Members of the VPI grotto had made plans to come survey in Wythe County, VA over the 2017 Christmas break. I had a few caves in mind that needed surveys. (Actually, everything in Wythe County needs to be surveyed – much of the county’s database dates to the late 1960s, with sporadic updates occurring in the 1990s.) With a little less than a week to go, I contacted Andrew Lycas (the driving force behind this ambitious project) to get an idea for how many cavers were coming so I could decide whom to send, where. Imagine my surprise when he told me “twenty one are coming”! The four caves I’d planned on suddenly seemed …”inadequate” for lack of a better word. Most Wythe County caves are reported as under 300 feet so by my math I was going to have seven teams of three persons each, with each team completing one to two caves per day – Oh hell! I needed permissions and descriptions/locations for possibly as many as twenty caves! Back to work.
Most of the caves I had targeted were in the Crockett quadrant. I had a couple in the Wytheville and Speedwell quadrants as back-ups. I had another in the county database – Ball’s Cave – that seemed enticing. It wasn’t far from me, and wasn’t too far from the targeted area; it was all by itself, in the far northeast corner of the county. Why not, right? I made contact with the landowner (it turned out I not only knew his sister and several other members of his family, but had been on the property in the past!)
Chad and his son Derrick met me at the barn, and after some small talk we jumped in his Gator and roared off to visit the cave. Not much of an entrance, but it definitely looked inviting. Too inviting, perhaps…
I pulled on some coveralls and started in, but after almost a body length I thought, “why not see if they’d like to come? I have some spare helmets in the truck…” I crawled out, asked them, and they answered in the affirmative so we rode back to my truck, gathered two more helmets/lights and went back to the cave. (OK, this is where I went full-on retard: you have been warned!) As we crawled in, I noticed what seemed like an inordinate amount of dry grass dragged back into the cave (warning #1 was ignored.) “Interesting!”, I thought. Chad was pretty excited; Derrick? Nervous. Several times he said, “I think we’ve gone far enough, dad.” (Warning #2.) Derrick, in his first (and possibly last) cave trip.
As we crawled deeper I pointed out some claw marks on the wall (Warning #3.) We stopped at a spot in the cave where a large piece of breakdown was on our right. A small hole looked into a small room on the other side of the creak down. Pushing forward slightly I stepped over a large pile of dry grass (Warning #4) and saw what might be more passage ahead, and briefly considered crawling down it. Looking at the grass pile I thought (actually, I wasn’t thinking!) it kind of looked like a nest but then halfway thought “well,if it is, whatever made it has to be outside the cave because there’s nothing between it and the entrance but us.” I also saw a larger way (to the right) over the breakdown and beyond that a promising low crawl. I climbed over the piece of breakdown and headed back towards the small hole where Chad was trying to convince Derrick to “:go on. Mr. Bill will catch you.” Looking up through the hole at Derrick I became aware of noise behind me – almost like someone moving. (fifth and final warning!) Looking back at the hole I’d just crawled through, something that looked remarkably like a black furry arm appeared. It was promptly followed by a second black furry arm, and then by a large round head with a brown snout and ridiculously tiny ears. Oh crap! It’s a bear, and he’s coming to see what the noise is all about! “Bear!” “What?” “BEAR! GET OUT! GO! GO!” I’m not sure how I got up through that tiny hole where Derrick was, but I did. OK, scratch that cave off the list. It’ll be a while before it gets a survey. Lesson learned.
After getting back in the gator, Chad drove us off to another cave on the property. This one was not in the VSS database for Wythe County. Derrick and I took a quick peek and posed for a photo, but with the knowledge that bears were definitely on the property and that they were definitely active, discretion overtook the better part of valor. The cave location was photographed and marked with the GPS for a later date.