Located in the northern portion of the Paint Rock River Valley in the Estill Fork quadrangle of Jackson County, Alabama is Doodlebug Hole. It is situated at an elevation of nearly 1,400’ in a 30’ diameter sinkhole on the south side of Hodge Mountain. While it is unknown who first discovered the pit we can certainly see why it was named as such. It resembles on a large scale an ant lion trap, also known as a doodlebug hole. The pit had long been known about by locals when on November 18th, 1956 three members from the Tullahoma Grotto of the National Speleological Society made their way to the site. They were joined by local John Henry Judge. The cavers believed that it was possible to get a 500’ pitch in the soluble limestone because it is at the 1400’ contour and the chert is at the 900’ contour. After hiking nearly 2 miles and climbing 700 feet of elevation they reached the entrance. Using manilla rope Daniel E. Bloxsom was the only one of the three that day to enter the pit. He noted when he literally reached the end of his rope he was on a slope which he could scramble down to the bottom. After spending 10 minutes exploring the bottom and eating a candy bar given to him by Cord Link he then spent an hour and half climbing back out of the pit. After arriving back at the top he rested and informed the others of what he encountered. He noted how magnificent the pit was and how the pit opened up so large he could not make out the far walls or see the top. At one point he said, “I was sure I would run out of rope before touching bottom and considered climbing back out”. He estimated the pit to be 425’ deep and thus it became the deepest known drop in Alabama.
The following year in 1957, Alabama’s deepest pit was once more visited by cavers. On September 8th, 1957 Bill Cuddington, Cord Link, Bob Nygaard and Fritz Whitesell made their way up to the entrance pit. Once again only one caver descended the pit that day and it was Bill Cuddington. He spent four hours exploring Doodlebug Hole while the others set off to find nearby Horseshoe Cave. Cuddington confirmed Bloxsom’s description of the pit and followed passage for about 600 feet to another 20 foot drop. At this point he down climbed the drop and estimated he was at a depth of 450’. He continued to follow passage for what he estimated to be about 2,000’ following the stream. Eventually he was stopped by pooled water and he indicated the presence of a strong outgoing breeze. Cuddington felt he was only about 50 yards from the entrance to Blowing Cave, which is another cave on the ridge about a half mile southeast from Doodlebug. From his stopping point he estimated the cave was at 530’ deep and that it connected to the entrance of Blowing Cave. Cuddington then made his way back out to meet the rest of his party which by this time they had returned from exploring Horseshoe Cave. Horseshoe Cave derived its name from the oval depression of its entrance. It is a vertical walled sink about 150 by 200 feet and 75 feet deep. It has a talus slope leading into a narrow winding passage anywhere from 2-6 feet wide and 20-60 feet high. They estimated that it was only about 200 yards away from Doodlebug and is at a slightly higher elevation. Due to lack of time they only explored about 500 feet of passage but it appeared that a hydrological connection exists between the two. As the party left Doodlebug Hole they tossed in smoldering logs from a fire. Once down the mountain and back at the Blowing cave entrance they noted clouds of steam/fog were blowing out with the faint smell of smoke. They speculated that if the two caves connected it would be almost three quarters of a mile long and approximately 530 feet deep. This kept Doodlebug as the deepest pit known in Alabama at that time.
With numbers like 530 feet deep, three quarter of a mile long through trip and deepest pit in Alabama it was no wonder that cavers across the country would soon hear about and become very interested in Doodlebug Hole. In 1957 a group of cavers from the Nittany Grotto in Pennsylvania decided to make plans to explore Doodlebug. The group consisted of Tom Turner, Jay Edwards, Bill Glosser, Chuck Landis, Roy Willie, Anne Weaver, Peg Fowler and Carolyn Allison (later Landis). They were very ambitious and not only did they want to just visit Doodlebug but they decided they wanted to map it as well. Knowing what a hard task this would be living so far away they enlisted the help of some local Alabama cavers to accomplish this task. Reading in the NSS News that Cuddington had done the pit they reached out to him. Cuddington informed them of the gear they would need and they began to assemble items for their trip. They all pitched in and purchased a brand new 480’ 7/16 rope and also built a 340’ cable ladder long enough for the drop in Tom’s engineering department lab at Pennsylvania State University. It was also recommended by Cord Link that they use a phone line for communication in the cave for helping to make the connection between Doodlebug Hole and Blowing Cave.
