Sunday, April 14, 2019

Grand Cavers

Once again the TriTrogs represented at Grand Caverns Annual Spring Restoration Camp, with participation from Emily, Elise, Kim, Rachel, Tanya, Zeke, and me. The trip started with an unexpected detour toward Lexington to pick up Tanya after her car broke down.

On Saturday morning I led a small group with buckets of gravel back to the Oyster Shells at the back of the tourist trail. Puddles had been forming on the tourist trail, and the commercial trail was getting slippery. We immediately discovered that instead of gravel, we really needed muscle and tools instead. A thin veneer of flowstone was forming atop last year’s gravel. Using a weird assortment of tools, we sledged, picked, and pulled our way back to the gravel floor. We gradually assembled more tools and workers to create very walkable trails.

Kim and Emily hauled lumber up to Fountain Cave, Rachel and Elise scrubbed algae before joining the floor crew, Tanya worked with the flowers, Emily climbed on the roof, and Zeke spent the day installing the first phone lines ever within the cave.

Good dinner and then a trip to Madison Saltpeter Cave (named for the President’s uncle). Thick calcite rafts floated in one of the pools, and Rachel found a deep hole behind one of the formations. Except for Tanya, the TriTrogs all headed home Saturday evening.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Put on your wetsuits. We’re headed for Sea World!

Taylor Tibbs, Emily Graham, Pete Hertl and I squeezed into wet suit pieces to prepare for a winter trip into Big Sink Cave in Smyth County, Virginia. I had viewed the 1965 compass-and-pace map that indicated we’d be climbing down through some stream cascades as the survey progressed toward the back of the cave. Therefore, the wet suits seemed to be a good precaution.

Inside the Entrance Room we found that a pack rat or some other creature had likely visited the cave and walked off with our tie-in point at the back of the room. We shot the survey again and then headed for a short easy climb. Atop the climb Emily discovered an alcove with a hole in the ceiling. Emily pushed up a dirty slope but couldn’t quite find enough footing to ascend. Taylor poked her way up into the virgin Kidney Bean Room, but they told me I’d never be able to fit through the entrance hole.

We returned to the more spacious passage where Pete had started mapping out survey points. We found ourselves in Swiss cheese-style cave with interconnecting holes of different sizes over and under mock breakdown. We discovered that one crawlway had multiple holes leading back down into a larger room, and one led right back into the Entrance Room.

We descended into a big open room with a flowstone octopus up near the ceiling, a massive block shooting up like an orca, and a slab that resembled an alligator from one particular angle (according to Pete). Needless to say, we unofficially dubbed the room Sea World even before we noticed the windows into the stream flowing beneath the room.

Sketching this room turned out to be particularly difficult for me. Because it was so hard to figure out if there were any real walls. Behind every rock there seemed to be more empty space, and maybe a lead or two. We spent the next few hours surveying around this room, in and out some of the seven leads that we identified. Along the way we found pretty rooms that weren’t on the 1965 map at all, but those folks never necessarily crawled either.

I thought that the team was about to quit when I realized that we only needed 16 more feet to accumulate 500 feet of survey that day. Emily found a 31-foot shot but then pulled back to stop it at 16.45 feet, declaring an end to the survey that day.

Taylor kindly washed the survey tape in the flowing stream while I finished the sketch. I never stepped in the stream all day, but I think the crew was thankful for the wet suits in the long run. We all stayed warm despite the chilly February temps outside.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sheep Cave Survey

Even though I couldn’t find all my survey gear, Emily, Mark D., and I headed to Tanya’s home for a survey weekend. I didn’t like driving in pouring rain and then pea soup fog. After Mark amazed everyone with his knowledge of hari paste and the origins of the Amazon River, Tanya read a short description of Sheep Cave that guaranteed walking passage on Saturday. Something to look forward to on a cold January day.

As I walked toward the entrance, I noticed that I was following a small stream and wondered if a water-filled entrance would greet me. Strangely enough, it was actually an old metal appliance-filled entrance with the stream dropping below that. Tanya refused to enter the cave via that entrance and walked Mark over the cave to the southern entrance. Emily managed to pitch the tape measure to Mark and find a survey spot roughly four feet from the nearest appliance. We still found the compass swinging by ten degrees for the high-angle shot at the top, and Mark discovered that his magnetic station may have also affected the compass. It was getting windy, but we eventually dropped a tape and negotiated a valid pair of measurements.

