Dark, wild worlds beckon explorers Caves: The underworld just below our feet is attracting more people who want to taste the excitement of discovery. However, the sport is not for the claustrophobic.


Paul Griffiths knows well the thrill of discovery -- of standing where no one else has ever stood, of being the first person ever to see some of nature's most delicate and beautiful handiwork.

Griffiths, president of the British Columbia Speleological Federation, is a devoted cave explorer. For 30 years he has spent literally most of his weekends underground, searching for and charting new subterranean landscapes. The possibilities for discovery are endless.

"We probably know more about the surface of Mars," he says, "than we know about the underground here on Earth."

Every year, millions of people enjoy the paved walks, colored lights and intricate formations of developed caves. For most, that's plenty. But others hear the call of the subterranean wild. Peering into unlighted side passages, they wonder about the dark, silent world beyond the lights -- until recently, the private domain of experts such as Griffiths, equipped with special suits, ropes, climbing hardware and sometimes diving gear.

Lately, rising demand has persuaded commercial caves to offer adventure tours for the speleo-curious.

No barrel chests

Indiana's Marengo Cave offers a trip through New Discovery Passage featuring the delightful-sounding Long Haul in Blowing Bat Crawl. It is recommended for adventurous folks with a chest size of 45 inches or less.

In California, Moaning Cavern offers the option of entering spider-fashion, via a 180-foot rappel.

"It's very popular," says Moaning Cavern's marketing director Debby Stewart. "We sometimes have a three-hour wait, people are so eager to try it."

Stewart's company also leads adventure tours in Black Chasm, a newly opened wild cave, meaning one that has been left in its natural state, with no lights or walkways. The tour includes all necessary gear, along with a guide trained to recognize signs of claustrophobia. Those who get uneasy are turned gently around and led back to the comfort of open skies.

Exploring new caves is a matter of searching for leads, the term cavers use to mean the alluring black passages they love to probe. Some are water-worn tunnels rising through the ceiling or dropping like well shafts in the floor. Others are the merest rifts that require squirming on your belly and turning your head sideways.

The payoff? Cavers dream of finding a great hall where your voice is the first sound ever to echo off its walls; or a cluster of crystals, delicate as snow, where your light is the first to illuminate their sparkling facets.

Nature's wonders

Wild caves are not for the squeamish. Much of your time is spent on hands and knees, sometimes crawling and slithering through mud. Water drips from the ceiling, flows through passageways, pours down your neck.

Denizens of the dark -- bats, spiders, centipedes, blind crickets, pack rats and salamanders -- are all part of nature's grand plan, but they take some getting used to.

Even Griffiths knows the feeling of underground discomfort.

He recalls swimming through a narrow submerged passage using scuba gear. At one point, he surfaced in a tiny air space, bumped his head and ducked back under. Suddenly the water was opaque with stirred-up sediment.

"I couldn't see a thing. I got disoriented. I could sense the weight of all that rock above me, and felt a sudden rush of anxiety. I thought, 'Is this claustrophobia?' "

Until then, he had not understood why some people are frightened of caves.

Experts caution that caving can be hazardous for untrained novices. You can get lost, stuck, injured or worse.

They also point out that caves are fragile and easily damaged by careless behavior.

Barbara Munson of the National Caves Association, which represents developed show caves, agrees.

"A little knowledge can be dangerous," she says.

She encourages beginners to learn from experts. You can find such experts at their "grottos," private caving clubs affiliated with the National Speleological Society. Located across the country, most welcome new members and offer training courses.

Those who like it might start talking like Griffiths: "When you get into a cave after an absence," he says, "you feel like you're home again."


* National Speleological Society, 2813 Cave Ave., Huntsville, Ala. 35810; 205- 852-1300; www.caves.org/nss/

* National Caves Association, 4138 Dark Hollow Road, McMinnville, Tenn. 37110; 931-668-3925; www.cavern.com.

* British Columbia Speleological Federation, 544 Springbok Road, Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada V9W 8A2; 250-923-1311; quarles .unbc.ca/keen/caving /bcsf.htm

* Moaning Caverns, P.O. Box 78, Vallecito, Calif. 95251; 209-736-2708; Internet, www.caverntours.com.

* Marengo Cave, P.O. Box 217 Marengo, Ind. 47140; 812-365- 2705; www.cavern.com/ marengocave/

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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