On December 26th, 1957 eagerly with all their gear, the group from Pennsylvania made the long drive to Alabama to start the survey and exploration of Doodlebug Hole. Not long after setting up camp near the Blowing Cave entrance the sheriff of Estill Fork and his deputy came to their camp to find out what the group was doing. The sheriff had suspected them of operating a still in the nearby shack and just couldn’t believe that they had driven nearly 1,000 miles to go into a hole in the ground. After inspected their vehicles, their packs and anywhere else suspicious looking he finally left them to do what they came for.
Armed with their topo map, rope, cable ladder and other gear they made their way up the mountain to the entrance of Doodlebug Hole. Along the way up Chuck mentions how impressed he is with the deep grooves in the floor of the mature forest below the entrance. “It was hard to believe the grooves, now more of a vegetated trench, were still there from where the original loggers’ mules had drug logs down to the valley floor” he says. Once at the entrance Bill Glosser noted that it was a gaping maw of an entrance. Due to time, for now they would leave their gear and return the next morning to start their survey and exploration.
The next day Chuck, Jay, Bill, Roy and Tom made their way once again up the steep mountain side to the entrance of Doodlebug Hole. As the cavers geared up Chuck recalls looking straight down into the shaft and feeling terrified. He felt as if his whole body quivered and was electrified. Jay, Bill and Tom were the first to rappel in. They were using a new rappelling technique which consisted of feeding the line through several interconnected carabiners which were attached to a seat sling. They claimed this new method was comfortable and easy to control even on wet, stiff rope. They found that the new double D link rappel was great for long free rappels but was a little hard on the rope. The three guys made it down past the first ledge, which they estimated at 165’ and then to the second ledge at approx another 60’ down. From here they observed that the entrance shaft breaks into another parallel shaft which in turn breaks the flat ceiling of a rather large complex room. A waterfall cascades down for approximately 95 feet on the opposite wall and other streams enter from all directions. The floor is made up of a huge breakdown pile which is broken up with small pits and side passages. They continued their rappel down the breakdown and explored downstream to a room with a balcony which they named the “rotunda room”. Here they also explored a side passage that contains four waterfalls, two of which are 40 feet high. They noted the bones of a small mammal and an extremely high ceiling. They appropriately named the room “Thunder Canyon”. They then made their way one by one back up the pit using the cable ladder and informed Chuck and Roy of their findings.
The next day two parties entered the cave. Roy, Chuck, Carolyn, Peg and Ann entered through the Blowing Cave entrance. They made good time and explored several thousand feet of virgin passage. Since they were running out of carbide, they put their names on the wall and returned back to the entrance. Chuck and Roy then made the hike up the mountain to the Doodlebug Hole entrance to wait for Tom and Bill. Meanwhile, Tom and Bill had entered the cave at the Doodlebug entrance to start the survey. They were using a brunton compass and a tape. The scale they were using was 1” = 20’. They mapped the shaft and then Thunder Canyon. They made their way down the Rotunda Room and began exploring the stream passage. The stream passage became very low and wet and they discovered what they believed to be the cairn placed the year before by Cuddington. They continued to crawl through the wet passage for about 100’ until it opened up. During the crawl Bill remembers, “Tom looked down and since the back of his helmet was against the ceiling his carbide lamp was forced under water and was doused. Luklily he was able to get it re lit from my lamp”.
Once on the other side of the crawl they discovered footprints. They became very excited and there was a lot of whooping and hollering as they knew these were the footprints of their other crew who entered at the Blowing Cave entrance. The connection had been made. They ran down the passage and came to the spot where the others had put their names on the wall only a few hours before. There were also some arrows so they assumed they must be almost out. About 2,000 feet later they weren’t so sure. They had lost the footprints in a maze of interconnecting meanders and parallel passages. They passed a huge dome pit and waded what seemed to be another thousand feet of stream passage. Finally within site was the entrance of Blowing Cave. Upon exiting the cave they barralled through the woods yelling with excitement. They had just made the first through trip through the cave system. Meanwhile, Peg and Ann were back at camp cooking hot food when they saw Bill and Tom. Chuck recalls, “Roy and I were at the Doodlebug entrance waiting to belay Tom and Bill. It was getting very cold and the sun had set. We were starting to worry when in the far distance we could hear women’s voices screaming in a wild way. Since there was no other habitation anywhere near we knew it had to be “The Rover Girls”. Our first thought was they were being molested, perhaps the sheriff had returned? So we ran and stumbled down through the forest in a total panic, only to find they were all celebrating the connection”.
