Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Fog and vapor hangs thick in the air as we drive westward towards the rugged, veiled peaks of the Blue Ridge that shield the view of the highlands beyond.  Long sleeves and pants wear heavy in the summer heat.  Threatening clouds stall on the horizon, but weather doesn’t matter when your destination is underground.

    David Small, student government and outdoor adventure teacher at Fluvanna County High School; three Fluvanna grads, Travis, Chris, and Small’s daughter, Erin; and I exit a road-seasoned Subaru at the “trailhead” for the day’s adventure around midday.  After a two-hour car ride, we are ready to mobilize.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Packs are filled with food, water, extra batteries, maps, first aid supplies, and cameras.  Headlamps are double-checked for functionality.  Boots are laced, and some tape their ankles and wrists.  Hardhats and gloves for safety and tact are distributed and donned with firmness—a muted excitement and acknowledgement of the risk involved with venturing underground.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    “The most dangerous part is getting to it!” Someone exclaims. 

    At the foot of the short foot trail marred by mud puddles and root systems towers a rock face.  Only a small opening of about two feet offers advancement.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Wriggling through the cave entrance, “breakdown”—a collection of chunk rock indicative of the cave’s mouth crumbling—greets us.  It is clearly visible in the twilight zone, making footing easy—mere practice for what’s to come. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Deeper we advance.  Daylight fades.  The ceiling drops.

    “Three points of contact,” Small announces encouragingly. 

    The ground becomes slick with mud; the footing, technical. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Hand.  Hand.  Foot.  Swing.  A mental checklist becomes subconscious.  Footing is not hard to come by in most circumstances, but lose balance or place a foot too far and you may take a hard fall or break a leg in a hole.

    Small is comfortable with his knowledge of the passages—comfortable enough to navigate pitch dark with just a headlamp and a map.  However, for safety, we leave a bread-crumb trail of yellow marking tape, placed directionally on visible rocks at points of intersection.  There are countless opportunities to get lost here.  Even more in the dark.

Small checks the cave map.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Such is the allure of caves.  Unlike the first cave I ever explored, the entrance to this cavern is tight.  I have seen holes of equal and larger size in my wanderings in the mountains on multiple occasions.  Only this one is a portal to miles of underground passages, and there are countless more within the cave, presumably unexplored.  There is great potential for virgin, unexplored territory.

    We reach an intersection.  The main passage swerves to the left.  A crag steeps to the left.  A length of mud-crusted para-chord used for navigation extends into the crag, limp.  Where does it lead?
    We proceed without discovering the answer.

Freddy the Cave Frog.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    If I had any prior inkling of the bowels of the Earth where we tread, I would be referring to these sights with reference to specific locations, officially dubbed on the map.  But I am a newcomer in this venue.  Each new encounter is a hard, muddy, and slippery obstacle and I love it.  It’s a physical challenge to the other half of the body’s muscles—the ones not used on an everyday basis.

    “The Pit.”  That toponym does stick with me, if only for its blatant expression of struggle.  The main passage extends up, through a tricky tunnel of boulders and sharp rocks.  A pack will catch, and must be thrown or handed up.

    As is the case in many spots, the map indicates two possible routes to the same end.  The one that Erin and I choose is an underground creekbed that travels underneath “The Pit,” but requires a tight initial squeeze that soaks you to the bone with spring water. 

    On the other end, we are met with what now seems like a foreigner—a plump toad positioned at the mouth of the creek.  The troglobite—or cave dweller—was assumed blind for its habitation deep in the dark zone of the cave, and for its lack of hopping reflexes when confronted.

