The down-low

Our mountains have long been considered a place of retreat, an escape from the pollution and scorching summer heat of the flatlands. But the world has arrived on our doorstep. Today, Western North Carolina is an internationally known hot spot for outdoor pursuits. Still, a handful of local magicians regularly perform a vanishing act, evading the panting crowds of tourists and adventure-seekers. Among these wizards are members of Flittermouse Grotto (flittermouse.org), a local chapter of the National Speleological Society that gets its unusual name from an old-school word for bat.

Journey to the center of the earth: Cavers put their claustrophobia aside to explore Worley’s Cave in eastern Tennessee. photo by Jeff Long

The club’s roughly 50 members make a point of heading underground at least once a month, according to Scott McCrey, the Grotto’s safety-and-training officer and a member since 1995. They meet the first Friday of each month at the Black Mountain Library to share dark secrets and plot future disappearances into caverns scattered across Tennessee and North Carolina.

Although many of these caves are less than 30 feet long, McCrey emphasizes the importance of making safety a priority. That goes double when exploring larger caves, which coil deep beneath the earth’s surface. Before even thinking about getting dirty with the group, one must plan to gear up with at least three sources of light, head protection, shoes or boots with good traction, and layered clothing. Many caves stay at 57 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, which makes for a nice summer reprieve but can prove fatal to an unprepared caver if hypothermia sets in. Above all, says McCrey, it’s best to travel with others who know the destination well.

Flittermouse Grotto keeps tabs on more than 9,000 caves in Tennessee and around 1,300 in North Carolina. But of the myriad local subterranean playgrounds, the club has probably visited Worley’s Cave the most. Near Bluff City, Tenn., it boasts about three miles of passages, and an underground river courses right through it. The club easily spends six to eight hours at a stretch trekking Worley’s tunnels, which average 15 feet high and about 20 feet wide. There are some spots where more technical feats—light climbing and rock traversing—can be done, but this cave offers a path anyone can take.

Asked about her favorite aspects of Worley’s Cave, club member Ellen Hofler, 57, cites the 19th-century inscriptions on the walls. Hofler finds it intriguing that folks of earlier generations and from different backgrounds explored the cave much as the club does now. This reinforces her primary belief about caving: Most anyone can get out and do it. Club members are really supportive, she says, scaling each trip to the individual group members’ abilities. She also enjoys the variety of reasons people are drawn to caving: exploration, fitness, adventure and appreciation of nature, for starters.

These caves are not simple holes in the ground or dead mines stripped of their resources, but living things. They grow across the centuries, hiccupping and bubbling to life. A drip at a time, a cave’s insides form into a shadowland full of wavy stone wonders, spires, ebony-colored mineral “serpents” suspended in midsquirm, and mounds of what look like sea foam. Many of these natural limestone and calcite masses have formal names, such as stalactite (the hanging formations) and stalagmite (those rising from the ground), but by any name they’re beautiful to the eye.

In the cool, quiet recesses of the earth, the traveler is afoot in eternal night. Humans travel only with lights, but true cave inhabitants eschew vision in favor of other senses, becoming bats.

Another Grotto member, 32-year-old Scott Bosworth, is a biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. There’s no need to fear such a diminutive beast, he explains. No offense to the vampire-slayers out there, but Bosworth says flat out that “bats typically do not attack people. When you disturb them they flutter around, navigating by echolocation. They are not trying to attack you or get into your hair. Only about 0.05 percent of bats carry rabies.”

Biologists, says Bosworth, “typically find around four to five species of bats in a cave. Depending on the cave or mine complex, there might be little brown bats, big brown bats and pipistrelles. The pipistrelles look like jewels hanging in the caves because of the condensation that collects on them.”

Other creatures of the dark that human visitors may happen upon include salamanders, cave crickets, spiders and the fish found in underground streams. Many of these creatures long ago traded in their above-ground markings for a permanent, milk-white cast.

A lot of local caves, including Worley’s Cave, are private property, which keeps them mostly hidden from the public view. “Visitation is mostly by invitation,” McCrey explains. “The club has built up relationships with many of the landowners over the years. Sending strangers there could jeopardize those relationships.”

But joining the club is not expensive, and members are able to share the gear needed for descents. Beyond access to the underground world, there are many other rewards to be reaped along the way. “It’s a great way to build friendships and trust,” says McCrey.

[Asheville resident Jonathan Poston can be reached at jonathanposton@gmail.com]

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