On the third and final day the rest of main passage of the cave was mapped using a compass and tape. The team knew there were a lot of side passages that they were unable to survey on this trip. Their main goal for this trip was to get a more accurate depth of the entrance pit and to have made the connection between the two entrances. For the pit their survey showed a depth of 395’ deep from the surface to the bottom of the breakdown slope and an estimated length of 4,500’ for the cave. This kept Doodlebug Hole at the top of the list for deep pits in Alabama. The next morning the team packed up all their gear and headed north to Cumberland Caverns to celebrate at a New Year’s Eve party. On their route home they even had time to stop and explore several other TAG caves such as Sparkman Indian, Lost Creek, and Big Room. Jay later mentions they had a wonderful time in the south even though some of their clothes and equipment that was left outside the entrance to Big Room were stolen. This continues to be a problem at this cave still today.
For three consecutive days the teams entered the cave from the Doodlebug and Blowing cave entrances. Chuck and Bill recall to me taking photos during one of those days. Chuck said, “Bill took one particular photo of Jay dropping through the ceiling of the big entrance room. I remember setting off a flash powder explosion. We thought the room was too big for flash bulbs to handle”. He jokingly goes on to say, “Flash bulbs… What are they”?
Bill recalls, “I actually won an honorable mention for the photo of Tom rappelling into the big room at the bottom of the entrance shaft at the NSS convention in 1958. It was probably due more to the subject matter rather than the photography”.
Doodlebug continued to hold the title of deepest known pit in Alabama and it would soon attract even more attention. Unfortunately some of that attention was not the kind we like to see as cavers. In April of 1959 a group of 13 cavers from the Birmingham Grotto decided to make a trip into the Blowing Cave entrance. They wanted to see if they too could make the connection between the two caves. The group consisted of Louis Klein, Charles Armstrong (Grotto Chair at that time), Ray Gilbert, Wilfred Smith, Frank Dansby Jr, Ronald Nelson, Harrison Steeves, Jim Davis, Steve Blackwelder, Jerry Robertson, Jay Rolling, Roy Turner and Mike Whiteside. Others had also planned to be on the trip but on their way to the cave Bill Hobson had a projecting rock puncture the oil pan of his Cadillac. He and Charles Rooker went back to town for repairs and planned to later re join the group. Tom Bennett and John Stade arrived late and did not make it in the cave with the original 13. After the group of 13 explored the cave for a few hours and not knowing where to make the connection to the Doodlebug Hole entrance they decided to head back out. Meanwhile outside and unknowingly to the cavers it had begun to rain heavily. After the group waded back to the low 3’ entrance they found it completely filled with water. They quickly made the decision to turn around and head back to higher ground to get out of the water. Inside the cold, dark cave the group spent the next 24 hours huddling together and using small carbide lamps for heat.
Meanwhile on the surface outside, many hours had passed since the expected return of the cavers and their families began to worry. They phoned local authorities who then contacted the Huntsville rescue Unit to help look for the missing group. Upon arriving on scene the police and rescue unit had found the cavers parked vehicles along with Bill, Charles, Tom and John waiting on the group to exit the cave.
Bill Varnedoe recalls, “I remember the incident when the Birmingham cavers were trapped. We, the Huntsville Rescue Unit, got the call from Birmingham that the party was overdue. The caller didn’t know where, only the name of the cave. I had thought it might be Doodlebug and with the rains we had I guessed what had happened. We found their cars parked near there. We could see the spring sumped and we knew there was plenty of room up the hole, so we just waited them out”.
Back inside the cave while some huddled to stay warm others still wanted to see if they could make the connection. Some even took turns checking the water level at the entrance throughout the night. Charles later reported to a local newspaper, “We were never in any danger, but the damp, chilly cave was none too comfortable. No one slept during the night and everyone shivered”.
It is during this time they were trapped that we suspect the group discovered what is now known as the Birmingham Dome inside the cave. Next to a hidden breakdown pile they had left markings on the wall with their carbide lights “B’hm Dome” with an arrow. The dome is so hidden that it is also suspected that until the 2011 survey not many cavers, if any, had ever seen this quite impressive area in the cave.
By Sunday morning the water at the entrance had receded enough, about 4 inches, to allow the cavers to exit. They were able to make their escape by maneuvering the low 3’ entrance on their backs with their faces nearly on the ceiling sucking for air. It took them almost 3 hours for all 13 cavers to safely exit the cave. Outside they found the local authorities, rescuers and the other 4 cavers who did not make the fateful trip. The rescuers supplied the cold and tired cavers with food, water and a nice warm fire.
