Saturday, March 21, 2015

"GET INSPIRED TO GET OUTDOORS" AT 1st ANNUAL ROGaFF

Backpackers, hikers, campers, mountain bikers, cyclers, boaters, trail runners, and outdoor gearheads, looking for a new, exciting way to welcome the long-awaited spring season?  Mark your calendars for the second Sunday of spring to attend this exciting local event!

    The 1st annual Rivanna Outdoor Gear and FilmFestival (ROGaFF), sponsored by Great Outdoor Provision Company, will be held on Sunday, March 29 at Fluvanna County High School, from 1-4 PM.  A suggested donation of $7 is requested for admission to support the FCHS choral department, and children 10 and under will be admitted free of charge.

    Virginia’s newest outdoor film festival is the brainchild of FCHS choir director and avid outdoorsman, Horace Scruggs.  “Fluvanna County has a lot to offer when it comes to outdoor activities.  We have Pleasant Grove and three rivers—the James, Hardware, and Rivanna.  The Blue Ridge is very close, as well as the Rockfish River.  With these assets, ROGAFF will be a great way to introduce these activities to a wider audience,” said Scruggs.  “The ROGaFF theme is "Get Inspired to Get Outdoors" and I know for those who are coming it will happen.”

    The festival’s film lineup includes three short filmsWalk on Water, the story of a paralyzed skier-turned-whitewater kayaker; Church, focusing on a trio of friends’ love for mountain biking; and Set Free—Loving Life on the Trail, a spotlight of ultra-marathon runner, Kristie Elliot.  The featured film is The Appalachian Trail—An American Legacy, which brings to silver-screen life the mystic nature of America’s most revered foot trail, and features insight into the Trail’s history along with interviews with AT hikers and personalities.

    An easy, 6.5-mile morning hike of Fluvanna County’s Pleasant Grove Park, adjacent to the high school, will be led by Andy Willgruber of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club starting at 10 AM to kick off the event.  Hikers should bring boots and be prepared for mud; the Grove can get sloppy with snowmelt and rain! 

    Doors open at 1 PM, and from 1-3 PM visitors will have the opportunity to listen to presentations by Great Outdoor Provision Company, Ragged Mountain Running Shop, and other local groups.  An array of camping, backpacking, cycling, and boating gear will be on display from a host of vendors, providing visitors a chance to educate and outfit themselves for the coming season.  The film showings will commence at 3 PM.

    “My dream is to have [ROGaFF] as a yearly event, which would grow over the years into a truly regional event,” Scruggs said.  “This will be a great family-friendly event for Fluvanna and Central Va., and as far as I know the only one of its kind in the area.”


    So, fellow outdoorspeople of Central Virginia, mark your calendars for this inaugural event.  Shuttle your canoes and kayaks to float the Rivanna River before the festival.  Take advantage of the trails and open spaces at Pleasant Grove.  Visit Scheier Natural Area just west of Palmyra.  Lastly, come out to ROGaFF and celebrate Central Virginia outdoors!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, March 14, 2015

VDGIF RELEASES DEER, BEAR, & TURKEY HARVEST DATA

Winter is coming to an end and the memories of the past year’s hunting seasons are beginning to fall victim to the looming anticipation of spring.  Soon, this seasonal, expired fad we call snow will disappear into moist earth, sprouting daffodil shoots and lighting dogwood and redbud blooms.  Rivers will run deep and blue, turkey will throw their bold voices about the countryside, and the woods will radiate with the warmth of renewed life.  But before we commit to a new season, as per tradition, DGIF has released the summarizing data of last year’s deer, bear, and turkey harvests to reflect upon.

Deer


    The 2014-15 deer seasons saw 190,745 deer harvested, a 22% reduction from 2013-14’s 244,440, and an 18% shortfall of the last 10-year’s average of 233,350.  88,148 of deer harvested were antlered bucks, while 14,592 were antlerless.

    The youth-apprentice deer hunting day in September resulted in the harvest of 1,890 total animals.

