Laurel Caverns Map Completed

October 20

August 28, 2000. The average length of a trip from the living room couch to the fridge for a snack might be around 20 feet. Multiply that by 799 trips and you’ll have a little over 3 miles of trips. Now, imagine that on each and every 20 foot trip to the refrigerator you must  crawl under the coffee table, climb over the loveseat and then squirm through the dog door to get there.  Add complete darkness, a little mud, 55-degree temperatures, water and rock, and now you might get an idea of what cave surveyors do.

Most people have heard of cavers, often referring to them as ‘spelunkers.’ But cave surveyors are a different breed. 

Questioning their own sanity as they lay mired in mud, trying to hold a compass level to get a reading, calling out numbers from an open reel tape measure that they carry to measure each cave passage from end to end, inch by inch — yes, they are different. 

Most cave cartographers are motivated by curiosity -- they want to know how a cave’s passages relate to each other, how they relate to the things in the cave, like springs, and how the passages relate to the surface above it. This curiosity leads to desire — to see what’s just around the corner, to use the map to predict where undiscovered cave passages are, to be the first to walk where no man or woman has gone before. 

Most cave cartographers spend hours lying in the muck, or crawling under large rocks in a cave passage, taking notes on the measurements and compass bearings other crew members call out, and sketching in the passage detail. Then they work with the data to translate three-dimensional measurements into two dimensions for portrayal on a piece of paper. They pencil sketch their drawing onto drafting paper, copying the sketch out of muddy, musty survey books. They add cross-sections and the symbols that signify soil, or rocks, or a ledge. Finally, when the preliminary draft is completed, they use drafting pens or computer-aided drafting to meticulously draw what the cave looks like in plan view, much as an architect’s floor plan of a house. When complete, they publish their maps in local caving club newsletters, then go on their merry way in relative obscurity, merely answering “it was okay,” when a co-worker asks how their weekend went. Sensitive to the landowners whose permission they gain to map the caves, sensitive to some caves’ fragile formations, or sensitive to the dangers of caving for people who don’t use the right equipment or common sense, cave cartographers can be very protective of their work, and how it is distributed. 

However, completion of a six-year project at a well-known tourist attraction, and the opportunity to raise money for the conservation of caves, have allowed some cave mappers from the Harrisburg and western Pennsylvania region to step out of the limestone darkness and showcase some of their all-volunteer, all “for fun” work. Since 1994, nearly every three-day holiday weekend, a core group of from four to 12 cavers congregated atop Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County for the survey of Pennsylvania’s second-longest mapped cave — Laurel Caverns, the commercial or “show” cave operated by David Cale of Uniontown. 

Given the key to the building and free reign of the place when the tourist lights went out, their headlamps came on and they managed to survey 4,969.7 meters — i.e., 16,304.9 feet — i.e., 3.09 miles of cave passages. The vertical extent of the cave — the range from the highest point in the cave to the lowest point — was 136.1 meters, or 446.5 feet, making it the deepest cave in Pennsylvania. 

To get this data, they took compass bearings and clinometer readings — a clinometer is an instrument which measures the slope or angle from point to point — and tape measurements of all the passages they could fit their bodies into. A surveyor has to clearly be able to see from one point to the next. Thus, if a cave passage goes around a bend, they have to set up another round of survey “shots,” as the instruments cannot be read through limestone walls or through rocks. The Laurel Caverns survey crew averaged almost 20 feet per “shot,” equaling 799 survey stations or points. 

Most cave surveys get to be routine: set stations, read instruments, give measurements, do sketch. Repeat until done. 

The chief cartographer on the project was J.R. Reich, Jr., of York, who was often accompanied by his wife Susie. A computer programmer by occupation, he has been surveying caves for over 39 years. 

“I got interested in mapping caves when I became a member of the York chapter of the National Speleological Society (NSS) in 1960,” he said. “I met the late Bernard Smeltzer, probably one of the best cave surveyors at that time. Bernard lived quite nearby and so we frequently went caving together. Bernard taught me a lot about cave mapping and, of course, I added a few little tricks of my own over time.” 

Reich has surveyed many caves in Pennsylvania, compiled a book on caves of the southeastern part of the state, and mapped caves in West Virginia and Hawaii. Until the Laurel Caverns project, the most extensive project he has done is the longest cave system in Iceland. He arranged one NSS-sponsored expedition to Iceland, to map the Kalmanshellir Lava Cave System with Roy and Terry Garland of Mount Wolf also participating. Four other expeditions to map the Surtshellir-Stefánshellir system have been conducted, the first of which was in 1969. Reich has surveyed three caves in the Hallmundarhraun lava flow which are the three largest caves in Iceland, with an aggregate length of about 12 km, in conjunction with the Icelandic Speleological Society. 

Using a software program called Visual CADD (computer-aided design and drawing), the Laurel Caverns drawing “consists of about 250,000 individual line segments and required nearly 1500 hours to complete,” he said. 

The map is also the first he’s published in full color and is a poster-sized 36 by 18 inches. 

“All of my maps have been drawn in colors ever since 1990 when I began to use CADD to prepare the drawings,” he commented. “Getting a large, full color map onto paper is still fairly expensive so most people who have seen copies of my maps were unaware that the original drawing was in color.” 

While the technical end of the map project is tedious, the caving part was unpredictable. During the project Pittsburgh Grotto cavers dug into a new section of the cave, called Cale Canyon after the owner, and the mappers got to survey the new discovery. 

“I recall two events rather vividly,” Reich said of his survey trips. “The first, of course, was the time (Thanksgiving weekend, 1995) that Dale Ibberson and I were surveying the area above Petite Falls. Dale stepped off a rock, and having misjudged the distance, fell and broke his hip.” 

It was Ibberson’s first cave accident in 35 years of caving and the Harrisburg caver directed his own rescue. 

“The second most memorable event was the time that Kim and Tom Metzgar and I were surveying a low stream passage at the bottom of the cave. To make the surveying a little easier we had temporarily dammed the small stream to lower the water level. I was laying in the stream bed with a trickle of water entering my pant leg and exiting through my sleeve, attempting to sight my compass on the next survey station, when Kim yelled, ‘Jay, some tourists are coming. What if they break the dam?’ All I could think about was what would happen if the tourists accidentally broke our makeshift dam and released hundreds of gallons of water into the narrow space where I was positioned. Luckily the dam held.” 

Another incident occurred in the deepest part of the cave, in nearly the most remote part of the cave. Kim Metzgar of Export developed a gallstone in the Millstream Passage. Initially thinking it was a mild case of indigestion, she continued with the survey until the pain became unbearable. She was able to self-rescue, taking about twice as long to exit the cave as normal. The stone passed after two days and she had the gall bladder removed some months later. 

Other project participants included Roy and Terry Garland of Mount Wolf and Bob Miller of York. Western Pennsylvania mappers included Walt Hamm of Pittsburgh, Tom and Kim Metzgar of Export and Tom Kennedy of Somerset. Caverns employees or former employees contributing to the map effort included Lisa Hall of Greensburg, and John Chenger and Jim Kennedy, both formerly of Uniontown. 

Map proceeds will benefit the cave conservation efforts of the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy, Inc., formed by western Pennsylvania cavers, including the Metzgars. They plan to use the funding to purchase and preserve caves in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Currently the group owns one cave in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, and two caves in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The map is available at the caverns gift shop, or by mail from the MAKC, P.O. Box 196, Murrysville, Pa., 15668, for $4.24 (includes tax), plus 99 cents shipping. More information on the conservancy and the map project is also available on the website: www.karst.org.