Local headlines in the newspapers read:
From the Washing Star, “Water Traps 13 Men In Cave For 24 Hours”.
From the Birmingham Post Herald, “13 Trapped Explorers Escape Cave”.
From the Huntsville Times, “13 Escape Cave after 24 hours”.
From the Birmingham News, “13 Local Cave Explorers Trapped For 24 Hours”.
The story was even published in the NSS News Volume 17, Number 7 (July 1959 p.104).
In September of 1959 several members from the trapped group decided to make a return trip into the entrance of Blowing Cave. This time they went armed with over 1,500’ of telephone line. They carried this line in the Blowing Cave entrance with them to keep a constant check of weather conditions outside. There are no reports if the cavers were ever able to make the connection but unfortunately the telephone line still remains in the cave from their trip.
Later that year and still determined, several Nittany Grotto members that were involved with the survey two years earlier became interested in making a return trip to survey the side passages that they were previously unable to do. They had already produced a map of the main passage that is nearly 8’ long and 36 inches high. Their goal this time was to survey the side passages and complete the survey in three days. On December 27th, 1959 the five members (Peg Fowler, Chuck Landis, Carolyn Allison, Jim Allison & Jay Hagenbuch) joined with 6 members of the Huntsville Grotto to finish this task. When they arrived at what was to be their base camp near the Blowing Cave entrance they decided to go ahead and hike up the mountain to find the Doodlebug Hole entrance. After 2 hours of searching they found it. By 1:30pm they had the pit rigged and were ready to send two cavers down. They used twelve 30’ cable ladders and 450’ half inch braided gold nylon mountain climbing rope for safety. Jack Allen and Francis McKinney were to make the decent while Chuck, Peg, Jay and Jim went back down the mountain and entered into the Blowing Cave entrance. Their goal was to meet up at the bottom of the pit inside the cave. Jack decided to descend first using a seat harness attached to the safety line and the cable ladders. Due to some difficulty of the cable ladders piling up on the first ledge it took Jack nearly an hour to reach the bottom. The plan was for Jack to send the harness back up on the safety line for Francis. After yelling for nearly 30 minutes at the top Francis decided to start down using a bowline in place of the harness. He got about 60’ down and could hear Jack shouting. The Nittany group had already reached the bottom of the pit and due to time they called the survey off for the day. They left the pit rigged and made their way hungry, cold and wet back down to the shack near the Blowing Cave entrance. Later that evening 4 of the Huntsville Grotto members (Vern Reckmeyer, Merrill Amsbury, Jack Allen and Francis McKinney) left because they had to be at work the next day. Remaining were the 5 Nittany members along with Tom Sawyer and Bill Garrison of Huntsville Grotto and Fred Mauk who had arrived that afternoon from Texas.
Throughout the afternoon it had rained periodically and during the late evening it turned into a downpour. The next morning everyone awoke around 8am to find it was still raining. Everyone’s spirit was dampened. They knew there was a possibility of the Blowing Cave entrance sumping because they had all heard of the trouble the Birmingham Grotto had just five months earlier. By 9am three more cavers, Dick Radford, Bob Estes and Terry Tarkington had arrived to help with the survey and for a day of caving. The majority felt the only choice was to continue their exploration through the Doodlebug Hole entrance. They knew they could make the descent but there were time concerns with everyone using the upper entrance. Dick Radford wanted to try to get through the Blowing entrance and meet up with the crew at the bottom of the pit so he went into Blowing while everyone else went up the mountain. By 11:30am Bob was ready to go first and he reached the bottom of the pit within 30 minutes. Bill started next using his rappel hammer and a harness instead of the cable ladder. He used the ½ inch braded rope that was being used as a safety line for his rappel. Almost immediately Bill experienced difficulties due to the friction on the hammer so he had to lift the rope up and help it around in order to descend. After he passed the first ledge he continued to experience difficulties. Suddenly there was no comforting wall in front of him and he was rappelling in water. His carbide lamp went out and he recalls spending a very anxious 30 seconds trying to locate a backup flashlight. After composing himself he continued his rappel and within minutes was at the bottom beside Bob. It took Bill 20 minutes to descend the pit.
