Cave Digging and Exploration:
Chestnut Ridge, 2007

Buckets of Smoke and Bent Tree

Last Update: 13 April 2007

This page describes projects by Butler Cave Conservation Society members on Chestnut Ridge in Bath County, VA, in March 2007. Photos by John Sweet except as noted. Text by Gregg Clemmer except as noted, edited and assembled from e-mail by John Sweet. To be continued!

12 February 2007: Keith Wheeland and I walked up Chestnut Ridge today and located the small sink that you talked about. I tied flagging tape around two trees on both sides of the sink. There was no snow melt in the sink. I could push my walking stick down a couple feet in most of the sink’s bottom except for one spot where it went all the way down. Prospects? I don’t know. An afternoon with a couple diggers might tell.   Phil Lucas to Gregg Clemmer, e-mail.

Phil Lucas with his walking stick, 12 February 2007.   Photos by Keith Wheeland.

17 March 2007: We had twenty intrepid souls join us for the digs this weekend, though not everybody went up on Chestnut Ridge . . . Nevin Davis led team two up to the Chestnut Ridge sink illustrated above. Nate Walter, Jean Vargas, Tony Canike, Kathy Haverly, Gregg Clemmer, Yvonne Droms, Mark Minton, Ed Kehs, Ed Kehs Jr and wife, and their 20-month-old daughter Zoe trekked up to the top of Chestnut Ridge (about 2700 elevation) and camped out in the cold til dark. (It was snowing and reached a high of only 27° in nearby Musote. Brrrrr!)

We quickly dug through the leaf and root mat and started a trough downward about 6 feet long by 1.5 feet wide. Solid, fluted limestone walls quickly defined the dig along the long sides with jammed rocks and clay sealing the ends. By mid-afternoon, we were using a haul bucket, pulling up rich, dark, mostly dry earth interspersed with nuts, and snail shells. We encountered no air but did hit the occasional “teaser void.”

Early in the day, we managed to get a fire going (thanks to this caver’s carbide lamp) and that made all the difference. With three inches of snow and windblown flurries throughout the day, the fire provided just the right amount of warmth and friendly gathering space to keep the dig going downward.

We have no known cave under us in this location, and the nearest entrance of any note is Burns, about 1200 feet to the NE. This sink is a pleasant dig (especially in warm weather!) and can be worked by just four people. We are down 13 vertical feet (all dug on one cold Saturday) and should plan a return soon — which leads me to suggest the weekend of 31 March as a return date, several of you having already said that’s workable.   Gregg Clemmer to BCCS, e-mail.

31 March 2007: We had seven diggers when we returned to Chestnut Ridge to continue the effort from two weeks earlier. Mike Spencer, Mike Kistler, David Kohuth, Jean Hartman Vargas, Scott Olson and I, went at it again. An hour or so into our efforts, John Sweet came hiking in from the south, finding us with his trusty GPS.

Jean had first go at the bottom, digging out wet clay, dirt, and rocks. Realizing we needed a better rope and tackle, plus more buckets, Kohuth and Kistler headed down the hill to Nevin’s, but ended up getting most of the supplies from Phil Lucas’ caving emporium. (Thank you, sir!) Mike Spencer, eager to see some virgin, took the second shift, quickly filling bucket after bucket, and lowering the floor several more feet. An hour into his digging, he popped into a horizontal void on the southern side of the sink. With air! In a short vidio clip, Mike describes his find. This is a small-format video that should work even on a dial-up connection. [1.1 MB] Right-click and save it to your hard drive if it runs jerkily in real time. It will run in RealPlayer or WMplayer.

Jean, Gregg, and Scott with the improved lifting rig.     Jean at the top and Mike Spencer in the pit.

Jean hoists a bucket of rocks and mud.     Gregg at the bottom, ready to begin his shift.

That changed the chemistry of this dig! His slot was way too small to enter, but he did say there seemed to be a small pit going down just out of view. Exit Scott Olson to secure a battery powered drill and some other equipment. When I got my chance to work on the bottom, I concentrated on lowering the floor in hopes we might dig into a void beneath, connecting us to what was already known horizontally. When we taped the depth of the pit about 11:30 we were down 19 feet.

We descended to the work face by chimneying, aided by a hand line. Solid ledges provided a good way to get up and down but with a drop of nearly 20 feet, we needed to be careful. Scott returned with the drill and began drilling, but we garnered just a bucket of gravel from the effort. A second drill session yielded about the same. Spencer went at the bottom again and reported some interesting drop sounds after tossing rocks into the small hole just out of reach, surmising the depth a dozen feet or more.

I had meanwhile taken a hike to the top of Chestnut Ridge to get the lay of the land. As I walked south along a logging road on the very crest of the hill, I came to a curious groundhog hole, which upon closer inspection, was no animal den. I peered into cave. No air, but this thing dropped a good body length, then steeply descended to a second drop. I went back to the diggers and with sufficient hype, recruited John Sweet and Jean to join me in probing this thing. It appeared to be virgin with a couple of chock blocks poised to brain anyone who dared enter. We removed them, plus a few others and John went in, armed with his camera. Jean, in coveralls, entered when he exited and went to the bottom of the second drop, a seven foot down climb that ended in fill. I then had a peek, and pulled out a few rocks on the bottom, finding a few curious cracks going down. But no air.

The entrance as we found it. I called it Bent Tree Crevice but I don’t know if the others concurred, nor do we know if it was named by Joe Brady when he entered it years ago.   Jean peering in, Gregg leaning on the bent tree.