Emily and I then surveyed into Tanya’s entrance, after determining that Emily could not be forced into a rabbit hole that would lead to a balcony in the cave. I was bothered by the fact that I didn’t have a pair of reading glasses, but my strong light produced just enough light to work with my long arms. We surveyed underground to connect the entrances and then started downstream. It was a very strange game of leapfrog surveying that Tanya, Emily, and Mark played as they kept trading survey positions.

We were definitely in walking passage, reaching over 25 feet high. Unfortunately the twisting passageways took us to a terminus where the water at best sumped. It was an unnecessarily large room with a muddy floor and an escape route on a high ledge. I looked into the escape route and could make out daylight filtering in on the other side.

While Mark and Emily surveyed the escape route, Tanya asked if we could finally go deeper into the cave using the passage lead she had seen from the entrance. I had to tell her that her that the escape route turned out to be her promising lead. I think we found a great cave entrance area minus the cave; that's where the water eventually drains. Maybe we could see more in a drought.

Overall we surveyed 306 feet of cave passage that day, setting 20 survey stations and closing two loops (with closure rated as Good). However, we were never more than fifty horizontal feet from an entrance (although the sinuous passage made me spiral down to reach the lowest point in the cave). The deepest point is forty feet below the upper entrance. There’s some Sunday mop-up survey to be done, but maybe that can wait for a drier time with the hope that the cave will drain and reveal a new passage. We exited and got into dry clothes just before the snow began.

New Years Delight!

New Year’s Weekend – December 31st to January 3rd 2016!

This was one amazing delightful trip from beginning to finish. I had no plans for the New Year’s weekend, and with my recent single status, I had nothing but time and a desire to escape to the serenity of the beautiful mountains. I left Raleigh Thursday afternoon with my truck packed for anything, including my portable fire pit. I was hoping for a flash mob campfire at some point but didn’t get that crazy! J It was pouring rain as I departed, but I knew from the weather forecast and radar, that there were clear skies ahead. The rest of the group (Ken, Rob, Rachel, & Beth) were not coming up until Friday evening, so I headed off without any specific plan, just knowing it was going to be a great weekend. I was hoping to celebrate New Year’s in a different, special, or unique way.

Day 1 – New Year’s Eve

I drove out 64 West through Siler City, but it wasn’t until a turned north on 421 through Greensboro that the rain started to let up. Once I was north of Winston Salem, the rain had stopped and I was seeing the most amazing sun lit sky on the horizon. I stopped several times along the way to take in the view and snap some pictures.

 I was elated with the beauty of the afternoon and the anticipation of an amazing weekend. With the sunset coming soon I drove with haste to try and make it to Blacksburg before sundown. Since I’d never been to Blacksburg and I needed to find a hotel for the weekend, I wanted to get there and have time to look around while it was still light. I made it into town with about an hour to spare. I pretty much drove by every hotel I could find between Christiansburg and Blacksburg, in which there aren’t many choices. I was also consulting online reviews of the hotels on my iPad as well. I was close to staying at the Holiday Inn Express, right across the street from the Texas Roadhouse, which was calling my growling stomach at this point. What killed it for me was the cheesy New Year’s celebration they had setup in the lobby and breakfast buffet area. For $65 I could have dinner and listen to some comedian for the evening, uh .. No thanks! I also realized at this point, I wasn’t going to find a hotel room for under $100 unless I wanted to sleep with the bed bugs at the Comfort Inn. I ended up at the perfect place, the Hampton Inn, which was a very nice hotel for about $110/night. There is a good side door for bringing in and out gear, with a washer and dryer available if needed. The breakfast buffet was pretty good each morning as well. The staff was extremely friendly and I would highly recommend staying there to anyone, definitely my place of choice for future trips. There are plenty of restaurants and stores nearby and easy access to the highway for venturing out. As luck would have it the Hampton Inn also has a respectable steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse, right across the street. I checked into the hotel and headed over for dinner, hoping to talk to some locals about the haps in Blacksburg on this New Year’s Eve. I sat at the bar and ordered some much needed food. I couldn’t get much information out of the overworked staff at the bar, but after a quick search on my iPad for live music in the area, I hit the jackpot.
I found there was a live music celebration happening in Floyd, VA that evening, which was only about 35 minutes south. I decided this was the unique New Years’ experience I was looking for. I hurriedly finished my dinner, went back to my hotel to freshen up, this hair doesn’t just happen you know! J I headed south down Highway 8 to Floyd. It was actually a pretty nice drive, but a little windy and scary for the first time at night. I arrived at the Dogtown Roadhouse in historic downtown Floyd just in time for the show to start at 9pm. The first band up was The Deer Run Drifters, a local bluegrass folk bank, which everyone thoroughly enjoyed. The energy in the venue was very cool and I felt completely comfortable. The mix of people was very interesting, everything from senior citizens, children, hippies, and college students of course. I danced beside a guy with dreadlocks most of the night. Everyone was dancing and enjoying the show. Next up was the headliner Spoon Fight. They were also a local band, which appeared to be all college students, and I think their proud parents were in the audience. They were an alternative blues bands with a 3 piece horn section! Both bands have albums on Spotify worth checking out. It was near impossible to get to the bar for a drink which was a good thing since I did have to drive back later, I only had three beers all evening. I was able to work my way up to front and center of the stage for the rest of the show. Truly a remarkable and memorable evening. Even though the band continued to jam well past midnight, I decided to cut out early and return to my hotel in Blacksburg.