    The steep overall reduction in harvest numbers did not go unnoticed by area hunters, particularly in the counties of central Virginia.  Though levels were down statewide, hunters east of the Blue Ridge harvested 24% fewer deer than in 2013-14.

    The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers as an explanation that, over the past five to 10 years, the primary focus of the Virginia Deer Management Plan has been to increase the female deer harvest in an effort to stabilize the deer population, particularly on private lands.  Still, the decline in harvest rates in 2014-15 is larger than expected, largely due to a liberal allowance of doe days since 2008.

    Such regulations aimed to thin the herd and, thus, the harvest numbers, even without the added effects of hemorrhagic disease (HD)--a general depiction of several viral strains transmitted by small biting midges that typically results in a 20-35% reduction in kill numbers.  Outbreaks of HD are fairly common, and herds usually recover in 2-3 years.  HD was found in at least 28 Virginia counties in 2014-15.

    A more common and natural reason for the past season’s decrease in harvest numbers is the bumper mast crop enjoyed by wildlife statewide.  Widespread plentitude of mast reduces game’s need to move to feed, and thus reduces hunter success rates.

Bear


    An all-time Virginia record of 2,405 black bears were killed during the 2014-15 season, a 4% increase over last year’s 2,312.

    Youth-apprentice hunters killed 109 bears, one less than in 2013-14.

    Strong mast crop typically increases the firearms bear harvest in Virginia, and this year was a prime example, seeing a 40% increase over last year’s kill number.  Hunters who ran bear hounds west of the Blue Ridge were unsurprisingly the most successful, bagging 970 bears, 40% of the total harvest.  Collectively, bear hunters west of the Blue Ridge took 68% of the total harvest, though bears were harvested in 76 counties and cities across the state.

    The first year of Sunday bear hunting resulted in 119 bear harvests, roughly 5% of the total.  

    Though this number represents a minimal impact on bear populations, biologists will continue to monitor the effects of Sunday hunting on black bear numbers in years to come to quantify the long-term impacts of this new piece of legislation.

Turkey


    Hunters reported a total harvest of 2,988 turkeys killed during the fall and winter seasons in 2014-15, a 44% deficit of 2013-14’s number.

    Numbers were reduced statewide, though those east of the Blue Ridge noticed the most substantial reduction, with 49% fewer birds bagged.  Those hunting west of the Blue Ridge still suffered a 36% drop in harvests.  Nevertheless, the turkey harvest numbers relative to area remained almost perfectly uniform across the state.

    Youth-apprentice hunters took a total of 29 birds, as opposed to last year’s 50.

    The two-week turkey hunting season in January instituted four years ago accounted for 179 birds, down from last year’s 265.  Hunters taking to the woods in January enjoy a period of light-pressure hunting with the added bonus possibility of being able to track birds in snow.
Sunday hunting only accounted for 5% of the total turkey harvest, as opposed to Saturday’s dominant 27%.  Again, this suggests that the new legislation has little effect on overall populations.

    Again, lowered hunter success rate is credited to a high mast production juxtaposed with a very poor mast crop in 2013, which resulted in higher-than-average harvests.  DGIF Wild Turkey Project Leader, Gary Norman believes the Commonwealth’s turkey population to be in excellent condition, as participants in the annual August Brood Survey reported record numbers of broods and birds.


    Even with harvest numbers significantly down in 2014-15, a large portion of the deficit can be attributed to natural phenomena.  Game populations appear to be in good and bettering conditions. 


    Come on, spring!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

THE PICKEREL SPAWN IS APPROACHING--VA STATE PARKS AMEND CAMPING SEASON

Those that follow this column may have recognized that I carry an affinity for the chain pickerel.  The reasons are numerous.  They can be a very aggressive ambush predator capable of athletic battles thanks to a muscular, snake-like build.  They rarely turn their noses up at a well-presented meal; and they can be found conniving in lazy, weedy waters within a short drive of most anglers in the Commonwealth. 


