Travel: Into the darkness — Unearthing Georgia’s hidden treasures
Underneath the ancient foothills of the southern terminus of the Appalachian mountains lies a hidden realm, carved out in darkness by millions of years of chemical reactions. Here, slow-moving ground water with a tinge of acidity has eroded massive caverns of limestone that await eager explorers and outdoor enthusiasts. The awe-inspiring caves of Northwest Georgia have been waiting there for more than half a billion years, through eons of time and the entire history of mankind.
Like many things in nature, the beauty of these caves belies their inherent danger. In the darkness, failure to plan ahead and properly equip an expedition can have deadly consequences. In 2011, two University of Florida students died inside Georgia’s Ellison Cave after succumbing to hypothermia — even though temperatures inside the cave are a constant, year-round 58 degrees.
This is not to discourage caving, more formally known as spelunking, but rather to illustrate the paramount importance of understanding the risks, having the right gear and developing a contingency plan in case something goes wrong inside these delicate, alluring and dangerous natural wonders.
Where did these caves come from?
Northwest Georgia’s unique geology is responsible for the formation of these wondrous dreamscapes. Unfathomable ages ago, before the collision of prehistoric continents that formed the super-continent Pangaea, an ocean covered what is today North Georgia.
This long-vanished sea laid a floor of carbon-based fossils that compacted to eventually form limestone. As continents slammed together and closed this ocean to form Pangaea, these carbon-rich beds were pushed upward and formed mountains that once rivaled today’s Himalayan ranges. Today, these towering peaks have been eroded away and exist only as the modest Appalachians.
Many caverns exist in North Georgia, including Ellison’s Cave, one of the largest known caves east of the Mississippi River. This vertical cave descends the height of a 58-story building into the darkness, and presents a challenging venture for even the most experienced cavers.
Other, less taxing caves are also deep within Pigeon Mountain, just outside Lafayette in Floyd County. Pettyjohns Cave is a favorite among beginners and offers an environment more suitable for the less experienced. In Pettyjohns, you’re likely to experience other caving groups. This (mostly) horizontal cave is a maze of massive rooms and tight crevasses that leads downward to an eventual waterfall. Up and over piles of boulders, this cave leads you through colorfully named features like “Dragon Skin” and “The Z-Bend.”
Perhaps the most well known feature of Pettyjohns is “Pancake Squeeze,” a 40-or-so foot belly crawl that for most is the highlight of the cave — it might just be the perfect place to overcome your fear of closed spaces.
Leave No Trace
Often, inexperienced cavers aren’t sure what to expect inside the cave. Popular depictions of epic expeditions into caves leave people with some major misconceptions.
First, you’re unlikely to find much living inside caves, aside from bats and an occasional “cave cricket.” It’s very important not to touch the bats, as cute as you might think they are. Don’t shine your bright headlamp directly onto them, either; they’re sleeping.
Bats here in the Southeast, and across the nation, are suffering from an epidemic called “white-nose syndrome.” This illness is caused by a fungus that infects the bats and makes them unable to navigate using their normal radar-like senses.
The cave isn’t your home — it belongs to the bats, and as responsible cavers, we should do everything within our ability to leave the cave as we found it.
Practicing these Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics principles inside the cave takes some planning. What if you have to go to the bathroom? Is it OK to stop for a smoke break? When in doubt, always err on the side of caution and rely on traditional No Trace guidelines.
Caves are delicate structures with their own unique ecosystem, and even by entering, we are disturbing it. That’s why planning ahead is so important. Relieve yourself go before you enter the cave. If you absolutely can’t hold it, use an empty water bottle and dispose of it after you leave the cave (ahh, the things we do for Mother Nature).
Try not to touch the formations inside the cave. Stalactites and stalagmites — common cave features— are geologic formations that occur as minerals drop through water and accumulate. The oil on your skin can stop this growth dead in its tracks.
It’s also against the law to remove these formations. They’ve taken millions of years to form and it would be a shame to rob others of their beauty just to add something to your rock collection.
Bringing the right gear is just as important as leaving no trace. Caves, by their nature, are wet. Wear wool socks that will dry out more easily than polyester.
Always, always, always wear a helmet, and bring rubber-palmed gardening gloves to help you grip as you move through the cave. Pack a snack to take with you, and at least one large water bottle. You’ll also need extra batteries and emergency lights.
Never enter a cave with less than three light sources. A headlamp will free up your hands, and a backup flashlight will give you the peace of mind you’ll want once you’re inside. If everything goes to hell, you should have glow-sticks with you as a last resort.
If you’re concerned about losing your way inside the cave, you can use brightly colored flagging tape (available at hardware stores) to leave a breadcrumb trail to follow out. If you choose to do this, be sure to collect your tape as you exit, so as not to confuse other cavers and also leave the cave as you found it.
All this gear can be cumbersome in your pockets, so bringing a small backpack is advisable. This also gives you a place to store your trash.
Never enter a cave with less than three members in your party. This ensures that if someone is hurt, one person can go for help while the other stays with the injured member.
Your cellphone won’t work down there, so it’s important to also tell someone where you’re going, when you’re entering the cave and when you expect to return. Frequently, there are registration cards at the entrance of caves. Take the time to fill out the card and be sure to include the names of everyone in your party. This will help rescuers find you if you don’t return.
Lastly, have fun. Caving is an excellent outdoor activity for the colder months, because inside the caves, the temperature is constant and at an average of the year-round temperatures outside. In North Georgia’s caves, the temperature inside is around 58 degrees.
If you plan to spend the night, don’t plan on sleeping inside the cave. First, it’s damp and musty — not ideal conditions for sleeping. Furthermore, it’s bad practice to try to sleep inside a cave. Experienced cavers frown on this type of behavior, because it contributes to extensive and unnecessary overuse of the cave.
There are clearly marked campsites all around Pigeon Mountain, including a large group site just yards from the Pettyjohns entrance. There is a usage fee for these campsites, and you can obtain a pass by contacting the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.