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Exploring Caves and Caverns Around Chattanooga

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

Josh Coker descends into a cave. (Photo submitted by Josh Coker)

Spelunking UTC students explore local caves in search of adventure, treasure, and memories.

Caving is a unique hobby and most caving discussion occurs underground. Hindered by scarce local guidebooks and a small community, caving resources remain difficult to find. 

UTC freshman Josh Coker learned about caving through a friend of a friend. He recalls one story about caving in Levi Cave, near Soddy Daisy.

“Levi Cave’s opening is about the size of [a car tire],” Coker said. “It’s a vertical hole in the ground, and it just instantly opens up to reveal a cavern.”

With his headlamp dead, Coker had to hold a small flashlight in his mouth as his hands worked the rope. Luckily, Coker and his caving partner, senior Drew Daniels, always keep backup flashlights. 

As they lowered eight feet, Coker’s rope seared against his descender– which is a figure-eight shaped rappelling tool. Because their ropes’ friction abrades the anodized coating, an X shape is burned into their descenders. The two balanced their body weight as a clamp on the rope, alternating between leaning in and out to descend.

They navigated around clay stalagmites, observing the stalactites hanging from the ceiling. While they enjoy a cave’s natural features, they also recognize the dangers.

“It’s easy to get turned around in a cave,” said Coker. “Everything looks the same: muddy, damp, and rocky.”

As he explained, occasionally they will explore a system with color-coded arrows, much like park trails. There are also a myriad of other symbols.

“There’s no real standard: an ‘X’ might mean don’t stand here while a circle could warn of a sinkhole ahead,” Coker said.

When asked how they remember their path without markers, Coker smiled.

“We never leave breadcrumbs,” he answered. “Between the two of us, we trust each other to know where to get back, and we trust each other with our lives.”

Cave walls pose an additional challenge. They either reverberate or absorb sound, depending on their shape. 

“Wide, flat surfaces enable caves to echo,” Coker said. “Different things– the air moisture, clay, dirt, or rock shape–can all dampen sound.”

Without birds, wind, and people, they heard their own lungs fill and empty with stale air.

Damp, mud-filled caverns typically smell like decaying wood and plants. Moreover, if a particularly rocky cave has a stream rushing through it, the aroma of clean water fills the passageways. One of his favorites, clay caves faintly remind him of an art room.

Coker joked, “I wish you could make it into a candle.”

There are several more known caves and rumored caverns Coker has yet to discover for himself. It is tough to say which entices him more: where the cave is at, or what is inside of it.

 “The Nickajack Cave is south of Jasper and– allegedly– there is a cave through the old railroad tunnel at the bottom of Lookout Mountain,” Coker said. “Hearsay stories are enticing, especially with Chattanooga’s Native American, Civil War, and Prohibition history. If we go caving, there’s always a chance we could find some sort of artifact.”

He noted their only find so far was some discarded batteries.

“It’s kinda disappointing finding trash,” Coker admitted. “We are Eagle Scouts, so we were raised with the Leave No Trace Principles. When we go backpacking, we always clean up after ourselves, and if we see others’ trash, we clean it up too.”

However, he remains hopeful and optimistic about the future of caving. It enables him to tap into his independence and be responsible for his life and friend’s life.

Coker affirmed his position, “[Caving] is about respecting nature and making memories with people I am close to.”

In closing the interview, he offered some advice to burgeoning or prospective spelunkers.

“Don’t try to run into the wilderness with a machete and beef jerky,” Coker said. “Take it easy and get accustomed to the outdoors. Go through UTC outdoors or another touring group. It’s those peoples’ job to ensure your safety. If you are comfortable in a tent, you can learn to be comfortable in a cave. If you aren’t experienced, go with someone who is.”

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