    However, the pickerel’s reputation as a cold-water species is, in my mind, the fish’s winning trait.  Pickerel prefer water temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees, which can be found in Virginia from early fall through late-spring.

    As the weather warms and water temperatures break the 50-degree mark, pickerel move from their peripheral, mid-depth winter haunts into shallow areas marked by woody or weedy cover.  There they broadcast tens of thousands of adhesive eggs onto cover and then take up position along the weed edge. 

    In some instances, pickerel become inspired by currents and migrate into lakes via spillways or into smaller tributaries from larger rivers.  All in all, if you locate a body of water with a relatively slow or still flow with some amount of woody or weedy cover, odds are good pickerel can be found marauding its shallows.

Small fish, big fight


    It was mid-spring in my eleventh year when I stumbled upon a large creek that brushed the boundary of the subdivision I once roamed.  While bluegill fishing in a small impoundment overlooked by the last cul-de-sac, I found myself staring off into the woods at the sharp topography that the pond’s outflow penetrated.  An upbringing featuring plenty of aimless driving and fish scouting hinted to my trained eye that the ridges were worth exploring. 

    After beating my way one hundred yards through brier bushes and thick successional growth, the woods began to mature, and nature’s background track grew into a profound roar.

    My eyes first saw it as a wide, deep elbow pool.  Perhaps 15 feet across and three and a half feet deep at the widest point, the creek was far superior to the modest trickle that navigated the edge of our lot.  No, that water was a discovery worth more investigation.  I returned home wide-eyed, to return again.

    The next weekend the sun was bright and the trees glowed with the green of newly-sprouted spring leaves.  Middle school was winding down; and my cares, with it.

    I toted my weapon of choice—a weathered Shakespeare ultra-light spinning rod—shouldering a daypack filled with snacks, water, spinners, and a camera.  I didn’t know quite yet what my newfound haunt held fish-wise, but I had all day, and I was going to get to the bottom of it. 

    My bike fell in a heap at the edge of the woods and I followed my beaten path through the woods to the crest of the hill that provided me my first glance at the water.  It was more glamorous then to a boy in the sixth grade allowed to explore the woods and waters near home all by himself than anything else I could have wished for.  It was all mine. 

    My first cast was in the tail of the long elbow pool that I met initially.  Deep undercuts commanded by complex, old oak roots claimed both banks.  My Joe’s Fly first met the left bank, past the oak.  

    Working the lure slowly, finessing it through the currents just fast enough to manipulate the small gold spinner blade, I slid the faux meal into the dark tannic waters under the bank.

    When at last the glint of pulsating gold slipped out of perception and into possibility, the sensitive tip of my ultra-light jarred, and I swept the rod into the weight of a fish.

    After the initial surge, my nerves were no less shattered when the fish refused to relent.  Rod tip high, fingers poised cautiously on the reel handle, I was forced to allow my adversary to convulse and strain out of sight.  At last, I gained favor, and turned the fish’s head towards the tail of the pool. 

    In a last-ditch effort to escape, it unleashed a frenzied head-shake as its toothy jaws broke water.  
    
    Relieved, and drawing the fish ever closer, I collected the fish’s lengthy form in a cupped hand to behold 12 inches of small stream pickerel.

Virginia State Parks camping season changes


    In order to better serve campers, Virginia State Parks will open campgrounds on the first Friday in March—this year, March 6—instead of the historical March 1. 

    Exceptions include Lake Anna, Staunton River, Pocahontas, and Smith Mountain Lake State Parks where camping will open March 1.


    Because of its high-elevation location, Grayson Highlands State Park will be open to primitive camping March 6 and full-service camping May 1.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

WINTER ROSE

A new chapter of my life’s story began on the year’s second weekend as I rolled south down I-81, towards Emory, Virginia—my new hometown for the four years to come.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Town” is a generous classification of Emory.  Emory & Henry College, a few quiet residential streets, and a post office comprise its bulk, a fact that consistently elicits a grumble from a proportion of students—“There is nothing to do here.”