Day 2 – New Year’s Day
You guessed it, this day started at the breakfast buffet! I had no specific plans for the day, just knew I was seeking adventure. With the rest of the group not arriving till later in the evening I had all day to explore. I decided to head north on US 460 towards West Virginia. Since the highway follows the New River for a good stretch, there was promise of some beautiful scenery. I was not disappointed! As I drove north my first stop ended up being in Pembroke, VA. I actually saw a sign for a boat landing, which meant I could get to the water. This was a very picturesque little bend in the river that was just a glimpse of the beautiful day ahead of me.

As I was finding my way back to the highway, I stumbled upon the Tangent Outdoors & CafĂ© store that is in central Pembroke right on 460. This was a very cool store with tons of camping & hiking equipment. I picked up an illustrated trail map of the area and purchased a new souvenir hat of The Cascades which I decided to visit later in the day. The road beside the store leads directly to the parking lot for the Cascade’s trailhead.  I continued along 460 north until I reached West Virginia. Here is another nice bend in the river I stopped to enjoy.

The drive up to West Virginia along the New River was beautiful and well worth the drive. I had some lunch in Princeton and began my way back south. I couldn’t wait to get back and hit the trail to The Cascades.
The Cascades trail is a 4-mile round trip with the Lower trail following right along the Little Stony Creek upstream. Then you can return on the more direct Upper trail which is all downhill. Legs likey!
I declare that that this is one of the most beautiful mountain trails I have ever been on. It was almost as if I had stepped into some type of fantasy movie and I’m walking through the magical forest. The little walkways and stairways beside the creek were so cool!  It is a must visit if you are in the area, and I plan to return every time I can for sure.


I found a couple of crevices and falling rock that I could crawl into and almost feel like I was in a cave already, but I doubt either location qualified. The one I took a selfie in I’m calling Joel’s Cave anyway, just so I can say I was in a cave on New Year’s Day! J


I got off the trail and back to town just in time to see the new Star Wars movie!  The rest of the group Ken, Rachel, Rob, & Beth arrived in town that evening. I met them at the River Mill Bar & Grill in downtown Blacksburg for dinner, where another caving friend Ava Pope, joined us as well. We soon returned to the hotel room to determine if we would all be able to fit in one room to save cash. Fortunately the room was roomy enough, I was able set up a camping cot I brought for Beth to sleep on. Ken being the gentleman he is grabbed a spot in the floor. It wasn’t long before we were deep into a nail-biting game of Exploding Kittens NSFW version. J