Bob removed the harness and connected it along with the rappel hammer to the rope. He signaled the top and they began to pull it up. Terry was to come down third using the harness, safety line and ladders and Tom was to be fourth rappelling on the hammer same as Bill. Forty minutes later Bob and Bill saw no signs of Terry descending. They concluded that Terry had not even started down and wondered what the holdup was. They made the decision that if they did not see Terry within 30 more minutes they would either have to try and exit through the Blowing Cave entrance or try and climb back out on the ladders with only a 70’ safety line they had brought down to the bottom. Judging from the volume of water they could see coming into Doodlebug they ruled out the possibility of exiting through the Blowing Cave entrance. Bill decided to make the first climb up about 30’ using the cable ladders. From there he belayed Bob up. They repeated the process and made their way up to the ledge near the waterfall. Because Bob had an electric light and Bill only a carbide on his helmet Bob went up the next pitch first. It took him about 15 agonizing minutes to get up the cable ladder under the waterfall only to find their 70’ safety line was too short to reach back down to Bill. After some time trying to yell back and forth with no success Bill was happy to see the original safety line lowering back into the pit. He later found out that when Bob had reached the first ledge he encountered Terry finally trying to make his way in. The long delay was because when pulling up the safety line, harness and rappel hammer it became stuck on one of the ledges taking nearly an hour and a half to get it released and back to the surface. So while they were trying to make their way out, Terry was trying to make his way in. Terry made his way down to the ledge where Bob was and then climbed back out. After arriving on the ledge Bill and Bob then pulled the ladders up to where they were. They then both made their way out of the pit. By the time they reached the top they were completely exhausted so they left the de rigging to Tom, Jay, Chuck and Jim.
When they all arrived back down to the shack near Blowing they were greeted by Dick with hot cups of coffee. Dick informed them he was able to make his way into Blowing but was stopped at a 10’ flowstone climb up and had to turn back. The team had succumbed to the Cave Gods, declared defeat and decided to call off the rest of the survey. Dick, Bob and Terry left that night and the remaining crew packed up and headed to Tumbling Rock Cave the next morning. From there they made another trip to Cumberland Caverns where they were greeted by Roy Davis. They visited Cripps Mill Cave and saw the glow in the dark gnat larva and spent the afternoon caving with Roy in Cumberland Caverns. This brought an end to their Christmas week of caving activities in TAG. Although nothing more had been accomplished on the survey of Doodlebug they all agreed they had a wonderful time which was the main reason they were exploring anyways.
For the next few years Doodlebug continued to receive visits from cavers such as Richard Schreiber who placed the first bolts in the pit at the ledges, Rusty Mills and a few others as noted in recorded cave logs from the early 60’s. Several hand drawn sketches of the main pit and cave were turned in to the Alabama Cave Survey by various cavers but none are identified as to who made the sketches. Unfortunately the 8’ long map produced of the main passage by the Nittany Grotto in 1957 was never turned in to the ACS until 2011. When Surprise Pit inside Fern Cave was discovered by Bill Torode in June of 1961 Doodlebug virtually fell off the radar because it was no longer the deepest pit in Alabama. In the following years other deep pits such as Fantastic inside Ellison’s Cave also began to receive much more attention. Over the next 50 years Doodlebug rarely received visitation from cavers. This was most likely due to the remote location and access issues.
In the summer of 2010 while looking for a cave to visit, Jason Hardy & Kelly Smallwood came across the loosely drawn map of Doodlebug that was in the ACS. Perplexed by looking at the map Jason boldly said he wanted to re survey the cave. He felt it would be a good project and that the cave needed a better more accurate map. After doing some research and finding out the current landowner we realized what a small world this really can be. The owner, Kathleen, is known by several of our other grotto members Anne & Blaine Grindle and Leslie Lytle.
A few weeks later, Jason phoned Kathleen and arranged for a meeting to go over his plans with her and to obtain permission for the re survey of Doodlebug. On November 24th, 2010 Jason and Kelly drove to Sewanee, Tennessee to meet with her. We met her at her place of business and spent about an hour chatting with her. Jason showed her several of his other maps he had previously produced and we informed her all about caving and surveying. She was quite impressed. She herself had lived on the property during the early 70’s in the “shack” after she purchased the land and had never been inside the cave. During the few years she lived on the property she had only ever encountered one group of cavers. She did however use the Blowing Cave entrance to cool off during the hot summer months. She was very excited about the project and graciously granted us permission to access her cave and property. She was also able to arrange contact with the neighboring landowners for us to have access through their land to hers.
Without ever having visited Doodlebug Jason eagerly began enlisting the help of other cavers for this project. We knew starting the project in the winter would prove to have its own difficulties such as hunting season, the lower entrance being sumped and the cold ripping air through the cave.
