The crave to cave; JSC Outing Club traveling to West Virginia for April recess expedition


courtesy of Ken Moore

Ken Moore with JSC Outing Club outside Morris Cave in Southern Vermont

On your hands and knees, with only a headlamp illuminating the path ahead, you slowly crawl through a narrow passage of damp rocks, struggling to continue on when the passage narrows to the point where you are belly crawling. The only sounds are the tiny drops of moisture dripping from the ceiling and gently hitting the rocks surrounding you, the muffled shuffling sounds of your hands and feet along the passage, and your shallow breathing. This might sound like a claustrophobia nightmare for some. For others, it is an adrenaline rush unlike anything else. Welcome to the world of caving.

Ken Moore, an electrician at Johnson State College, has over 27 years of experience with caving. He has caved throughout New England, as well as other parts of the United States, including as far out west as Texas. Over this semester’s spring break, from April 7 to April 13, Moore and the JSC outing club will be traveling out to Lewisberg, West Virginia, for a full week of caving adventures.

Caving, sometimes known as spelunking, is the exploration of natural cave systems. “Most cavers like to push the limits, learn how far the cave goes, where it goes,” said Moore. “You push your own personal limits while doing it. There is definitely a personality type to it.”

Moore has been the faculty advisor for the JSC outing club for the past 13 years. He has led a variety of caving trips throughout his years as the club’s advisor, including trips to caves out in Albany, New York, and weekend-long camping trips to the Adirondacks, where participants have had to hike out to caves.

“This has given me a venue to give you young folks a chance to have a new experience with the outdoors,” said Moore.

Planning for this trip started back in October 2017. Moore oversaw the planning of the logistics of the trip, while Kendra McGuire, president of the JSC outing club, has been overseeing and organizing the student participants. Moore has also been in charge of choosing the location and securing housing during the trip, and he will be providing transportation. There will be 15 people participating — 13 students, Moore and Professor of Biology Robert Genter as the second staff member.

Moore describes the location in Lewisberg as “cave Mecca” because of how enormous and grand the caves are. One of the caves that the group will be exploring has over 15 miles of passages that are anywhere from 10 feet high and 20 feet wide to 80 feet high and 100 feet wide. Throughout the cave there are more challenging areas, where cavers will have to belly crawl through passages and cracks as small as 10 inches wide for almost 50 feet.

“I like to tell people that half of caving is mental. If you’re physically fit, you can do it, but it’s your brain that says you can’t do it,” said Moore. “Claustrophobia. It’s a survival instinct. So when you shove yourself into a little place like that, you can get a little wiggy.”

Caves offer a unique ecological environment, with a wealth of natural mosses, microorganism, and small mammals and amphibians being the main occupants. Caves, regardless of the time of year, range in temperature from 34 to 45 degrees and have an average of 95 percent humidity. The most common animals spotted in caves are bats, salamanders, cave crickets, blind cave fish and little crawfish.

Moore is the current president of Vermont Caver’s Association, a “Grotto,” or chapter, of the National Speleological Society. Speleology is the scientific study of caves and their environments and involves a variety of other disciplines such as geology, hydrology and biology. The VCA is an organization comprised of cavers and non-cavers interested in protecting, locating, mapping, exploring and researching caves throughout Vermont.

“There are people I have known and caved with for 25 years. I see them maybe two or three times a year, but when we get together, we pick up right where we left off,” Moore said. “Social barriers go away. I’ve been caving with NASA scientists, extremely wealthy people, carpenters, cooks — the whole range of our society. When you’re in a cave, those barriers are gone. It’s a unique community like that.”

The outing club will be housed through an organization called the West Virginia Association of Cave Studies (WVACS). WVACS is heavily involved in Project Caving in West Virginia, where they map out caving routes. The cave that the organization is currently mapping has almost 20 miles of passages mapped already. WVACS recently bought a piece of property in Lewisberg and built a couple of buildings on it that feature a full kitchen, bunk houses and showers. Housing for traveling cavers is only $7 a night.

Moore said that many of the caves in the Adirondacks and throughout the Northeast are some of the most challenging for caving. While the caves in Lewisberg will be generally easy, involving a lot of underground hiking, the caves in the Northeast are usually smaller and tighter and require a lot of crawling on hands and knees, as well as belly crawling.

“I am also a bit of an adrenaline junky, so it’s a good rush,” said Moore. “Aside from the physical workout, which can be fantastic, there is a spiritual experience along with it. You are crawling inside Mother Earth. You can’t get much closer to nature than that. It’s a very calming place to go.”

Moore also clearly stated that caving is obviously a dangerous sport and has a variety of immediate hazards. These can include hypothermia, injuries from falling or loose rocks, falling into open pits, and getting trapped or injured in tight spots. Because of these dangers, a general rule of caving is to go in groups of three. Moore said that an incredible amount of bonding between cavers happens during caving experiences.

“We are always paying attention to each other and we are always encouraging each other,” said Moore. “So if a person is having trouble in a tight place, I’ll be like, ‘Alright, Bob, slow down, breathe.’ Tell them a stupid, dirty joke or something to make them giggle and laugh, something to let the tension out. You get a very tight, personal bond with them.”

Despite these dangers, and the common fear of claustrophobia, Moore encourages everyone to try stepping out of their comfort zone and give caving a try. He believes that in facing your fears, you will not only realize you are stronger than you thought but will have the newfound strength to take on other challenges in your life.

“I want people to understand the reality of it. I never sugarcoat it. I tell people straight up that this is dangerous,” said Moore. “A person who is willing to take on the mental and emotional challenge of doing the activities, willingly and enthusiastically, can do it. Anyone can learn to do it.”

Moore said that every single caving trip is unique, with each caver, both new and experienced, reacting differently. Throughout his years of enjoying and leading caving trips, he has noticed that caving often has a way of changing people and their view of the natural world.

“That’s my favorite part about taking students. You see it instantly,” said Moore. “It broadens peoples’ minds about themselves and the world around them. It is a unique experience.”