Day 3 – Caving Day! (January 2nd)
The next morning I was up with the sun excited with anticipation of a day of cave exploring. I had a nice relaxing morning hanging out and reading in the very nice breakfast buffet and lobby area. I was surprised how late everyone else slept, bunch of sleepy heads! Once I finally roused everyone out of bed, they got breadfast and coffee from the buffet,  we got all suited up and were ready to go. I know, finally right? Fortunately, I always overpack and had some extra Under Armour to loan Beth. We headed north on 460 for a short 30 minute drive to the New River Cave location. There is a nice little parking area where the trail heads up the side of the hill to the cave entrance. We all continued the suit up process, it took a while to get Rachel all taped up. Duct tape makes a very nice sash. As we started ascending the side of the hill, we were delighted to find that the local caving club had recently spent a lot of time improving the trail. It was if they had come out and prepared it for our arrival! As we moved up the trail we couldn’t help but kick a stick off the trail or straighten a rock to show our appreciation. We reached a spot on the side of the hill that had a gorgeous view of the New River. I thought we were close to the entrance, but only about halfway there. I’m thinking I might should have had another waffle! J We finally arrive at one of the nicest cave entrances I have personally seen.


Can you guess who was first in the cave, that’s right, for the record it was me! The entrance is very easy to traverse, pretty much stooping or walking was all that was needed. As we entered the cave we noticed there were quite a few bats hibernating, Ken counted about 40 or so. We lowered our voices and proceeded slowly and quietly as not to disturb the cute little sleeping bats.

We arrived in the first nice-sized room where we signed the log book that’s kept in a PVC pipe there. We did notice a lot of damage to the formations in the entrance of the cave from the local spelunkers. J The main path travels easily along the edge of the fault line that runs the length of Spruce Run Mountain. The majority of the cave is angled on this fault line rising to the left and down to the right as you head into the cave. Ken and I noticed a definitive water line up very high on wall of the cave, which was very interesting. As we continued into the cave the rooms got bigger and bigger and it seemed there were so many different ways to explore! Of course, since Ken has been on about 15 survey trips in the cave, he had a slight advantage. Ken gave us plenty of opportunity to explore, as each of us had a chance to lead the group off in the wrong direction. It was pretty funny, and sometimes Ken had to bail us out as all the arrows were confusing us. We were about ¼ mile into the cave before we reached the Lunch Room. I kept thinking we were going to be going down further into the cave, but this is when Ken surprised us by directing us up into the Attic Room! From the Attic Room we continued up into the Planetarium, where Beth and I heard water! Where was that coming from!!? We climbed down into a hole to find a nice little trickle of water, lol. There were quite a few little pools of water in the cave, as I kept my eyes peeled for salamanders, but didn’t see any on this trip. It’s amazing how time flies when you’re in a cave, I think we had killed 2-3 hrs by this point. We could have stopped to eat in the Lunch Room, but the view was much nicer in the Planetarium. Challenge time! Ken showed us the way to the Forest Room which required some belly crawling on an angle. Once Ken showed us the way he returned to wait with Beth who decided to rest while we explored. We got to the spot where we could see down into the room and Rachel and I said that’s far enough. It looked very difficult to get back up out of the room once you dropped down into it. Forturnately Rob took the lead and showed me how easy it was. We both dropped down into one of the coolest rooms I’ve seen. This picture on my Iphone barely captures it, but just a glimpse. We would have been there much longer if Rob had his camera, another time for sure. Definitely worth the effort to get to the Forest Room!!

That is, until you start the angled crawl back out of the passage to the Planetarium. By the time we finished huff and puffing, grunting and groaning, slideways crawling back to the rest of the group I was spent. It took a good 10-15 minutes of rest to get my breath back and heart rate down. I know, I’m out of shape! We all crawled back down out of the Planetarium and Attic Rooms. Rachel and I continued to rest after the super crawl as the Rob, Beth & Ken took another scenic route back to the main path. As we regrouped, we disussed what was next. At this point we had been in the cave about 5 hrs and decided we should turn around and head out. We really wanted to go see the waterfall, but after looking at the map, I’m glad we didn’t. It was another ¼ mile of tight wet passages. Next trip will be straight to the falls for sure! Even though we just came through the passages, we were still taking turns leading in the wrong direction. I saw a lot of little rooms no one else did though. J At some point on the way out, Ken did take us on a little detour to another small room with a much more significant and prettier water trickle than the one Beth and I climbed down to earlier.
Our last stop on the way out was the Winter Forest Room. This made for a great photo opportunity thanks to Rob’s camera skills. Somebody moved!