On Saturday December 4th, 2010 Jason Hardy, Kelly Smallwood, Nancy Aulenbach, John “Rocco” Stembel, Andy Zellner, Jim Nicholls and Julie Schenck Brown met near the entrance to Blowing Cave to start the re survey of Doodlebug Hole. Since it was currently hunting season in Alabama, Jason decided it would be best to split into two teams which would both enter the cave at the Doodlebug Hole entrance. As we hiked up the mountain, gaining nearly 500 feet of elevation we couldn’t help but notice the neighboring land is very clearly and heavily posted by a hunting club. Once at the top the goal was for Jason’s team which consisted of him, Kelly and Nancy to survey the pit series while team 2 which consisted of Andy, Rocco, Jim and Julie to start at the bottom of the pit heading out towards Blowing Cave. Andy and Rocco had both been to Doodlebug before so Andy agreed he would enter first and take care of the rigging. He was to be followed by Rocco, Jim and then Julie. One by one the cavers began their descent into Doodlebug Hole. Jim, who was visiting from Alaska, was excited he was able to make this survey trip. It had been a while since he had done much rope work so the previous day Kelly along with Bambi Dunlap and Anne Grindle took him to a Southeastern Cave Conservancy preserve, South Pittsburg pit in Tennessee to freshen up his skills. When it was Jim’s turn to descend he got on rope and peered into the darkness of Doodlebug Hole. He then decided he just wasn’t feeling it that day so instead he opted to sit the day out and go back down to camp near the Blowing Cave entrance. Julie then rappelled down and team 2 began to survey at the bottom. Next it was Jason, followed by Nancy and then Kelly. After making some sketches at the entrance, Jason made his way down into the pit to the first ledge where he and Nancy measured it at 153 feet. On this ledge there is a re belay that leads down a slope to a 99 foot drop which then takes you down to a major ledge. From this major ledge we found horizontal passage which ended up being more extensive than we anticipated. We surveyed over 500ft of passage at this level and as it turned out a majority of this area of the cave was virgin. The reason it was mostly virgin was because most groups who had previously visited the cave did not stop on this ledge. They would continue there rappels past this major ledge to the bottom of the pit series. This passage took up the rest of the day for team one.
Meanwhile, team 2 was very successful in surveying around 600ft of horizontal cave leading to an area of the cave called Thunder Canyon. Thunder Canyon is a major infeeder for the majority of the water in the cave. They finished their survey about 200ft shy of the 18ft climb down in the cave. After nearly 9 hours of surveying team 2 began to make their way back up the ropes to find team 1 still surveying in the side passage of the major ledge. Due to time we all decided it would be best to come back the next day to finish surveying on the ledge, down the rest of the pit series and to tie in the two surveys. Since we knew we would be coming back the next day we decided to leave the pits rigged. Julie and Andy decided to exit the cave thru the Doodlebug entrance while the rest of the group which consisted of Kelly, Nancy, Rocco and Jason decided to do the thru trip. As we were making the thru trip Jason asked himself, “What did I get myself into?” As it turns out, the cave is very complex and was a much bigger project than what he had expected. He knew the next few months working on this project was going to be one he would never forget and that it would definitely push him as a cartographer. He was very excited knowing this project was going to be the biggest and most difficult wet cave survey project that he had ever encountered in the two years that he had been a cartographer. He had thought to himself while caving that day that nothing could be harder than surveying Solution Rift and this was going to be a piece of cake. Boy was he wrong. This cave was going to push him to his limits and over the next 9 surveys trips he would become amazed with the dedication to the project from a few of his good friends.