    On the contrary, I’d be lying if I claimed that E&H’s location carried no weight in my college choice.  Southwest Virginia’s “Mountain Empire” is a mecca for outdoor recreation.  The school’s stellar reputation only justified my decision, assuring me of the wonderful experience it would offer. 

    I spent my previous semester acquainting myself with the East Coast, not in the common sense detailed in rest stop brochures, but by experiencing natural communities and interpreting them with pen, camera, tent, and rod.  The move to Emory was an extension of that pursuit, with added promise of formal education.

    It was a challenging transition—pivoting from a lifestyle that allowed me to be outdoors all day and every day to one that required schoolwork.

    However I realized shortly when my free time would be and where I would use it.  A tip from Bruce Wankel, owner of the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop, sent me into the mountains with confidence.  The concept of starting anew accumulating knowledge of local waters excited me, and I steadily began picking apart a small, special-regulations, spring-fed headwater stream.

    My first trip began at mid-morning on a cold January weekday.  The sun beamed through the trees and onto the water coursing through the hollow, inspiring marginal insect activity.  My first fish came on a weighted nymph—a red-banded, rosy-cheeked, leopard-spotted wild rainbow trout of about 9 inches.

    I began subsequent trips above the pool that concluded my last; keeping my eyes open; noticing the presence of insects; adjusting weight, tippet, and flies as needed--all to solve the puzzle. 

    The first three trips saw increasing numbers of fish—15 to 25 to 35.  Local intel informed me that a 14-inch rainbow was a trophy specimen.  This was encouraging, having netted several such fish on my outings. 

    My fourth trip began early on a weekday in early February.  The temperature dipped into the teens overnight and remained there, the sun shielded by clouds.  15 MPH wind gusts drove the chill deeper.
Under Armour, wool socks, flannel, outer layer, gloves, beanie—with each layer I pushed temptation to stay home back, and the icy river regained its allure.

    The river snaked through thick bottomland as I followed it from the road, my mind’s eye recalling the last pool from the week before.  A sharp bend caught my eye.  I pulled over.

    As my boots crunched over frozen leaves, I estimated the amount of river left to fish.  Fishing all day would land me at the uppermost boundary of the special regulation water, and I would have completed my exploration of the upper river.

    The day began slow, maybe a function of the overnight temperatures.  I summoned all of my patience and diligence, ensuring with painstaking adjustment that my offering retained contact with the riverbottom at all times.  At last, the first fish of the day flashed at the end of my leader.

    The day offered many small fish.  All but one out of 35 taped under 12-inches upon the hour that declining temperatures and loss of light hinted that my time was short.

    Around the next bend, a metal sign hung from rusted cable spanning the river—the end of public water—my destination.

    The sign commanded a bend in the river—a narrow, deep channel sweeping over large chunks of rock.  I took my time in plying the bottom, adding split shot and achieving effective drifts.  A last pool deserves such treatment; and this one, a particularly elevated reverence, as the last run of my month-long exploit.

    The soft glow of the sun behind winter’s gray mask was sliding behind the hills.  Frost chewed at my fingertips and nose, tempting me to secure my fly and begin the hike back.

    One more drift.

    An overhand lob of an awkward double-nymph rig weighted with several split shot landed high in the shallow head of the run and tumbled slowly along the bottom to the depth of the bend.  Rod horizontal, line tight, I bounced the flies past a submerged rock.  The line hesitated.  I swung for the sky.


    Warmth reclaimed my extremities.  Sweat sprouted from my forehead.  A rolling silver flash threatened to tear the long rod from my hands.  Moments later, an arm-length fish painted as a rose bush took to the dim sky, turning the page on the first chapter in the frozen mountains of southwest Virginia.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginia

Saturday, February 21, 2015

TACKLE CARE AND LATE WINTER LARGEMOUTH

If someone were to survey outdoorsmen on their least favorite month, a strong case would likely be made for February.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    Though a multitude of sporting opportunities might be pursued in the second month, everything from trout, bass and musky fishing to snow tracking, predator calling and skiing, February is a time of relative slowness in the out-of-doors. The calm, however, precedes the rapid changes that will occur across the Old Dominion come spring. Thus, February is a logical time to make preparations for the upcoming season.