You can obviously see how much dirtier we are now than when we entered the cave, but actually not that bad. We still all have clean spots on our coveralls. We were in the cave about 6-7 hours by the time we exited, which was perfect for a sport trip like this. It was dark outside, but the hike down was very easy with the newly improved trail. After a quick costume change, we were ready to head back to town for dinner. The Under Armour I loaned Beth proved to be very durable, as the seat of her jeans were completely gone from all the hill sliding. I headed back to the hotel and took a quick shower, you should’ve seen my hair, bad bad helmet head! I met up with everyone at Alejandros Mexican Restaurant nearby for a quick meal before they hit the road to return to Raleigh. I returned to the hotel just in time to relax and watch a movie on HBO. I felt bad that Ken was driving back late after such a long day, and here I was relaxing in my hotel bed. J

Day 4 – Last Day (January 3rd)
I still had some adventure left in me for the trip home. I decided to take Highway 8 south back through Floyd, VA to see it in the daytime. Ken suggested heading down that way as there were a lot of state parks and places to explore. I traveled past Rocky Knob Recreation area and on down through Woolwine. Then I headed east on 57 past Fairy Stone State Park. Then I saw the sign for the Philpott Damn,… water attracts me. The Philpott Lake Recreation Area I stopped at was phenomenal. The visitors center was actually closed and I pretty much had the whole park to myself. I couldn’t ask for a better view, and place to sit and jam out a set on my guitar, as the sun warmed my back. J   

This entire New Year’s trip was an absolute delight! Thanks Ken for organizing. It was great to spend time with some awesome friends doing what we love!!!

Written by Joel Johnson

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lava Beds

At the last grotto meeting, I shared photos from my trip to Lava Beds National Monument and tried to discuss some of the geology. Needless to say, that doesn’t translate out as a trip report. Therefore, I thought I’d add a trip log here. I won’t bother with the names of the California caves because I don’t need Buford Pruitt summarizing this trip report in the NSS News. Interested parties should refer to the Cave Research Foundation (CRF) pages for official trip reports (, but I don't think you can do that online.

September 21 – Due to a prior commitment, I arrived at the fieldhouse three days after everyone else. Because they sent ME on a wild goose chase looking for cheese sticks in the wrong grocery, I arrived after dark but still found dinner waiting.  They liked my DSLR camera when I pulled it out to take a scorpion photo.

September 22 – My pretty camera got me nominated to join the team exploring a lava tube cave in Modoc National Forest that passed back under Lava Beds NM. In addition to the camera gear, I had to take along vertical gear for a 25-foot entrance drop. The rope landed atop a 150-foot high breakdown mountain with a 40-foot wide passage. While two party members explored down a narrow vertical lead, I traveled with Paul McMullen and Mark Jones along the main passage and collected some photo documentation of the cave. Pretty cool to be the first person to photograph this enormous lava tube and only be the eighth person to ever see it.

September 23 – A geology field trip taught me a lot about basalt, obsidian, pumice, andesite, a’a, and pahoehoe across the Medicine Lake shield-like caldera.

September 24 – One of the longest caves in the national monument still required a bit of mop up work to complete the map. At the first spot, Ed Klausner completed a complicated vertical sketch, and then we descended. I didn’t see any of the ice I heard about on the lower levels. I then supported the four pieces of a hunting stand while Ed climbed a lava fall only to find a dead end. The smaller folks then squirmed into a tight lead at the bottom of the cave while Paul and I looked for other leads and removed old survey marks. Dave Riggs, the park technician along with us that day, told us that the white crust on the walls in this windy cave was actually calcite.

September 25 – Mark Jones and I conducted some mop up survey in the Balcony flow. We were much too big for this passage, especially with me on lead tape. We were able to make visual connections to the surface and even see Paradise, but we were much too large to get to Paradise from our purgatory. We ended up abandoning one survey station near a cave entrance because the iron in the rocks was consistently throwing the compass off by FIFTY degrees.

September 26 – Back to a different cave in the same flow with Dave West and Karen Willmes. While surveying, I dragged my body over the loose volcanic cobble until the room where we looked up to a skylight twelve feet above my head. I prayed for a miraculous rope to drop from the hole, but ultimately we had to return through the cobbly area “where angels fear to tread.” When we put the surveys together, it was easy to locate the nondescript skylight (I’m not sure I’d fit wearing vertical gear) from the surface with compass and tape.

September 27 – As we began our journey back to Reno for the flight home, we took the scenic route through Lassen Volcanic National Park to check out the geothermal features (steam geysers and mud pots).