The view inside before anyone entered.   Two chockstones blocked the entrance. Where did these come from if this cave was previously explored?

Gregg at the lowest level and leaning on the tree again after we covered the opening with sticks and leaves.

Needless to say, we three returned to the main dig, fired up by our little discovery. We found out later, from Nevin, that this cave was previously known, having been entered by Joe Brady some 20-30 years ago. It breaches a top layer of sandstone, then drops through 15 feet of limestone. A team of rock tossers eager to spend a day in search of more cave might consider this.

Back at our main hole, it was apparent that we would need “higher powers” to proceed. We scraped more mud and lowered the floor, dug out cavities, and chipped away at flowstone. Intermittent rain clouded the day, but at least we never had a downpour. We left the hillside energized and optimistic, vowing to come back tomorrow armed for bear.

1 April 2007: We were up on Sunday before eight and got to Nevin and Judy’s before nine! After the obligatory 40 minutes of chat around the stove, we were on our way. The game plan was to “gravelize” the floor of flowstone in hopes of widening the passage, deepening the passage, and maybe hitting a void beneath. Nevin did the honors and almost got his two bag percussion instrument to accompany the 11 o’clock pealing of bells from the Methodist church in Burnsville. (I don’t think they play the 1812 Overture over there.)

Several diggers had never participated in such energized efforts and thus they reveled in the novelty. Especially the dense white cloud that filled the hole in the aftermath. Marginal air flow due to a temperature-neutral day, kept the cloud from exiting the entrance. We tried cajoling, blowing, even cursing the stuff. Finally someone dropped a bucket into the pit. We all watched it disappear, then return filled with smoke! When we tipped it, the smoke poured out of the bucket.

Hmmmm. Kohuth scrambled out a name. Buckets of Smoke Cave? Sounds good to me, said someone. And most nodded in favor. Another short vidio clip shows the smoke-filled buckets being lifted out of the pit. [1.3 MB] In this low-res video one cannot see the smoke pour from the bucket, though it is clear in the original.

I got to the bottom first, finding a small hole dropping down 20 inches or so into a void but way too small for me to enter. I lowered the adjacent floor and widened the crack, wedging out fractured rocks with a crowbar, gingerly trying to keep them from falling into the new slot. Thinking Jean might get a better look/see, I exited and she came down, requesting a better lamp. “Sure! Take my carbide. Just don’t drop it down the hole, please.” Which she promptly did less than 60 seconds later.

It rolled out of sight, but she could see the glow. I kept my mouth shut and Jean scrambled to reach the lamp. No go. She scratched and scraped and tried to slip through, while we began nicknaming her “Floyd.” Mike Spencer went down to assist, hopefully to widen the slot. It got interesting seeing them scramble around over each other on the bottom like a couple of salamanders, but in a few minutes, Jean slipped past, saying that it was “convoluted, distorted and not straight forward.” And that she didn’t see my lamp. Then she disappeared!

Spencer called up from the bottom. Jean was gone. Not answering! Minutes passed. Then Jean was back, handing him my lamp. The woman was pretty pumped, with talk of “we have cave” and being “in walking passage!” When she got to the surface, she was agog. Shoot, we all were agog! We had cave! Buckets of Smoke Cave.

Go figure. Some new volcano on the Ridge? Since it was Sunday and several had long drives home, we had “agreed” to head down around one p.m. Now, here it was, after two. Several were horsing to get off the ridge, even as reports of virgin cave were coming to the surface! Talk about — TORN! Anyway, here is Jean’s account of what she saw:

“You know I’m terrible at remembering passages anyway, and this time I had to rush around so fast that I trust myself even less. I still think it’s bizarre that when I went in everybody was happily hanging around, but as soon as I got in it was, “Gotta go, gotta go!” I was totally baffled! Anyway, at the first “landing” underneath the first projection I had trouble moving my head around to see, but I think there was a hole below me and that is probably where the air is coming from. But, I immediately forgot about that because I could see there was passage out in front of my feet. I had to scoot to the right of some sort of hanging pendant, not as tight as the first constriction, and on to the next landing a foot or two down at the passage level. This part is fuzzy but I remember I was looking at a curving cave wall and a flat ceiling and I had plenty of room to sit up. I went forward and came to a kind of intersection. This is when I came tumbling back to report that is was definitely real cave and the reply was that everybody was leaving. I zipped back and took a right turn up the larger passage which was the walking passage. I had to tell myself to slow down because I was stumbling over obstacles in the floor and so I don’t remember much else about that passage except that it seemed to end about 30 or 40 feet out in a nice, round dome type room. I turned around, went back to the intersection and followed this same passage going the opposite direction which seemed to be heading back past the dig because I could hear Mike (Spencer) more clearly, although he didn’t seem to be able to hear me. This was an easy hands-and-knees crawl on a mud floor. I think it ended in another round room with various leads off of that, but I’m not sure! I was too excited and too rushed. At that point I had to come dig out your carbide lamp and come out to make my garbled report. Overall I would say that there is probably a pretty good chance that I saw most of the obvious passage, but there are lots of things to poke around in and might easily continue. Everything I saw was on one level; there was nothing trending upward or downward. I’m guessing that we’ll probably have to head down by digging in that hole I mentioned in the beginning.”

So there you have it — a new cave. Going where, we don’t know. Odd name? Yes, but that’s rather a speciality of ours, isn’t it? A return date has been bantered around — 28 April, if not earlier.   Gregg Clemmer to BCCS, e-mail.