from one air pocket to another. Divers go underwater in a pool of water in one part of a cave and then swim upstream or downstream to get to a pool in another part of the same cave. If it's a long trip to the other pool, it's harder to escape and get help during an emergency.

"When you start doing scuba diving in caves, it's probably more dangerous than parachuting," Bowen said.

Bowen led a Herald-Mail photographer, videographer and reporter through Donaldson Cave in Berkeley County, W.Va. We were joined by Bernie Wootten, the current president of Tri-State Grotto.

Donaldson Cave is regarded in the caving community as an ideal place for first-timers.

According to the West Virginia Cave Conservancy, Donaldson Cave was surveyed at a depth of 45 feet and a length of 761 feet. At times, pools of water fill certain areas of the cave, making some parts hard to get through.

There was no water during The Herald-Mail's tour, except for the water droplets that collected on the cave's walls. The water drops were sparkly, like gold-leaf, when our helmet lights touched them. They looked more like stars in darker parts of the cave.

During the tour, Bowen pointed out formations that looked like white "ribbons" and another formation cavers call "cave bacon."

Cave bacon is a formation of brownish and white strips that hang from the ceiling and resemble bacon.

Wootten said she and her husband took their baby girl into Donaldson Cave when she was 8 days old. They have four children. Wootten said joined Tri-State Grotto a few years ago after she and her husband stumbled on a cave off the C&O Canal during a hiking trip.

"It was filled with crickets and bugs and everything gross," said Wootten, 28. "We got in there and thought it was totally awesome. So we started caving and looking for stuff in Maryland - quickly found out that you can't find very much unless you belong to a grotto."

Bowen said he started caving when he was a boy growing up in Wheaton, Md. He said he was around 10 when his father started taking him on caving trips. At the time, it made him think of Tom Sawyer and Becky getting lost in a cave looking for treasure.

And when he couldn't find a cave, he used storm drains as a substitute.

"I'd take some candles and a magazine or two. I'd drink a soda or something," Bowen said. "It's cool down there. It's like a cave. It's dark, nobody knows where you are. You think you're in a secret clubhouse or something."

Today, Bowen said it's hard to be like Tom Sawyer and Becky. As communities grow and more housing developments pop up, land owners are begining to see caves as a liability. They're covering their entrances with gates and steel plates to keep people out. Access is often limited to people who are affiliated with caving groups, Bowen said.

Bowen is one of the few people with the combination to the lock that secures the gate to Donaldson Cave, which is managed by the West Virginia Cave Conservancy.

Tri-State Grotto removed a considerable amount of broken glass and trash from the cave in 2003. There's also evidence of broken rock formations, according to the conservancy.

Some of graffiti on the cave's walls dates back to the Civil War era. Other markings were made by what looked like spray paint.

The grotto has helped preserve other caves in the area, Bowen said. Part of what keeps him interested in caving is the camraderie among cavers.

"You can trust your life with another (caver)," Bowen said. "If you get hurt, you know that he's going to break his heinie to get help for you."

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