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Caving in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland

Caves and tunnels have always held an irresistible lure. The intrigue of exploring mysterious subterranean spaces or discovering the unexpected around every corner is like an open invitation. Sign me up every time!Caving group ready to go subterranean

The Cumberland Plateau in Central Tennessee is a virtual honeycomb of caves and sinkholes, formed when water seeps through the sandstone caprock to the limestone below, causing the rock to slowly dissolve over time.

If you’re ready for a wild cave adventure, Cookeville, in the heart of the Upper Cumberland, is a great place to start. Built on two major cave systems that act as a natural filter for the city’s underground drainage system, the caves are carved out by underground streams. Caving combines many skills into one experience, crawling through narrow spaces, climbing rock walls, rappelling, orienteering, even cave diving.cave entrance by Chuck Sutherland

Capshaw Cave is an entry level “wet cave” about five miles long, winding right underneath the city. This is not the place to go if flash floods are likely – the cave system could become a swirling torrent in an instant, draining all the city’s runoff and carrying trash and debris with it. But with experienced guides, you are in good hands, and tonight I have two of the best.

As dusk falls, we park our trucks on the roadside of a quiet, exclusive neighborhood in Cookville and pull on boots, kneepads, helmets and headlamps. Tom Lamb, owner of Plateau Eco-Sports, regularly runs caving tours and provides all the basic equipment. When he’s not caving, you may find him taking groups of all ages kayaking, rappelling, rock climbing or orienteering. Tonight we also have the past president of the National Speleological Society’s Upper Cumberland Grotto, Chuck Sutherland. He is a faculty member at Tennessee Tech University and a passionate cave explorer, photographer and naturalist.

Wading in the waterA short hike off the road we find the secluded opening to Capshaw Cave and descend down a ladder into a series of tunnels and caverns, making sure to maintain three points of body contact to avoid slipping. Before long we’re wading through water, occasionally chest-high, following the path of underground streams. After the first shock of cold water in the 56-degree climate, we quickly adjust and press on. We feel like real explorers as our headlamps illuminate the way ahead. “Don’t wear anything cotton,” Tom had instructed. “When it gets wet, it stays wet and draws heat away from your body.” Once accustomed to being wet, we find it’s not a big deal, glad of the layers that keep us warm.

cave crayfish matingChuck is a wealth of information, explaining the geological formations and the creatures that inhabit this underground world. The fragile ecology has placed much of the bat population in jeopardy with the spread of white nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that has temporarily caused the closure of a number of caves to limit the epidemic.

In this world without light we find cave crickets, translucent fish and a curious root-like growth on the cave ceiling. Tom makes the most unusual find – a pair of mating crawdads. It’s not surprising raccoons have been sighted down here – enjoying their own private fishing ground.

Passing the Devil’s Bathtub, a black pool that we carefully avoid, our destination is the Ice Cream Parlor. Finally popping through a tight space, one by one we are allowed to carefully enter a narrow cave glistening with stalactites and stalagmites, the reward that has been thousands of years in the making.

Dayle & Molly in Capshaw CaveConservation, safety and respect for the beauty and delicacy of this subterranean ecosystem are practiced with almost religious fervor by our guides. “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time.”

The real magic moment occurs on our return, when we all extinguish our lights and sit in total darkness, the only sound being the slow dripping of water. What a fantastic way to spend a Saturday night!

Plateau Eco-Sports offers half-day, full day or evening caving excursions, beginning at just $38. The minimum age is 11 years-old (accompanied by a parent). Once you’ve progressed beyond Caving 101, you’ll be ready for more advanced caves that may include longer crawls through tighter spaces, vertical climbs, use of ropes, and swimming through tunnels.

Who wants to join me for the next adventure?!

Hi! I’m Dayle Fergusson. As a transplanted Aussie living in Middle Tennessee since 1986, I have been a freelance travel...Read on

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    Melissa Walker

    I am looking for information on where to start. There is a huge hole on my property that I feel strongly leads in to a cave. Two miles down the street is Gray Fossil Museum. Can you tell me where to start for exploring where this hole leads. I live in Jonesborough, Tn 37659.

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    Ilaeka Villa

    Thanks for a great article. Our guests who stay on our 145 acre organic mountain farm in our eco friendly cottages love adventures and we can’t wait to tell them about this. We are just south of Crossville and always looking for adventures to send them on! For more info on our eco friendly vacation rentals please look at http://www.grandviewmountaincottages.com.

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