Most people don’t go adventuring outdoors only to end up in a dark, damp and cold crawlspace, but cavers around Huntsville, Ala. love the region for exactly that.
Over 400 caves riddle the hills around Huntsville, and the National Speleological Society (NSS) has their headquarters in the city. Speleology is the study or exploration of caves, for those who aren’t fans of context clues.
Fortunately for me, the Outdoor Adventure Club at Auburn was planning a weekend trip to the caves, and they let me tag along.
From the start, it definitely had the feel of a group of college kids trying to get something done. We left hours later than we were supposed to and without some of the equipment we needed, but eventually everything got straightened out and we were on our way.
We reached the campsite well after dark and fell into a fitful sleep punctuated by coughs and some of the most thunderous snores I have ever heard from a nearby Boy Scout troop. I actually woke up several times when the guy stopped snoring, I assume because my subconscious got used the snoring and/or dog fighting going on in that tent.
The next day, after a 5 am wake-up call (thanks again boy scouts) we hit Tumbling Rock cave. Before we entered though, a guardian angel named Sabrina Simon found us and offered to guide us through the cave. Sabrina was an NSS surveyor, and she probably kept us from getting lost forever (our student guide was great but did not have the best sense of direction).
For the next several hours, we walked, crawled, slid and squeezed through the cave taking in the awe-inspiring sights. It was a fairly developed cave, so there were plenty of colossal stalactites and stalagmites, the “King’s Shower,” and “Mt. Olympus”. The latter nearly caused us to turn around, but the arrival of a group of students from FSU kept us going. We may have lost the national championship to them but damned if we weren’t going to beat them to the top of that underground peak.
Exhausted and starving, we eventually stumbled out into the evening light and thanked our guide by buying her dinner at a local restaurant. At this point, most of the students headed back to Auburn, but a few of us stuck around for the second day at Limrock.
Limrock was more of a subterranean waterway than it was a cave. For most of the way, the four of us walked standing up, although we were standing in freezing cave water. There were a few spectacular sights, but it was a much younger cave than Tumbling Rock, so the main attraction were hundreds of bats speckling the cave ceiling.
According to Simon, bats across the US are dying from a strange illness called White-nose Syndrome. As of right now, scientists have no idea what is causing it. We saw several dead bats, but none of them had the tell-tale white nose, so for now it seems this bat population was healthy and kind of ticked that we were waking them up. I think each of us had at least one bat fly in our face at some point.
One of the best parts of caving is coming back out. The sun starts to warm you and colors become more vivid. Simon said she once spent eight days surveying a cave, and when she first came back out, she saw colors she didn’t even know existed.
We left Limrock muddier and hungrier than when we entered, and took the long drive back to Auburn.
Down in the caves when you turn off your headlight, the world goes completely dark. Time, stress and schoolwork all fade into a state of non-existence. Only the sound of your breath lets you know you’re alive as consciousness fades to a singular rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.
I’d like to think I left part of my mind in that state, and that’s why it’s taken so long to post this.
Garfunkel getting his head bit off.