Tackle Care


    In my pre-driving years, when I was still entirely dependent upon my elders to transport me to the water, I became a master at organizing, cleaning, honing and reorganizing my gear. Even for those with the freedom to take off to fish at any given moment, this is a worthwhile chore to undertake at least once a year.

    Start with your reels.  With both spinning and baitcasting reels, remove all moving parts, clean them and apply a small amount of reel grease to help keep them lubricated and smooth. Don’t apply to much — an excessive amount will stiffen the reel’s movement. Apply an anti-rust protectant such as WD-40 to the outer surfaces. Wipe down, air dry and reassemble.

    Rods can be given the same care. Windex and a paper towel rubbed on the cork handle is a good cleaning solution. Wipe down the rest of the rod blank for good measure.

    It’s a good habit to replace weathered lines every season, depending on their use. A few dollars is a small price to pay to guarantee that your connection to the fish is at peak performance. A clever alternative to buying new line is to strip the current line from the reel spool and reverse it. This places the effectively new line that was at the very core of the spool on the outside. This line will have lots of memory, but applying a product such as Blakemore’s Real Magic will eliminate memory and clean the line for increased casting distance.

    Fly lines can be cleaned with the same product, or with a fly line-specific product. Though lines should be cleaned regularly throughout the season, a thorough pre-season cleaning is essential to starting out on the right foot.

    Inventory should be taken of your tackle boxes, too. Depleted lures should be replaced, and every piece of your fishing arsenal should be put back where it belongs (I know it won’t stay there for long), as this will only save you time on the water.

    Treble hooks on lures should be replaced and sharpened.

    When all is said and done, there are always flies to be tied and more fine-tuning to be done.  Fishing is an art, so take care of your tools.

Blustering Bass


    Unfailingly, every year, spring peeks out from behind the gray sky of February. For two days — maybe three — sunshine and temperatures in the 60s replace snow, sleet and cold, and fisherman go mad for winter’s temporary disguise.

    Underwater, bass feel the change, too. Winter has slowed their metabolisms to an all-time low. But as water temperatures heat up, so do their metabolisms.

    Larry Largemouth puts on his feedbags, and the urge to spawn pulls him progressively shallower, creating a unique window of opportunity for fishermen.

    It was on a February weekend with such weather that I rounded up my younger brother, Connor, and pleaded with our mom to drive us to a local farm pond I had acquired permission to fish.

    The sun was blinding as it beamed down onto the open field and the glimmering pond into our soft, wintry eyes. Wind swept the broomsedge and pines — March’s lamb-like temperament was early.
With Connor tagging along, I was more than happy carrying my Nikon and coaching him on his casting and retrieval, more than confident that we would find some fish.

    We first set up on a main point, adjacent to a known spawning cove where the water temperature was in the low 50s.

    Bass will use these sloping points as underwater elevators when altering their position in the water column for temperature gains. In the summertime, the cove’s mouth is choked by a weedbed, so with the wind in our faces, I attempted to commentate what was happening subsurface. 

    As the wind blew micro-invertebrates with the water current toward the point, small baitfish would follow and with them, larger predatory fish.

    No sooner had I said this, a small minnow broke the water’s surface ahead of a charging V-wake.
Connor, rigged with a white, three-inch plastic swimbait, cast into the wind and retrieved it with subtle twitches, rod tip up. 

