Thursday, July 7, 2011

Harr Cave #2

This is a long post, so sit back, tell your kids to Go the F**k to Sleep, poor yourself a glass of wine, and read about a remarkable "discovery" we made on our property.

One autumn afternoon several years ago, we were clearing saplings from an area of the property that needed to be "thinned." As we were hauling felled trees into a pile, we happened upon a depression in the ground that contained a dozen old logs piled parallel to each other. When one spends a lot of time in a forest, pattern recognition quickly alerts you to non-natural (i.e., human-made) objects or arrangements. Upon closer examination, these logs were piled onto a gate made of galvanized steel that appeared to be covering a hole in the ground. We pulled the logs off the gate and saw that the hole in the ground had been widened and fitted with an old rusted metal ladder that dropped several feet into complete darkness. Seriously, a hole in the ground through solid limestone. A hole that dropped several feet into darkness. What was in the darkness? An old moonshine still? We were absolutely and completely nonplussed. Neither of us felt like venturing down the ladder, so we covered the hole back up, tossed some leaves over it, and let it be.

Gate Covered Hole

Hole in the Ground with a Ladder
On a later occasion, we mentioned the existence of this mysterious hole in the ground to our neighbors Ben and LE. (Not Elle, as we later learned.) Ben and LE own basically every piece of equipment and gear needed for every possible outdoor sport, including a dirt bike, hang gliders, hiking gear, tents, skis, and conveniently, a full repertoire of spelunking gear.  They fearlessly offered to explore this hole in the ground with us and brought ropes, harnesses, helmets, coveralls, and lights over to our property. We hooked a rope to a tree, put on the gear, and headed down the hole. In retrospect, the wisdom of this decision is questionable, as we are truly in the middle of nowhere, 32 miles from the nearest hospital and who knows how far away from an EMS team. We went down the hole, or at least Rob, Ben, and LE did; Cathy kept watch up top with the dogs.

LE Descending into the Hole

The ladder was solidly affixed to something, the hole narrowed as one went down, and to maneuver further, one had to turn facing away from the ladder and slide down several feet onto a pile of dirt and leaves. After that, you could stand up in a cavern, which had a 20' ceiling. It was HUGE! As in, it was a cave! The cavern extended to the right into a large tunnel, and to the left into a smaller tunnel via a small opening in the rock. We headed off to the right, crawling over boulders, slipping on clay, trying not to touch anything, and in a complete state of amazement.

Main Part of Cave

We stayed underground for about 20 minutes. The cave extended as far as we could crawl in that period of time, and we went as far as we felt we should. Sometimes the ceiling was 5', sometimes 20'. There were stalagmites, stalactites, lots of mud, fissures, and all that other geological stuff. We needed a geologist to make sense of it. (Much, much more on that later. Perhaps a paper in Science.) Everyone was in a state of complete awe. Cathy was disappointed she didn't go in, but it is always a good idea to have someone up on top, who can get help, need be.

Cavern with Water 
Weeks later, Rob searched the intertubes for cave-type organizations in WVa. Specifically Tucker County. People who liked to crawl into holes and get muddy and that sort of stuff. Low and behold, there was a Tucker County Speleological Society (TCSS). (An aside: Tucker County has about 7,000 residents and exactly one (1) stoplight. No lie. So any sort of organization affiliated with Tucker County is relatively surprising.) After a series of back-and-forth emails with several people, we set up a date for the TCSS people to visit our cave and take us on an exploratory caving trip. Surprisingly, these guys knew about our cave, and at least one person had been down it many years ago. Since it was a private cave, it wasn't on maps and very few people knew about it.

Tucker County Speleological Society w/Cathy
One May morning, we met up with our new caver friends, who suited up and literally hopped down into the hole. Cathy and I followed, and we spent a couple of hours exploring the cave. We saw wondrous sights, fantastic rock formations called soda straws, stalactites that looked like bacon, and many others that I have forgotten. In some places, the walls were full of formations, there were holes in the floor of the cave that went who knows where, and there were little brown bats hanging from the roof. There were monstrous stalagmites that looked like the monster from Alien and at the very end of the cave, there was a huge stalactite shaped like a shield. The TCSS guys got down on their stomachs on several occasions and wiggled into small spaces and through small openings. It was pretty crazy. Caving is a sport that is independent of weather or time of day. Inside the cave, it is a constant 57 °F and absolutely dark no matter if it is summer or winter, day or night outside.