Chris Markham attempts a tight squeeze.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Checking the Cave Map at Short Man's Shortcut.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    As we pushed on, the passage began to tighten.  Eventually we found ourselves at what seemed to be an impasse—“Short Man’s Shortcut.”  A dead-end offered only a 9-inch tall tunnel for advancement.  None of us fit, and none wanted to push their luck nearly a mile from daylight and under hundreds of tons of earth.  But as we sat there in resignation, headlamps fixed on the cave map, rumors of an underground river accessible through the cave and the tight passage before us fueled our sense of adventure.  There is always more to discover.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Chances are good that the last time you spent time in your favorite outdoor setting, you spent it on land purchased by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is set to expire in 30 days.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Created in 1965 in a bipartisan Congressional agreement, the LWCF is a motor that carries with it the mission of protecting America’s natural areas, natural resources, and historical and cultural sites.  The initiative called for $900 million—a small fraction—of fees paid by offshore oil and gas mining companies to be appropriated into the fund annually.  The fund, then, was to be used to protect wilderness areas, national parks, working ranches, greenways, wildlife corridors, and riparian lands, and to assist in the building of parks, recreational sport fields, and trail systems in all 50 states.

    Around the financial and legislative power of the LWCF formed the LWCF Coalition, a grouping of over 1000 conservation groups across the country united for a common cause.  “My land trust, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, is a member because we realize that in order to protect fragile lands along the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway we need a steady investment to meet our goals,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy who enjoys hiking on and around the Appalachian Trail near his home in Asheville, North Carolina.  “Collectively we hope to raise our voices to tell the story that land conservation is a bipartisan no-brainer.  Everybody loves clean water and places to hike and camp.  But not everybody knows how much work goes into securing even a single acre of protection for future generations.”
Virginia, specifically, has received about $283 million over the past 50 years from the fund, protecting such cherished natural environments as the James River and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuges, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Jefferson/Washington National Forest. 

    However, the LWCF is much broader in its efforts than these nationally-recognized settings.  “A lot of the funding flows directly to Virginia so that local communities can create bike trails and greenways, and even soccer fields,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy who enjoys hiking on and around the Appalachian Trail.  “In Virginia there is a real challenge to create wildlife corridors and buffer historical sites from suburban sprawl.  LWCF is the best tool for protecting the places we all cherish.”

    Unfortunately, that tool has been underutilized over the course of its five-decade life.  “Dishonest budgeting” has been rampant—over $19 billion has been wrongly diverted from the LWCF account and utilized elsewhere over the last 50 years.  “That money would have gone a long way to fixing some of our half-finished national forests and state parks,” said Leutze.  “When landowners inside our national forests and along the routes of the Appalachian Trail are willing to sell for a fair price, we really need the funds to be available as intended.”

    Now, the LWCF is facing expiration on September 30, 2015, leaving only 30 days of Congressional work periods for action to take place.

    What’s more, Congress will not consider reauthorization of the LWCF as a stand-alone bill, only as an amendment to a more substantial piece of legislature.  In February 2015, Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina introduced Senate Bill 338, which is getting the most attention as a reauthorization vehicle.  The bill requires a minimum of 1.5 percent of the annual funding amount allocated to the LWCF to be used for improving public access to federally-owned public lands, while calling for the original LWCF Act of 1965 to be amended, making the fund a permanent program.

    The corresponding bill in the House, House Bill 1814, currently has over 100 co-sponsors—primarily Democrats.  Republican Representatives are hearing grievances from the dogged, right-wing, Cliven Bundy-type constituents who believe that the federal government has overgrown its borders and acquired too much land already.  Considering the Republican majority in both houses of Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the reauthorization of the LWCF which is the sportsman’s most valuable asset. 

    From the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia, to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon in the West, the LWCF is responsible for the protection of the special places that outdoor recreationists form strong ties with.  Economically, those lands support 9.4 million jobs and $730 billion of revenue annually nationwide, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.  The beauty of the program is that the funds are acquired from offshore drilling fees, not taxpayer dollars.

    Reauthorizing the LWCF is truly a “bipartisan no-brainer.”  Contact your representatives to let them know your wishes, and act fast.  Let’s preserve this conservation superpower while we still can.  

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian