For those interested in going where few have gone before, the Southeastern United States has some prime spots to go caving.
Ben Eudy, a caver and outdoor adventure camp founder in Bryson City, likes the challenge of squeezing through the earthâ€™s cracks to find a large enough cave where light itself has a hard time reaching the walls or ceilings.
â€śYouâ€™re in a place where time stood still,â€ť Eudy said.
In an effort to share this special experience â€” and to promote caving conservation and stewardship â€” Eudy and some local cavers recently formed the Bryson City Grotto, the only such caving club in Western North Carolina west of Asheville.
Local cavers in the region generally go to Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia â€” known as the TAG region. Caving locations are often on private land or in national park areas, so the sites tend to be kept secret to protect the environments. If amateurs went to these caves and vandalized the area or got trapped or injured, it could involve lawsuits or closing down the caves from public access, so Eudy and his fellow cavers maintain a careful watch on these places not only as special sites to explore but as natural habitats worth conserving. Protecting caves means protecting the ground water supply, so caving goes beyond simple recreation.
â€śItâ€™s not Disney. Itâ€™s not a theme park. Itâ€™s not a sport,â€ť Eudy said. â€śItâ€™s probably the last frontier for the average person.â€ť
Eudy wants the club to educate cavers about using safe techniques and conserving these places for future generations. And when it comes to the more challenging vertical caving, Eudy added, â€śWe suggest that people go take a class.â€ť
Before descending into the unknown darkness, itâ€™s a good idea to have the basic equipment and knowledge about how to move around safely. That means going with a group and having an experienced caver on hand to literally show you the ropes â€” also what knots to tie, how to use autolocks and ascenders, and how to strap in to a harness.
â€śFor vertical caving, a harness is standard,â€ť he said.
The average temperature in a cave is about 59 degrees Fahrenheit, so dress appropriately, and pay attention to water levels, Eudy explained. Depending on the season, some caves are prone to flash flooding. Also, remember there are all sorts of things living in caves â€” everything from microscopic bacteria to mice and rats to spiders and bats.
â€śWe donâ€™t like to cave in the winter because thatâ€™s when bats hibernate,â€ť Eudy said.
Eudy grew up Huntsville, Ala., where he had a range of a hundred or so caves nearby, so itâ€™s not surprising he got into caving as early as 12 years old. His parents sent him to outdoor adventure camps during the summers.
â€śI just fell in love with it,â€ť he said.
Then after moving to Waynesville in 1994 and getting his forestry degree at Haywood Community College, he got involved in outdoor adventures and started caving again several years ago.
In addition, heâ€™s starting up PEAK Adventure Camp for youth ages 10 to 17. Based in Bryson City, the camp will offer hiking, kayaking and outdoors education for about $300 a week, a figure Eudy hopes will be more affordable for middle- and low-income families.
While Eudy may never get to see the bottom of the ocean or go to the moon, caving provides that similar thrill of doing something very few people get to do. And if he can pass along the excitement and respect for the outdoors and offer it to young people, then itâ€™s all the more rewarding.
Alarmed to hear that local kids in Swain County had never been camping even though they live next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Eudy said he wants to ensure the next generation has the opportunity to explore the beauty in nature he got to see as a kid.
And besides, Eudy explains, â€śTheyâ€™re the ones that are going to be making policies later on.â€ť