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Great Surveying, Terrible Sleeping; Surveying Speedwell, Skeens Mine, and Bowles Spring caves

Great Surveying, Terrible Sleeping; Surveying Speedwell, Skeens Mine, and Bowles Spring caves

The week leading up to OTR 2017, Leah Hill and I were faced with a critical choice. Do we spend 4 days at the comfortable WVACS Field station and visit the spectacular caves of Greenbrier County WV while having fun with our friends, or do we return to Wythe County and sleep in the car […]

The week leading up to OTR 2017, Leah Hill and I were faced with a critical choice. Do we spend 4 days at the comfortable WVACS Field station and visit the spectacular caves of Greenbrier County WV while having fun with our friends, or do we return to Wythe County and sleep in the car while surveying small caves by ourselves? Wanting to do some project caving and finish up Speedwell Cave, we went for option 2. Like we did in December, we drove from a family event in Maryland to Blacksburg, crashed at my friends’ place and then drove down to Wytheville on a Monday morning. We made a stop at the community center in town to book a camping spot at Crystal Springs Recreation Area, and then headed down to Speedwell to get surveying.

We were underground around noon and very quickly reach where I had left off in December. The flagging tape marking the station numbers was gone, but I was still able to locate the last station from a whiteout mark and referencing my survey notes/photographic memory. Our first shot was 40 ft long, in 15 ft wide passage with a complex floor of sloping mud and boulders.

Lots of side pockets in the walls further complicated my sketching efforts, it takes a few survey shots for my sketcher brain to get in gear and draw the map at a reasonable pace. But we had a major advantage over my last trip in December. We both had the latest version of the Disto X, so getting survey data and passage dimensions was a simple matter of pointing a laser and pressing a button. No need to estimate where a feature was on the passage floor, just point the laser at it and get a precise reading how far away it is. This dramatically sped up my drawing speed, along with generally getting more experienced at sketching over the course of the year before. Our next shot took us into a decorated large room with multiple levels and side passages going under formations. A perimeter survey under the flowstone made short work of this, then it was up a mud slope into a crawl. We passed by a sketchy looking ladder into the ceiling and another rope climb up flowstone. I had hoped to finish the cave today, but I wasn’t feeling particularly bold. One last trip armed with a drill and rope should fix that. Going forwards our mud crawl terminated in an impassable steep upslope crawl, but the way on was down the right side of the mud slope into a zig zagging crawl.

Down here were pools of water and liquid mud. We could keep our Distos and book dry, but still got slimed real good. Past a crawl over a boulder a ceiling channel opened up and enabled us to walk sideways. Then a 90 degree right, then left and we were strolling in wider and tall passage. Ahead was another fork, a rope climb up a flowstone slope ended at the top in a crack. Below was a low water crawl and many nice formations. It was getting late though, and we had been at it all afternoon. We called it quits for the day after adding 400 ft to the cave, and leaving little enough passage left to finish on one more trip. We drove into town and stopped by Bill Grose’s house to get info on more caves to do the next two days. Bill drove us out to see a small cave on the roadside about 20 minutes from town, and told us about Skeens Mine Cave, which had been located but we still needed landowner permission for. After getting our mission for the next day we ate at an Italian restaurant in town then headed over to Crystal Springs for the night. I didn’t feel like hiking my tent and food out to the campsite down the trail from the parking lot, so we just put the front seats in the car back and slept in the car. I slept very poorly like this, my entire life I’ve never been able to fall asleep in a car, train, or plane. Next day we got word from Bill that he’d gotten permission from the owner of Skeens Mine Cave, just down the road from Crystal Springs. So, we made the 10-minute drive and headed to the cave. The first two shots we are crawling but then opened to a walking sized straight passage. There will drill holes and blasting marks all over the walls, the entire passage had been mined to this size, but periodic fissures in the ceiling and formations indicated this was a natural cave too.

We couldn’t piece together any evidence of what the cave was mined for. The floor here was flat mud with very few tracks, but on a mud slope halfway to the cave’s end were bear claw marks. Sketching this cave was very easy and fast. One straight and flat passage with only the occasional cross fissure, mud slope, or manmade rock pile. At the end was a wire basket from a bicycle and a metal chair.

Leah claimed to hear some noises, and once again I feared we’d find a bear between us and the entrance. Or something far worse, something about mines and abandoned manmade places in general are far scarier than any cave I’ve ever seen. Luckily no such macabre things appeared and we crawled out after mapping the cave to be 200 ft long.
We then drove over to Bowles Spring which Bill had shown us the previous night and got to work there. The entrance was a low arching crawl hole that immediately sloped into a standup room. The ceiling had collapsed here leaving a pretty skylight in a circular chamber. To the right the cave went down to the water and got too small. Ahead was an enticing walking passage with an interesting cross section due to the folded and tilted rock found throughout Appalachia. Only four shots later the cave ended in a low muddy sump with no other side passages. Pleased with ourselves having finished two caves in one day we headed back to Crystal Springs to try and locate and map more.
Cave Maps:
(All cave maps are original maps drafted by Nathan Roser)

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