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Caving in New Fern Cave Alabama

On May 15, 1971, John Van Swearinger IV introduced us to New Fern Cave. John Wallace, Bill Meier and I were thrilled to see what every caver in the country was talking about at the time. A huge network of caves has been discovered in northern Alabama. Vertical cavers from all over North America came to dig the deepest pit at that time in the eastern United States, Fern Cave.

The Fern Cave System is located on the west side of Nat Mountain in northern Alabama. fern cave was discovered on June 4, 1961 by Jim Johnston, Bill Torode, Louis Fox, Chris Kroger and Butch Dill. It mainly consists of Surprise Pit, 437 feet deep and over 200 feet long.

morgue cave was discovered on June 9, 1968 by Bob Clark, John Cole, Jim Johnston, Don Myrick, Arch Swank and Lynne Swank. It consists of several pits 100 to 200 feet deep. The mortuary is a hibernation and nursery cave for approximately 50% of all gray bat species and possibly 75% of the southern United States gray bat population.

On January 11, 1969, New Fern Cave was discovered by Jim Johnston and is commonly referred to as the Johnston Entrance to the Fern Cave System. New Fern Cave consists of over 15 miles of horizontal cave with three main levels connected by pits and canyons.

New Fern Cave was connected to the morgue in January 1969 and in April of the same year the lower level of New Fern Cave was reached. Evidence has been found of past visitation to the cave by barriers of torches and large animals, some of which are now extinct. Searches were made for a lower entry, but none were found. Caving in the Fern Cave System involves a long hike up Nat Mountain or, if you know the roads, a drive to the top and a hike to the entrances. It felt strange going up the outside of the mountain and then going inside and back down inside the mountain.

Eventually on October 10, 1971, the Fern Cave and New Fern Cave creek underpasses were connected by digging a creek through the cold water. This completed the fern cave system by connecting the three main caves and a few minor ones on the mountain. The map and most of the exploration of the Fern Cave System was completed by Bill Torode and members of the Huntsville Grotto.

Our group consisted of horizontal cavers, only getting involved in vertical work when there was no other possibility. We made several trips in 1971, 1972 and 1973, at a time when the last discoveries were being made and the mapping was completed. I tried filming in the cave, but was not happy with the results, which can be viewed on my website. A scene shows the elephant ears shortly after being broken and on the first voyage and I have a photo of the elephant ears before being broken with John Van Swearingern IV and John Wallace.

On November 20, 1971 we made our second trip to New Fern Cave, parked by the river at the base of the mountain and walked to Johnston Entrance. Just inside the entrance there is a drop of approximately eight feet where a wooden ladder has been installed.

We continued southeast to the upper formation chambers filled with helectites growing in all directions. We also visited the Red Lilly Pad room. The room had round formations that looked like Lilly Pads in a pool of water and some of them had stalagmites sprouting from the center.

Helectites form when the wind blows through the cave, forcing water droplets to blow down the sides of the formations, leaving mineral deposits. At different times, the wind blows in different directions, causing strange shapes.

After exploring many formation areas, we continued south to Elephant Ears and Green Passage. The Green Passage is a small passage for crawling and walking that leads to the Blowing Hole. The Blowing Hole is a shortcut to the middle level of the cave. Bill Torode cleared the dirt around the hole, put a bolt in the wall and installed a cable ladder. The hole is about four feet around and provides an easy place for climbers to belay as they descend the ladder. The last person descended must be belayed from below with the rope going up and crossing the carabiner at the level of the lock.

At the bottom of the middle level, we continued down the gold passage canyon to the crystal room with large five inch gypsum crystals sticking out of the wall. The wall is over ten feet high and almost as wide with these crystals side by side all over the wall. The crystals are pointed with smooth sides making this the most striking training room I have ever seen. From the Crystal Room, we continued to the Balcony Room. You can literally sit on the edge of a balcony and stare into a huge round room about eighty feet high and containing a massive cast stone called Myrick’s Monument that extends from the bottom to the top of the room.

On July 21, 1973, I returned with Jack Pace and we spent eight hours exploring upstream from Johnston Entrance. We passed the second dome and climbed over a ledge and into a pristine cave. The room contained numerous soda straws and helectites and no trace or sign that anyone had been there. We left the training room and re-entered the creek crossing at survey mark #18, just to the left of a dry creek bed.

On October 20, 1973 John Wallace, Jack Pace and I came back and went straight to the Green Passage and the Blowing Hole. We continued to the dining area and then descended the waterfall securing a rope for the return climb. We noted the white stone cast from the glacier and the small pearls from the caves. We descended into the first large hall and after exploring it exited the cave after another eight hour journey.

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