The Cave Diggers: Meet the people who dig holes for fun

When John Dunham felt the cold rush of air blowing through a crack in the limestone, he knew he was on the right track.

He was well under the surface of southern Vermont – he won’t say exactly where — exploring a cave he had found and named the Vermonster. Dunham and a group of caver digger had been army crawling through a passage so tight they named it “The Nipple Scraper” when they felt the gust. It was what they had been waiting for.

“Follow the water is the digger’s mantra, until we have air,” said fellow explorer Aaron Tester.

Determined to get through, the diggers hammered at the rocks to break the passage open. When the soft limestone gave way, they found what every caver digger dreams of: a cave worth visiting.

Crawling out of the wet passage and stretching out for the first time in a few hundred feet, the group found themselves in a room large enough to have an echo, Dunham recounted later. A massive waterfall cascaded down the far side of the room and vanished into the floor, promising more labyrinths for the cavers to explore.

“Just about every week we saw something no human being ever had,” said Dunham, who is the chair of the National Speleological Society’s digging section, recalling the time he spent working on Vermonster a year ago. “We were pretty enthusiastic despite getting totally soaked in icy snowmelt to get in and out.”

Every weekend when Dunham and a group of about nine other Northeastern cave diggers go out, they are hoping to find another Vermonster. To go somewhere that no one has ever been before. It’s the thought that pushes the offbeat crew of New Englanders to brave tight spaces, bad weather, ruined clothing, porcupines and the potential for disaster, just to try their luck.

Cave digging is hard work. To do it well you have to have the knowledge to find a cave, the endurance to dig out the entrances (which are frequently filled in by years of erosion and can be more than a 100 feet long) shovel by shovel, and then the gumption to climb in and explore the uncharted maze of underground tunnels and rooms.

“You’re going to write that we’re crazy aren’t you?” said Tester, who bears a striking resemblance to a cleaned up Viking with his bushy brown beard and growler of craft beer.

Crazy? No. But there is definitely a reason why only about 10 people in all of New England are doing it.

The group – an eclectic mix ranging from people pursuing their PhDs to painters and from men in their 50s to a woman in her late 20s – are currently working on about a dozen potential sites scattered across New England and New York state.

All of the sites have the potential to be big caves like Vermonster, according to digger, Michael Telladira, who has been identifying potential caves for decades. But all of the sites also have the potential to be nothing more than a large hole, not even one hundred feet deep. It’s a game of chance.

“You just don’t know,” he said.

On a chilly morning in late March, a crew of five diggers – including Telladira, Tester and Dunham – make the half-mile trek through melting snow to work they call Corkscrew due to its twisting entrance. Since Telladira discovered the cave while wondering around an undisclosed part of the Williamstown backwoods a few decades ago, it’s his to name.

It’s cloudy and cold enough that everyone is shivering. And while everyone is complaining about the chill, no one suggests that maybe they should come back another day.

From a distance, the hole looks like the rest of the forest floor. Only about six feet long and three feet wide, it’s easy to overlook. It’s when you get close enough to look inside the hole, you realize how big it really is: about 32 feet deep. And growing.

At the site, people grab trees and lean over the hole, peering into it wondering if something has changed since the last weekend they worked on it. Seeing no change, the group starts the process of getting ready.

“Who wants to go in?” Dunham asks.

No one volunteers at first, not wanting to get wet in the cave and then stand outside in the cold later.

“I’m definitely going in,” Dunham says as he adjusts his bat bandana covering his hair and starts pulling on some coveralls.

“I can go,” says Tester. “At least I’ll be out of the wind.”

Suited up in coveralls Dunham and Tester climb to the bottom of the vertical hole. Tester opts to use rock-climbing equipment to get down, because of the steepness.

Damp, cramped and muddy, working inside the cave is for the most part uncomfortable. Maneuvering the tight space, the two men shovel thick mud and chips of rock into a five gallon bucket. The ground is soft enough that it makes for quick work, with the pair filling up a bucket about every seven minutes.

On the surface, Telladira chats with the others about past digs, beer, the upcoming caving conference, bread recipes and his pet pigeon while he waits for the signal. As soon as he hears them shout “bucket,” he starts pulling up the 30 pound bucket, which is rigged to an overhanging tree through a pulley system. Once it gets close enough, Morgan Ingalls grabs the bucket, drags it to a nearby bank and dumps it.

Then the bucket gets lowered back into the hole, and the process repeats itself. For six to eight hours.

Every now and again a puff of air or the opening of small room causes a burst happy shouts hope that “today will be the day.” But more often than not, today is not the day.

When Telladira first found the site, which at that point just a four-inch hole in the ground, he thought it had potential because of its location on a fault line. Thus far, he’s been right.

It take a lot of prep work and experience to find a cave, according to Bruce Fries, who is a part of the West Virginia Association for Cave Studies. West Virginia is a hot bed for caving on the East Coast, as many of the caves there are larger. Out of the 29 digs Fries has led, 20 of them were “some sort” of cave. Of those, nine are worth visiting and three of them are “very significant” discoveries.

The best place to look for caves, according to Fries, is along limestone faults, where the rock has been exposed to the surface. Once they have found the limestone, diggers then look for potholes and streams that seemingly disappear underground. Because of the softness of limestone, the natural acids found in streams are able to corrode the rock creating a cave over time.

“A lot of our searching is walking along ridges and valley where limestone is exposed and we know the drainage is under ground,” Fries said. “It’s just a lot of walking.”

But it also demands a little bit of knowledge about geology. For example, while limestone is soft enough for a cave to form in, shale is not. A tidbit any cave digger would know.

“Most cave diggers wanted to be a geologist at some point,” Ingalls said.

Understanding the geology and a little bit of physics can also be a matter of safety.

Working on these projects, there are a number of things that can go wrong. The bucket loaded with cave rubble could break, causing dangerous debris to fall on the workers in the hole. While trying to explore a tight passage to get further into the cave you can stuck. Or worst of all, a part of the cave could collapse.

Last year, Tester and Dunham were widening a passage in Vermonster cave when the entrance behind them collapsed trapping them in the tunnel, the group recounted over lunch.

“We hadn’t seem them in a while,” said Telladira who had been working on a different part of the cave. “Then we hear you are trapped.”

The other diggers were able to remove the impromptu wall, freeing the two men. But it could have been a lot worse. And while others in the group joked about the memory, Dunham was more serious.

“It was about as fun as you think it would be,” Dunham said.

Later in the afternoon, Ingalls drops the bucket back down into the pit with a thud. It’s been hours, and the work is starting to get tedious. The glimmer of excitement from when they hit an air pocket an hour ago is long gone as the chance of a breakthrough seems to slip farther away.

Bored, Tester calls down into the hole.

“Are we in yet?” he asks, like a small boy on a road trip.

“We’re farther than we’ve ever been,” Dunham yells back.




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