After we all made it out of the cave we were very happy to find our pre arranged camp dogs, Blaine & Anne Grindle, who already had a fire started for us and dinner cooking. Those of us who had made the thru trip were very wet and cold so we quickly changed clothes and warmed up by the fire. By the time we exited the cave Andy & Julie had left so those of us remaining enjoyed some of Anne’s homemade vegetarian chili along with baked potatoes they had cooked in the fire. Soon after eating, Nancy and Rocco said their goodbyes and headed back to Atlanta. This left Jason, Kelly, Anne, Blaine and Jim to camp and it turned out to be a cold one. The next morning we woke up to some snow on the ground and frozen gear. Our breakfast consisted of left overs from the previous night’s dinner and some bacon. Since Julie did not have 4 wheel drive on her vehicle, Jason headed back down the mountain to pick her up along with Mark Dickinson. Once everyone was back at camp we discussed the best plans for the day. Kelly still had to make the drive back to Georgia that afternoon and Anne & Blaine needed to get back home as well. This left Jason, Julie, Jim & Mark to finish the survey in the pit that day. Around 11am they along with Anne made 500 foot elevation gain hike back up the mountain. After everyone descended the pit Anne made her way back down to pack up and take Kelly back to her car in Scottsboro. After another nearly 9 hours of surveying the team was able to finish up the survey in the side passage on the major ledge, down the rest of the pit series and tie in where team 2 had started the day before. They then made their way back out of the pit and de rigged as they went. As it turned out it was a great weekend because we finished the survey of the pit and knew that all future trips we could enter through the Blowing Cave entrance.
The next trip was on a weekday, February 1st, 2011. Jason met up with Blaine Grindle and they drove down to Alabama to meet Julie. Once at the entrance to Blowing Cave they all made their way to the back of the cave near the 18ft climb up. When the group did the thru trip during the first survey in December they had left this climb up rigged to make it easy for the next survey team to get back to the pit area. The goal for this day was to go up the climb up and pick up where team 2 had left off on December 4th. At some point on the way in the cave Julie had agitated an old ankle injury. Due to this they had to call their survey short. After nearly 8 hours of caving and surveying they had only set 7 stations for a total of 146 feet. After this trip Jason was left feeling down. He knew this was going to be a big project and he started wondering how many cavers would come back to help him with the survey.
Two days later on February 3rd, 2011 we decided to make another go at it. This time we would have two teams enter the cave at the Blowing Entrance. Team one consisted of Jason & Kelly. Our goal was to continue where the team had left off two days before. It took us nearly an hour and half of non stop caving to make our way to the 18ft climb up. After nearly 13 hours of caving and surveying we had set 31 stations for a total of 804 feet. We felt we had made a lot of progress because we had also surveyed the first major water crawl in the cave. Team two consisted of Julie and Anne & Blaine Grindle. They had decided they did not want to make the long journey to the back of the cave so instead they started at the entrance of Blowing Cave working their way in. We knew how cold this would be and tried to persuade them differently. Because of the two entrances and the very low temps outside that day the air was ripping in thru the Blowing Cave entrance. So not only did they have to endure the extremely cold air they were also surveying the entire time in the water. After 8 survey stations for a total of 213 feet they had to call it a day. They will probably never forget that trip! That night after exiting the cave we were both very cold and wet. Jason felt his dedication to get the project completed was picking up. He knew he wanted to finish the survey before the spring rains and the possibility of the lower entrance being sumped.
The following week Jason received a phone call from Chicago caver Nicole Miller. She wanted to make a trip down to TAG and as it so happened he had already planned on making another survey trip the following weekend. On February 19th, 2011 Jason, Nicole and Blaine made their way to the entrance of Blowing Cave to get another survey trip in. They made their way back to where Jason and Kelly had left off the weekend prior and their goal was to make it to the 86 foot dome room. Jason knew this would be a big day. 40 stations were set for a total of 1,075 feet and during this trip they surveyed where the Nittany Crew made the first connection between the two caves in 1957. Each trip was starting to get easier for Jason as he could feel his momentum picking up because he knew with each trip we were getting closer to the entrance of Blowing Cave.
On February 26th we decided to make another go at it with just the two of us. We spent nearly 12 hours in the cave and set 36 stations for a total of 746 feet. Most of the area of the cave we surveyed that day was multi level parallel passage off of the 86ft dome area. Fortunately, we only had to survey one very short water crawl this day and after this trip we knew that we only had a few more survey trips to finish the cave. That night on our hike back to the truck we could hear coyotes close by. Upon looking up on the ridge we had about ten sets of eyes looking down at us. Jason got a good laugh out of the situation while Kelly on the other hand did not think it was that funny.
