Into the Dark Unknown

A volunteer’s three-week, four-state tour of Conservancy preserves begins with a caving adventure in southwest Virginia.

By Tim Koppenhaver on January 18, 2017

I’m following Wil Orndorff up a steep mountain toward a cave opening at Mill Creek Springs Natural Area Preserve near Blacksburg. Wil is the karst protection coordinator for Virginia’s Natural Heritage Program and the state’s top cave expert.

Wil stops when we reach a granite wall, and I see nothing big enough for two six-foot graying men to slip through. Then he kicks dead leaves and fallen branches away from a hole in the ground about the diameter of a five-gallon bucket.

My eyes widen as Wil explains the contortions we’ll have to make to slither into the cave below. Having no caving experience at all, I view the freshly cleared opening into the dark unknown with foreboding.

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Oscar Jennings and Evelyn Lilly Blake Preserve near Blacksburg, Virginia (also known as Mill Creek Stream Natural Area Preserve). Photo © Virginia DCR-Natural Heritage Program

A Blessing and a Challenge

I’ve come to Mill Creek (also known as the Oscar Jennings and Evelyn Lilly Blake Preserve) in the first few days of a three-week tour of Nature Conservancy properties. I plan to see 15 preserves in four different states.

I’m taking this diversion off the occupational treadmill in hopes of recharging for the homestretch of my career. Tapping Conservancy resources and contacts I’ve accumulated over the years as a trail-maintenance volunteer has added incredible depth to my tour — literally, in the case of my trip underground today.

Wil leads the way, going feet-first and making the tight squeeze look easy. The ponytail sticking out from his helmet is the last bit of him to disappear. When it’s my turn, I plop down in the dirt, stick my feet into the dark hole, and try to mimic the moves Wil just showed me. He guides the placement of my feet as they poke into the darkness.

My claustrophobic fears are quickly allayed as we enter a wide, open chasm. Then I lose my footing and slide on my backside to the edge of a stream running along the cave floor — quite the grand entrance. My ego is bruised but I’m ready to explore, and this knee-deep stream will serve as our pathway.

Spending time in a cave with such an expert is both a blessing and a challenge. It’s a blessing in that my Conservancy connections helped me arrange this visit. This cave tour also posed challenges beyond claustrophobia. I had felt compelled to prepare for intelligent conversation with Wil by learning as much as possible about this property beforehand. So leading up to today, I spent several nights scouring the internet for information about this wonderful place and all-things-spelunky.

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Mill Creek flows through the preserve. Photo © Tim Koppenhaver

What Lies Beneath

Wil leads us upstream, pointing out many interesting characteristics of this cave, such as the water we are walking in being stolen from the Gulf of Mexico. Due to a crack in the higher-elevated New River watershed on the other side of the mountain, gravity has pulled water through this cave and into the Atlantic watershed.

Wil also points to a cluster of bat bones and explains that, sadly. white nose syndrome has been wiping out bat populations in this part of the country.

The stream fans out into a waist-deep pool, and Wil assumes that I don’t want to go deeper into the cold water. He’s right. As we return, Wil spots a nearly translucent salamander, and then we pass several oddly shaped calcium deposits growing on the cave walls, which glisten under the artificial light of our headlamps. Looking up, I see stalactites hanging from the ceiling. I’m instructed not to touch any formations, as the oils from my hands would cause damage.

Back near the five-gallon-bucket entrance, Wil shows me where the creek slips under rocks and into a pool before bursting from the side of the mountain.

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The author pauses for a #NatureSelfie while crossing Mill Creek.

A Primordial Stroll

Wil has to get back to the office, so I assure him I can retrace the mile-long trek back to my car. The gifts I had brought along will have to be sent later by mail and will be a mere pittance compared to what Wil has given me today.

I take my time strolling back, stopping to taste the wild watercress that Wil had pointed out on our way up. Primordially delicious! And when it’s time to cross the creek that I had gingerly hopped across earlier, I splash through carefree. It’s another primordially enjoyable experience.

Other than one trip to Luray Caverns, I’ve spent my entire life above ground. Brief as it was, my time below the surface with an awesome guide has been an incredible introduction to the spelunking life and a wonderful way for The Nature Conservancy to show appreciation for one of its volunteers.

About the Preserve

In 2010, Evelyn Blake donated 222 acres to The Nature Conservancy to establish the Oscar Jennings and Evelyn Lilly Blake Preserve. The property's concurrent designation as the state's 60th natural area preserve (Mill Creek Stream) enhanced its protection, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation occasionally hosts guided tours.

In addition to its special cave resources, Blake Preserve features a globally rare calcareous forest. Most such forests have been lost to clearing and conversion to agriculture due to their limestone-rich soil.

Categories: Preserves, Conservation Partners, Volunteering

Tim Koppenhaver is a long-time Conservancy trail volunteer. This is his first post for Passport to Nature.

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