    I grabbed my Nikon when his retrieve was interrupted, and he excitedly set the hook on a chunky four-pound late winter largemouth.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, February 12, 2015

SQUIRRELS AND RABBITS STILL LEGAL

In early February, the out-of-doors can be an inhospitable place, and with deer season long concluded, many outdoorsmen hang their hat and dream about spring by the fire.  However, thanks to last year’s regulation amendment, squirrels remain in-season with rabbits, until the last weekend in February.  Pursuing either may provide enough adrenaline to ward off winter’s chilly advances.

Photo by Matt Reilly


Two Triples

    
    After a 25-fish morning on a Blue Ridge brook trout stream with my older brother, Phillip, I embarked on my drive home with the sun in my eyes.  The warm mid-day sun had raised the mercury almost 20 degrees since dawn, and I knew the woolly bushytails in my favorite woodlot would be drawn up into the hardwood canopies to soak up the rays.  My trigger finger itched, and I pressed a little harder on the gas pedal.

    Dead oak leaves crunched under my boots with just a few hours of daylight left.  I couldn’t blow any shots and expect to leave the woods with my limit of plump squirrels.  Luckily, I thought, with the winter mating season in full swing, my quarry would be a bit distracted.  Sneaking to within range of a playful bunch might present multiple shots for my 20-gauge scattergun.

    I crossed a small creek at the base of a ridge and paused, listening for activity.  Nothing.  Continuing up the ridge on heel and toe, I made two steps before a gray missile bolted from the trunk of a white oak and began scaling another.  I shouldered my shotgun and landed the bead on the hesitating, spread-eagle gray.  A squeeze of the trigger cashed #6 shot for the evening’s first bushytail.

    I hadn’t shucked the spent shell before two more squirrels fled from the creekbottom.  One made an acrobatic attempt to find safety in an adjacent tree, and a report from the 20-gauge dropped it as it struggled for footing.  The other made an athletic departure along a fallen oak tree, but the third and last shell in my chamber stopped it short. 

    A half hour later I found myself running out of light.  At the base of the next ridge, I could hear the scampering of multiple squirrels in the dense creekbottom, hidden only by a small rise.  When I was sure they were distracted with each other, I closed the distance to a wide oak trunk over the rise in quick bursts, imitating the sound of a pouncing bushytail.

    The first shot was presented when an alarmed gray jumped from the trunk of an oak into the branches of another.  Peeking around my temporary cover, I took aim and sent it tumbling.  The next peeked around the base of another oak, presenting a head shot that didn't go unclaimed.  A third held tight on the forest floor for several seconds before making a mad dash up the nearest hickory tree.  I ran forward ten feet before he began his assent up the trunk and, taking a quick knee, fired a rising shot for a second triple and the last of my limit.

Rabbits in the Open

    
    It was in the final week of the 2012-13 deer season that I was perched high in a tripod overlooking a food plot of clover, radishes, and alfalfa.  The green lanes were cut from the surrounding pine and rose thicket, which I knew to hold scores of cottontails.  In fact, it was rare that I made the walk to my stand without jumping a rabbit or two, and any time spent in the camouflaged perch was likely to see regular bunny traffic coming to the wood’s edge to feed on leafy greens.
    
    A .22 in the place of my .243 would have filled the pot, but instead, at a later date, I approached the thicket with a shotgun and small game loads.  Countless rabbit trails emerge where the pine-needled edge meets grass, so I surveyed for concentrations of traffic before diving into the tangle.

    Once inside, potential rabbit hide-outs are easy to spot.  Bent over cedar trees, hollow logs, rose bushes, tree piles—each should be approached, gun at the ready.  I proceeded in this manner for two hours, and jumped a total of five cottontails.  In each case, it escaped without injury with no shots fired.

    It is typical of spooked rabbits to return to their individual piece of cover when danger has moved on.  However, keeping a tight eye on return routes, I could detect no movement after several minutes of waiting. 

    Regardless, there is no better way to jump-start your heart in the frozen February woods than with the spirited exodus of a fleeing rabbit.  With any luck, next time’s score will lean in my favor!