The next trip was planned for March 12th, 2011. The team consisted of Jason, Kelly & Blaine. Our goal for the day was to survey the rest of the complex area of the cave and down the 15ft flowstone climb down to the major stream passage of the cave. We felt if we could make it this far we would probably only have one more survey trip to complete the survey of the cave. As we were making our way we came to an area where the lettering “Bham Dome” was written in carbide on the wall. Puzzled because there was no dome, Kelly began pushing through the large breakdown pile under a ledge. As Jason was literally writing on his survey notes, “What Dome? Do they know what a dome is?”, Kelly shouted back, “I found the dome”. We put down our gear and all headed up in awe to check it out. We used a Leica disto to place a shot on the ceiling to find it was nearly 100 feet. This dome complex was very large and similar to some of the other domes and pits found in the Paint Rock River Valley. We knew we were not going to be able to survey the dome on this trip so we headed back down, set a recoverable and continued on to survey to the 15ft flowstone climb down. We set 29 stations for a total of 834 feet. Our goals were met this trip but we knew with the size of the dome that it was going to take more than one more survey trip. We also suspect that the Birmingham Dome was originally discovered by several of the Birmingham Cavers who were trapped in the cave in 1959.
We had scheduled our next trip for March 26th, 2011. However, the night before we received a considerable amount of rain. We could only hope that the cave and stream would drain all the water and not be sumped but we also knew there was a real possibility it would be. We decided that we wanted to make the trip either way because it would be nice to see how much water it can take. So we made our way that morning over to the paint rock river valley with Anne & Blaine. As we drove down from the north end of the valley we quickly realized that we were not going to get into Blowing Cave that day. We were amazed at the amount of water that was pouring off of every mountain in that valley and it was probably one of the best displays of karst hydrology that we have ever seen in TAG. We made our way up the four wheel drive road to the blowing cave entrance to find it sumped. We spent some time taking photos in the cove and even did a little ridge walking above the cave. We found and dug open a small cave that did not qualify but still had a great day in one of the most remote areas of TAG.
With April upon us and the threat of heavy spring rains we decided to return the weekend of April 9th and 10th of 2011. Our April 9th trip consisted Jason, Kelly and Blaine & Anne Grindle. Our goal for the day was to survey the Birmingham Dome area and then as much of the lower stream passage in the cave as possible. Upon entering the Blowing Cave entrance we set off to survey the Birmingham Dome Complex. We were able to make our way up to the top of a major slope where the majority of the water was coming into the dome. We pushed thru some breakdown and surveyed about 180ft of horizontal stream passage. We followed the source of water which ended in a sandstone boulder choke. With the dome now finished we made our way back down to the 15ft flowstone climb down to our last recoverable station and picked up where we left off just a few weeks earlier. We were able to make great progress and even get in a few 100ft survey shots in the main passage of the cave. Due to time constraints we had to call the survey short to make it to that night’s grotto meeting. We knew we could have finished the survey that day if we only had a few more hours. We elected to come back the next morning to finish up the survey. We set 32 stations for a total of 1,072 feet.
The next morning on April 10th, 2011, which was also Jason’s 30th birthday, we made our way once more with Blaine down into Fanning Cove to the entrance of Blowing Cave. We surveyed for 4 hours for a total of 26 stations for a total of 912 feet of passage. We were very pleased to be able to call end of survey. We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the 70 degree temperature and the copious amounts of blue bell wild flowers outside. In total the Doodlebug cave survey footage came out to be 7, 359ft with a total depth of 450ft. We endured 1.5 hour drives each way to the cave and had 10 survey trips where each time you came out soaked head to toe in cold water from the beginning to end of each survey trip. PVC suits, one piece thick poly under suits and wet suit tops became the normal cave attire while surveying this cave.
This project could not have been possible without the help of a few special people that should be recognized. Jason would like to thank Kathleen O’Donahue, the Shirley Family, The Langlois family, Anne and Blaine Grindle, Keson Survey Tape Company and last but not least Kelly Smallwood. Without all of their support 54 year old project would have never been completed.
Blaine Grindle & Jason Hardy.
Old bolts at the first re belay.
Jason Hardy sketching in Doodlebug Hole / Blowing Cave.
Andy Zellner at the entrance to Doodlebug Hole.
Jason Hardy in Doodlebug / Blowing Cave.
A photo of Lynn Buffkin with a nice fossil in the cave.
Birmingham Grotto Members, along with Jason & Kelly removing the old wire that was left in the cave.
Birmingham Grotto Members removing the old wire that was left in the cave.
Jason Hardy & Kelly Smallwood at the climbup to the Birmingham Dome
Kelly Smallwood at the entrance to Doodlebug Hole. Photo by Jim Nichols.
Jason Hardy, Kelly Smallwood & Blaine Grindle at the End of the Survey.
Jason Hardy at the Blowing entrance calling End of Survey on his 30th Birthday!
(Photos from the 1957 Nittany Grotto Survey provided by Jay Edwards, all other photos unless noted by Kelly Smallwood)