Why We Don't Share Cave Locations

People often ask myself and other cavers to give them cave locations and cave information. I always reply, "I don't give out cave locations". Not knowing the history of reasons why I do this, I am often asked why. This is my response.

Civil War era ladder burned, Hubbard's Cave, Warren Co, TN
We love to hang out with, and take new people caving. Some see us as stingy stodgy keepers of secrets (and some cavers are), but I see myself as a gate keeper. I am not all powerful, and I am fallible, but my knowledge extends far beyond what an inexperienced caver (or spelunker as they often call themselves) does.

That is important because the conservation ethic we practice on the surface doesn't always work underground. Also the way we understand our environment to keep ourselves safe doesn't work the same way underground. These two key issues are the main reason why I won't give out cave locations.

First, let's address the conservation issue. If you consider the combined historical, archaeological, paleontological, biological, and mineralogical resources of a cave to be finite (which they are), then they can be used up.

We consume cave resources by destroying them. And history has shown us over and over again that is what happens when the general public is aware of a cave. Pictured above is a civil war ladder that was burned in a campfire inside a cave no doubt by fools burning their own cultural history. That ladder had been there from at least Civil War era, perhaps longer.

Geologic resources are vandalized. Folks spray paint on walls and formations. They break formations accidentally and on purpose and remove them from the cave. These resources do not renew on a timescale that humans can appreciate. In other words, they will not return in our lifetime.

Bats and other critters in caves can be adversely affected by human presence. A recent cave I visited had an estimated 500 dead endangered gray bats laying on the ground because someone went through the cave during the wrong time of year. I think that if the person had been properly educated those bats lives would have been saved, and bats lives are worth saving.

I have seen caves that have been dug up where people were pot hunting (looking for Native American artifacts). I have seen prehistoric Native American art covered with modern day spray paint. And in case you're wondering why the Native American's art is more important than modern spray paint (yes, this is a stupid question that I am frequently asked) then please bear with me while I use the rules of capitalism to assess the values of each
Spraypaint - common, easy to find and reproduce. The value of knowing who Johnny was with at this undisclosed period of time is virtually worthless because it is in such prolific quantity. It's less than worthless, because it's potentially obstructing other information of more value. See below.

Native American art - rare, difficult to find, impossible to reproduce. The limited nature of this particular resource makes Native American art very valuable by supply and demand. No one is selling this stuff, but for the people who study it, it is highly valuable.
Below is a photo of modern vandalism adjacent to bear claw marks. Bears haven't lived in caves in Tennessee for some time. I can't speculate as to the age of these claw marks, but they may be Pleistocene. I wonder if the vandal would have felt it so important to leave their mark in the mud if they knew what it was next to?

If you need more photographic evidence of how terrible people can be to caves, Bradley Jones put together this album on Facebook of cave related atrocities.

None of this even touches on the safety issues of caving. Briefly, we cave with helmets, three sources of light, changes of batteries, gloves, boots, elbow pads and knee pads, and a backpack with food, water, and a simple first aid kit. That's the basic stuff. Developing an understanding of what clothing to wear (hint: avoid cotton), and fine tuning your gear can be a long and expensive process unless you have a more experienced group of people who are willing to share their knowledge.

Bear claw marks, vandalism, Cripps Mill Cave, Dekalb County, Tennessee

We like to teach people the conservation ethic that we learned. And we like folks to be safe underground. This is no different than teaching your kid how to drive a car before giving them keys. You want your kid to be safe, and you don't want your kid to drive into someone's home and destroy it.

If you're interested in getting involved in caving, don't ask where caves are, ask where cavers are. Many of us attend monthly meetings at local cave clubs called grottos. I am a member of the Upper Cumberland and Spencer Mountain Grottoes. This is where you want to cut your teeth in caving. You want to meet people, network, and go on caving trips. We hope one day you'll be the one finding new caves and leading caving trips.

Here's where you can find you local grotto, and learn more about caving, http://caves.org.
Vandalism, Jason Collard, Grassy Cove Salt Peter Cave, Cumberland Co, TN


Adam Bourque said…
Good article, what a magical world it would be if there were no spraypaint or recent carvings on the caves and arches we encounter.

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