Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Journey to the Center of...Somewhere

In addition to recently starting a climbing guide service (check us out at http://www.peregrineclimbingguides.com), I work part-time leading trips with the University of Alabama Outdoor Recreation (http://urec.ua.edu/ornews.cfm). This past weekend my co-leader, Stephen, and I went on a scouting mission to Anvil Cave, near Hartselle, Alabama in preparation for an upcoming trip we will be leading in October. I had visited the cave previously but wanted to review our intended route and show Stephen where we would be going. My wife, Susan, and Stephen's wife, Jerry, came along with us.

I was particularly excited for this trip as it represented my first serious outdoor excursion since the end of August when I had emergency abdominal surgery. The first week or two of mandatory down-time following surgery proved a useful respite, but by the third week I was growing increasingly stir crazy. A pleasant flatwater paddle and a walking cave seemed like a great way to slowly get back up to speed without overdoing it.

The Anvil Cave is unique in that access is by water only. To get to the entrance you must first paddle your way down Flint Creek, which only adds to the adventure.

Susan in the bow as we paddle up Flint Creek

After carefully navigating some distance down the still waterway around downed trees, fishing lines, and an old dishwasher, we had arrived. We pulled out on river right at a shallow, muddy embankment choked with rushes and reeds. We donned our boots, kneepads, helmets, and headlamps and hiked the few hundred feet inland to a short, broken sandstone bluff. However, the small cliff line that greeted us did not look familiar at all. Anvil Cave has four entrances at ground level, whereas this cave had but one entrance down a jagged sinkhole. What was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance of a familiar cave was proving anything but.

We debated our next course of action for some time. Should we go into this unfamiliar cave entrance? Anvil Cave does have sink hole entrances, and this could lead us to familiar portions of the cave, if we could successfully navigate the maze-like passages to get there. But if we could find the sink entrance, why were we unable to find the ground level entrances that should have been nearby? There had been recent seismic activity in Alabama; was it possible that the ground-level entrances had collapsed? If so, did we really want to go into a cave that might be unstable?

We finally decided that we should at least check it out. If nothing else, we had found some entrance to some cave, and for the purposes of our trip, it was more important that we found a cave if not the cave.

Upon entering, we found limited evidence of previous exploration; there were a few dead glow sticks, a Pepsi can, some arrows painted on the walls at various intersections, and a ball of string that ultimately proved quite useful. However, there was little else signifying human passage. It appeared that there had been one or two solid explorations of the cave but not too much other activity.

A few cool formations we found in the cave

As we wandered through the grid-like tunnels, we were constantly searching for a passage to "main street," the largest continuous passage inside Anvil Cave and a clear landmark that would, at least in theory, help us locate the ground level entrances. After exploring every major passage short of squeeze tunnels, we stopped for lunch to discuss our options. They were somewhat limited:

1) start exploring random squeeze tunnels in the vain hope that we would find "main street"
2) go back to the entrance, hop back in the canoes, and paddle some more because we were at the wrong cave
3) pack it up and go home

Stopping for lunch

Since getting lost in a random cave and quitting without know where we were did not appeal, we decided to go back out to the boats and try again. We stood in the daylight for quite some time pondering our location, which proved to be more of an art than a science. We had a very basic map and a rough idea of where we should be, but little else. The only things we could really identify with confidence were the creek, the cliff in front of us (one of many on the map), and a house in the distance. We had not even brought a compass as they do not usually work properly in caves. Besides, finding the entrance to the cave was supposed to be the easy part!

As we stood knee deep in mud and poison ivy, I realized that I not only had a compass, but even a GPS. I had brought my iPhone along to take pictures, but completely forgot that it could also tell us where we were. I opened up the maps application on my phone and confirmed what we had all just decided--we still had another mile of paddling to do to get to Anvil Cave. We had just explored some other cave.

The blue marker is Anvil Cave. The red marker is the unknown cave we explored.

We launched the canoes and paddled further upstream to a much more familiar looking take-out. We ambled uphill the few yards to the cliff line and were greeted with the unmistakable entry to Anvil Cave, a ground-level entrance indelibly signified by graffiti. The broken sandstone was spray painted with the word "hole" and an arrow indicating the obvious passage into the cave. Now quite confident in our position, we were able to head home, the scouting mission a success. Not only did we find Anvil Cave, we have the option of exploring a more technical, less impacted cave system as well. It's always good to have options.

1 comment:

  1. let me start by saying and i qoute from what u read above "The Anvil Cave is unique in that access is by water only. To get to the entrance you must first paddle your way down Flint Creek, which only adds to the adventure" this is simply not true. Granted it was the early 90s when we explored the cave and it was called the hole in the ground, but we parked at the end of a road next to a house, jumped a barbed wire fence crossed a field and entered the squared hole in the ground with an oddly shaped crack on one side. certainly u can paddle ur way to optional entrances but my partners on this journey knew only of this entrance. This cave is not for beginners. you can easily see that water at times runs through this cave with many sections traversed crawling on your belly with no clearly set path and so many direction options that it can be very easy to get disoriented as we found out after becoming lost for what seemed much longer than it actually was. Remember this was before gps cellphones etc that the average person would have today. having said that, when we came out of this cave it wasnt from the way we entered. We hadnt started to panic but we were grateful to be out and above ground. knowing that you've made multiple direction changes in the cave with nothing looking familiar is not a good feeling. We made it out but now it was dark and er were in the woods unlike how we started. finally after getting our bearings and making it back to our car we noticed that an adult female who owned the house next to where we parked was awaiting our return. although we had never met this wonderful person she knew from growing up and playing in the cave that when darkness falls and cars are still parked next to her house, ur either lost or hurt and she was moments from searching for us. lessons were learned that day. always be more than prepared and with Anvil cave always check weather patterns for heavy rains from 20 miles or more surrounding the cave, even if it hasnt rained in the immediate area, b/c this cave has the potential to flood in areas and can result into a more than dangerous condition. also, not all of this caves layout is set in stone, meaning parts of it change caused by flooding. Goodluck and safe exploring.. David Steenson