How to Have a Totally Safe (And Totally Rad) Caving Adventure
The miraculous rescue of all 12 boys on a youth soccer team and their coach after two weeks trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand was such a dramatic reminder that not everything in the world ends terribly that I freely cried while reading the news on my way to work. Bless those brave lil’ Wild Boars.
The details about the cave’s rapid flooding -- which forced the team deeper and deeper after sudden rainfall closed off their entrance -- were terrifying. Each update from the days-long rescue operation was harrowing. A former Thai Navy SEAL died. And because the entire world seemed to be watching the story unfold, a lot of people are probably going to associate that fear and anxiety with caves for a long time. But it would be a shame if the put anyone off the idea of exploring caves, because caves are rad and there are plenty here in the US that can be enjoyed safely.
I called up Chad Singer, Park Guide Supervisor at Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, Kentucky, about how to cave in the US a) responsibly and b) whilst having a good time. Lost River Cave floods multiple times a year, so Singer and his colleagues have gotten good at monitoring the terrain. Caves are fun! Just the kind of fun that needs a few precautions.
So first of all, what exactly is caving?Chad Singer: For us, caving is the act of exploring. Typically, you’re crawling around in these very tight spaces, going up and down. Our cave is a wet solution cave, which means it’s still being formed by the water. That’s essentially all caves here in Kentucky.
Is it hard?Singer: It’s not physically demanding at all … unless you don’t want to walk up the hill. But we see people of all ages, shapes, sizes.
Best tips on cave safety?Singer: So, number one, if you’re inexperienced you don’t go by yourself. That’s really dumb for someone to go into a dark-lit place, alone, where you don’t know the curves. People have been dying in caves since man first went, ‘oh, this is a neat shelter’ 40,000 years ago. That’s what I call natural selection. That’s a biologist joke. And two, if you do go with an experienced person, also always let three other people know when you’re in and when you’re out.
What people can do is, if they’re really interested in going caving, just always go with a guide. If you work in accounting and that’s what you do and you want to go caving on the weekends and you don’t know shit about a cave, don’t be all, ‘oh, found a sinkhole behind my buddy’s house, gonna go dive in there by myself.’ ‘Oh, we can make it through there.’ Which is dumb. That’s just dumb. We see it all the time, though.
If you’re just out in a field and you find a cave, don’t go in! You don’t know what’s living in there, you’re probably on someone else’s property. But if you’re on your own property [and you’ve taken precautions] by all means, be American, go check it out.
And caves that might flood?Singer: If you see water getting higher, you should leave immediately. If you can’t, then get to higher ground. The main point is that if you don’t know how close you are to the exit anymore, go back. Be observant -- if you see anything changing, ‘oh, this is not how this spot looked 15 minutes ago,’ that’s definitely a red flag.
When Hurricane Harvey hit, we had about a 45-foot rise. There’s an old dam at the entrance of the cave that’s like 50 feet across and 30 feet high, so the water rose over that and then it rose another 15 feet -- that’s how we could tell the water level from outside the cave -- so it’s like, ‘ohhh shit, well, we have no control over that.’
Is it legal for people to just … go into random caves … without a guide?Singer: No. Generally no. The national parks -- for instance, like Mammoth Cave, which has about 400 miles of caves -- generally they have those areas blocked off because people have gone into them too much. There’s a culture around here in this area to not do that, but there’s also a culture of ... doing exactly that.
So there are people who just noodle around caves all the time?Singer: So there are ‘grottos’ -- like, cave geek nerd people. Oftentimes they’re EMTs, people who know a lot about this stuff. And yes, they may be nerds, but they’re also badasses. They’re know-it-alls, but they’re cool.
We have a lot of waterways here, so people kayaking those kinds of sites are going to have access to the caves. They just hop right off and go right in.
Do people suddenly discover some claustrophobia they didn’t know about?Singer: Even on the boat tours, you have to lean over for 120 seconds at the very beginning to get through and a lot of people are like, ‘ohhhh my god what is this?’ And then it opens up and it’s like a four-story-tall room.
I had this Boy Scout group one time and some are like overweight little kids, some are real skinny and tall, that’s just how kids go -- so imagine The Sandlot, that’s this group -- and each one has their own little quirks, y’know, one couldn’t see without his glasses, and it becomes this real fun thing of seeing what you can do with each kid to get them through. Because you’re going through these holes -- like, small holes -- and then you have to belly-crawl like 150 feet, and imagine it’s like two feet of clearance, maybe six feet wide.
It’s weird teaching a six-, seven-, eight-year-old to breathe, saying, ‘hey, this’ll help you the rest of your life,’ talking them through each space. We all know what fear looks like, they were all trying to get over their own fears -- ‘I can’t see this, oh my god, it’s dark.’ But that was one of the best [memories] working with them. Scout groups come out every year now.
What about keeping the caves safe from us?Singer: The main thing is we want to protect and foster these caves. Yes, they are kinda scary, yes, we want to protect them, no, you probably shouldn’t go into every single one.
And make sure you have the proper gear -- not just what’s called personal protective equipment, but everything to make sure you’re not exposing the cave to you. If you look at your phone right now there’s grease all over it. That kind of grease, it’s a natural oil but it can waterproof a stalactite or a stalagmite and it’ll stunt the growth, like pollution does. Sometimes they can bounce back, but [mostly not]. You want to limit the cave’s exposure to you, y’know? Your handprint could be there for thousands of years!
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.