Originally published in the Rural Virginian 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ADVENTURES UNDERGROUND

And there it was—the feeling that all had not been explored, that there is potential for virgin country in our American backyard.  Modernity lends us this injustice, that six centuries after the age of exploration, we must strive to escape an urbanized globe and find ourselves outside the reaches of roads, noise pollution, and fellow wanderers to achieve a consensual ignorance in which we lead, if only for an afternoon, an exposed, wild existence.  And then it hit me, as a kiss from an overhead stalactite.

    Below the bi-state city of Bristol, a small tributary to the South Holston River gurgles out from a rocky bluff in a hardwood hollow.  Rural countryside greets its escape from the hollow—a landscape that fails to suggest what lies in the trickle’s headwaters.

    That particular headwater I, along with a group of nine, traced into the mountain—or rather under it.  A wall of warm, stagnant air hit our faces as we ducked beneath a low ceiling.  With that, donning hard hats and headlamps, we were inside the best natural spelunking cave east of the Mississippi.  Exploration was not lost.

    As we were warned prior to takeoff, the setting is a living, wet cave, still forming as minerals drip from the cave ceiling and stalactite canals to the floor, creating pillars and mounds and a generally muddy surface composition.

    Old clothing is the uniform of champions here.  Not in the “wear old clothes in case they get dirty” sense, but in the “they will be ripped, punctured, shredded, soaked, and muddied beyond belief” sense.  Old work pants and a cheap sweatshirt or long-sleeve t-shirt are prime choices.  A synthetic base layer is optimal, along with your choice in synthetic socks.  Shoes should provide adequate protection and traction.  Boots and old sneakers are good choices.

    Within seconds we were on all fours.  Mineral formations don’t oblige body types or skeletal structures.  To progress, we were forced to take shapes, to solve the problems faced, physically.

    After much ducking and crawling, we came to a cliff—an underground mountain of sorts.  Our guide promptly climbed the boulders to the peak, where the chamber continued deeper into the ground, tied off a rope to a triangular rock, and tossed down the hand line.  We repeated this process twice, over two rises, those in the rear chocking the feet of those ahead and spotting as they made the ascent gripping the hand line.

    Because of these situations, being guided as a first-time spelunker is strongly-encouraged.  As one might imagine, spending time underground is dangerous--even more so without any prior experience or training.  Thus, the best way to explore a living cave is through a guide service or caving club, or “grottoe,” associated with the National Speleological Society.  They will be informative and skilled, warning against harming the fragile cave ecosystems and helping to prevent the spread of issues such as white nosed bat syndrome.

    At that time, we had reached the upper level of the cave.  Along the way we took our time in exploring tight spots, which did and did not lead to other rooms; most passed through walls or under the floor to reemerge again. 

    When in such a position, where one can literally not move to the left or right, but difficultly forward and backward, it’s surreal to attempt to observe the scene out of context.  To the average earth-dweller, who inhabits a house or apartment, who exists in the sunlight each and every day, and who makes their tightest squeeze when passing through a door jam or cars in a lot, a two-foot tunnel of living rock below a river and fathoms of earth and mountain is a foreign place to wind up.

    Yet, adrenaline seems to limit reflection or fear in such places.  For, with your arms stretched forward over your head, it’s amazing what crevices a human can navigate.

    As we began our descent, we came upon a hole.  Though hidden by a 12-foot mound, it was perhaps five feet in diameter, and extended downward a few hundred feet.  Crawling over the mound, we crab-walked down the chute until the slope grew steeper and sliding became the effective motive of transport.  One steep downhill turn, and we landed knee-deep in an underground river!

    In the dark, wading perception becomes difficult, particularly with others clouding the water.  So we remained in a straight line, sending clues up and down the line.

    After nearly a half mile of river channel had been covered, we found dry (ok, muddy) land again, and promptly climbed into a slot roughly 10 feet wide by two feet tall and 80 feet long.  An 80-foot roll commenced, and when we were finally upright again, a foreign light penetrated the darkness in our dizzied state.


    The sun.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian