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Contributed photo by Chuck Sutherland / Laura Casey explores a cave in Putnam County, Tennessee.

Those interested in caving need not travel far from Chattanooga.

"Tennessee has the most caves of any state. We are at over 10,000 documented caves now. The majority around the Cumberland Plateau," says Sewanee's Maureen Handler, operations vice president of the National Speleological Society.

But, she adds, "Caving is not an activity to take lightly. Even easy caves can be dangerous and even potentially deadly for the untrained and not properly equipped explorer. We never make wild cave locations publicly available, that just leads to problems for the landowners."

So how does one start spelunking then?

To help you better understand the sport, here's what to know before going underground.

What is a wild cave?

A wild cave, Handler explains, is any cave not classified as a "show cave," or "commercial cave." (Think Ruby Falls or Raccoon Mountain Caverns, for example.) And while each state has different criteria for defining a cave, according to William Shrewsbury, veteran caver and owner of Harrison gear store ON Rope 1, the most common definition is any opening in the Earth at least 50 feet deep.

 

It's sedimentary, my dear

Limestone is a sedimentary rock, frequently formed with the help of ancient ocean life such as oysters, clams and coral. After these organisms die, their shells and bones break down in the water, collect in layers on the seafloor and eventually pressurize into rock.

Because limestone is mostly made of calcium carbonate, it is prone to erosion and solution weathering. Solution weathering is when carbon dioxide from the air collects in rainwater to become weak acid. Over time, this acid dissolves limestone, often resulting in spectacular cave systems.

 

Did you know?

Tennessee's caves maintain a temperature of 58 degrees F year round, which reflects the annual average temperature for the state of Tennessee. Texas caves, meanwhile, maintain a 70-degree temperature year round. Not coincidentally, the average annual temperature for that region is 70 degrees.

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Contributed photo by Chuck Sutherland /Jim Hershung admires "cave flowers" in Warren County, Tennessee. Also known as "gypsum flowers," these unique mineral formations grow in shapes that resemble flowers.

Rules to remember

Be safe.

> First and foremost, bring plenty of light. The National Speleological Society code requires three light sources, with the primary source mounted to the helmet — which is another critical piece of gear.

> In a cave, hypothermia is a serious risk. Never wear jeans or cotton, which tend to hold moisture. Instead, wear moisture-wicking material such as polypropylene, nylon or polyester.

> Remember the three-points-of-contact rule, stating that three points of the body must be touching immovable objects when traversing uneven ground — two hands and a foot; or a shoulder, a foot and butt, for instance. According to Chattanooga-Hamilton County Search and Rescue, the most common injuries sustained in a cave are slip-and-fall related sprains, broken bones and head injuries.

 

Respect the history.

> Caves host fragile ecosystems, rare wildlife and ancient artifacts. The easiest way to avoid disrupting the life — both past and present — is to stay on established trails.

> Since 2006, white-nose syndrome, a fungus, has killed an estimated 6 million bats in the Eastern U.S. In part, its spread has been linked to human activity. After caving, it is paramount to decontaminate your gear. This can be achieved either by soaking gear in water that is 122 degrees F for at least 15 minutes, or by wiping gear down with Formula 409 antibacterial cleaner, Lysol disinfectant wipes or bleach, says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

 

Don't trespass.

> Many caves are located on private property, or they may be owned by Chattanooga-based Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. — the largest conservancy in the U.S. dedicated to protecting caves — but adjacent to private property. Access can be tricky, which is why cavers are famously protective of their locations. The best bet is to join a local caving club — the Chattanooga Grotto, for example, which meets monthly at Outdoor Chattanooga.

"People are welcome to come and see what we are about and to see if caving is something they would enjoy," says Tripp Lichtefeld, grotto chairman.

 

Gear up

The equipment list for beginner cavers is relatively short, and most all of the gear listed below (and then some) can be found at Harrison's ON Rope 1, owned by veteran caver William Shrewsbury.

> Three light sources (including a headlamp) and extra batteries.

> Long-sleeve shirt and pants. (Remember, no jeans or cotton!)

> Knee pads.

> Helmet.

 

Stalag-who?

Stalactites, which are formations that hang from cave ceilings, form when water droplets seep into the cave, leaving behind mineral deposits. Stalagmites, meanwhile, grow like cones up from ground, where those same water droplets hit the cave floor. To distinguish between the two, remember that stalactites hold 'tite' to the ceiling, while stalagmites "mite" trip you.

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