"Soda Straws"

"Bacon" Formation
The really cool thing about the cave is that it had been completely mapped in 1984. We have a full-size copy of the map showing all the features, the heights of ceiling at various places, the drop of the floor from the entrance, and what the cross-section of the cave looks like at various points. The cave is 387 meters in length, or close to a quarter of a mile. One end buries itself underneath the hill where our house is and the other heads downhill, ending very near the surface. There are supposedly seven Harr caves, although this cave, Harr Cave #2, is the largest and best known. We don't know where the other caves are located, but we have a suspicion on the location of one.

The Monster from Alien

Large Set of Formations and Flows

This story now gets much more cool, because of science, which always makes things more cool. A few months after our expedition with the TCSS, we were put in contact with a geologist at Ohio University who studies West Virginia caves as a means to understand climate changes over the past hundreds of thousands of years. His name is Gregory Springer. What Greg wanted was to take a sample stalagmite from our cave in order to study patterns of deposition as a means to extract information on past climate changes. Greg uses mass spectrometry to measure isotope ratios for oxygen, which are fractionated during the evaporation and precipitation of rainwater, some of which ends up trapped in the carbonates of rocks. The layers of the stalagmite are dated from outside to inside by looking at uranium/thorium ratios by mass spectrometry, so changes in oxygen isotope ratios can be correlated with geological age. The oldest stalagmite from our cave that has been dated is 119,500 years old. This places it near the beginning of the last ice age, at the end of the last interglacial period. Check our Greg's flickr site for zillions of cool pictures of caves. In the event, Greg and members of the TCSS went into the cave to take samples, and Greg is now finishing up isotope ratio measurements on a beautiful stalagmite that was taken from Harr Cave #2. (A really good stalagmite was already broken off, so we didn't damage the cave further.) One of the best parts of Greg's visit to our cave was that he explained the geology of the cave and of the local area to us. Now we understood why we only find fossils of very old age: the newer deposits that have larger animals have eroded, leaving older rocks exposed.

Long Tunnel Portion of Cave

Formations on Wall

Our discovery of this cave raises an interesting philosophical issue: how can a person or persons own a cave? Owning land is more readily understood, because people need a physical place to exist. Land changes relatively quickly on a geological time-scale, whereas this cave changes very slowly, so slowly that it is largely the same as when Columbus invaded the Americas or when William the Conqueror was conquering whatever it was that he conquered or even when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. This cave is old on a geological time-scale. If we protect it, it will be the same in 2031 as when we bought the property in 2001. Thirty years is a blink of an eye. It seems impossible to own such a thing. We have considered getting an easement on the property that would limit what future owners can do. We can prevent the land from being developed, but we lose value by doing so. It would be a very difficult decision to decline a seven figure offer to develop the property for vacation homes. Eighty-seven acres is a lot of land, but it would be heartbreaking to think of someone building McMansions so rich people from Washington could spend an occasional weekend. They would probably mow their lawns on Sunday afternoons. There are already too many such places nearby.

Think of all the caves that have been destroyed by mountain top removal. The hundreds of thousands of years this cave has existed compared to the 30 years we will own the property makes one pause. Nature may be important to us, but we're not particularly important to nature. It used to be that humans adapted to nature rather than adapting nature to humans. We disregard how important our environment is and how valuable it is to keep it clean, and sometimes we can undo millions of years of natural processes in the lifetime of one single person. We can destroy an entire mountain, a mountain that is hundreds of millions of years old, in the matter of a year or so.

As a last note, because of the fungus Geomyces destructans that causes white-nose disease in bats, which is plaguing bat colonies throughout the northeast, we have not been in the cave for four years, and probably won't go back in the near future. This disease has decimated bat populations, killing 80-90% of infected colonies and threatening the survival of entire populations. The disease has only shown up in the eastern portions of West Virginia this past year, so our cave-dwelling bats may be gone in the near future.

Bat Hanging from Ceiling

1 comment:

  1. Wow, those pictures are gorgeous. I had thought it was just a cavity, not a real cave with speleothems (I just looked that up). I hope Greg Springer includes you in the acknowledgements in his paper!