Why would anyone like to get muddy, get wet, crawl and spend hours in temperatures around 54 degrees — and except for small lights be in total darkness? For an answer, just ask a member of the Chattanooga Grotto.
That is one of 13 caving groups in Tennessee and a member of the National Speleological Society, which includes more than 10,000 members spread across 250 grottos.
"I think we have about 75 members with about 35 being active," Chattanooga Grotto president Marty Abercrombie said recently. His group meets the first Monday of every month at Outdoor Chattanooga.
While there are some members who seek out caves almost weekly, the club organizes outings suited for families and various youth groups.
"In a perfect world we would have a trip every month. We do go at least once every two months," Abercrombie said.
For those who love caving, this region is the place, he said.
"The area we live in is called TAG, which stands for Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia," Abercrombie noted, pointing out that TAG has about 4,000 caves. Many of those are in Jackson County in northeastern Alabama and Marion County in Tennessee.
The largest in a 75-mile radius of Chattanooga is the Blue Spring Cave in White County. It's also the biggest in Tennessee and the ninth largest in the United States, he said.
"It has got more than 35 miles of known passage. It is huge," he added.
"The area's most popular and deepest cave is [12-mile-long] Ellisons Cave, located in the Pigeon Mountain area."
That's in Pigeon Mountain in Walker County, Ga.
Longtime grotto member Buddy Lane does not know how many caves he has been in.
"I would not even begin to know," said Lane, assistant chief of the cave and cliff squad of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service, who joined the NSS and the local grotto in 1969. "I have been caving all over the world."
He and others map and take measurements of caves, which can take a lot of time. Lane once stayed five days in the Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, which is about 138 miles long.
Most cave mapping now is done with lasers; it used to require measuring tapes.
Now 59, Lane does not go in caves as often as in the past but still goes once a week or so.
Asked when he might stop, he replied, "When I can't do it. I've got a friend that is in his 70s, and he still goes every week."
Butch Feldhaus, 56, a TVA electrical engineer who belongs to the local grotto, said his interest in caving started early in his life when his dad took him to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, but it became more intense when he moved to Scottsboro, Ala. -- "the caving capital of the world," he called it -- while working at the planned Bellefonte Nuclear Plant site.
He proposed marriage when he and Mary Beth, who accepted, were in Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, Tenn.
"I figured she would want to select the location for our marriage, but I selected where we would become engaged," said Feldhaus, who now lives in Ooltewah.
"It got to a point that I was going two or three times a week," he said. "When I got off work, I could be in a cave within 30 minutes.
"Now I just go several times a year, meeting scout groups and stuff like that. For a few hundred bucks you can have all the equipment you need. However, you want to have good quality stuff. Caving is a pretty safe sport, if you approach it safely. It does not take long to learn and it can be a family sport, with proper training."
While actual cave exploring is rewarding, so is looking for and finding new caves, he said.
"Basically, you go out and do what they call ridge walking," Feldhaus explained. "You just go out and ridge walk, looking for an opening. Other times you might just feel a little bit of air coming out of the ground. This time of year is the best time because you can feel the warmer air coming out of the cave. It is just so much easier to see as all the vegetation is all gone."
His longest time to be underground was around 14 hours when he was in the Tumbling Rock Cave near Scottsboro.
"There are just a lot of parallel passages, and it is a caver's paradise," he said of the four-mile cave. "We used to spend a lot of time just poking around."
Felhaus said that many caves in this part of the country played a part in the Civil War. In some cases, young men hid in them to avoid being drafted.
He also noted that many caves were used to store food and that people have lived in them. During Prohibition, the Guffey Cave near Woodville, Ala., was a place where people would drink and dance.
In addition to exploring caves, many Chattanooga Grotto members also belong to the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. It is dedicated to cave acquisition, conservation and management and particularly targets caves that are threatened with closure or destruction and those that provide a habitat for endangered species.
Formed in 1991, the organization currently has about 800 members and owns or leases 1,453 acres of land in six states, 63 caves, 27 cave preserves and more than $1.7 million in land assets.
For cavers, the outbreak of the white nose syndrome has become a real concern, and the group takes extra care to prevent the spread.
"We clean the gear between going in the caves," Abercrombie said. "All of the state-owned caves in the state of Tennessee are closed. Georgia and Alabama do not have a blanket closure. They are taking a wait-and-watch attitude about it."
Contact Gary Petty at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.