by Kyle Mills
The first high school student off the bus was wearing a crisp, new denim jacket and said to me, “Dad’s ready to go caving!” He was, of course, referring to himself and I looked at him and couldn’t help but seeing a little bit of myself there. I’m originally from Wayne County, West Virginia and this group of students was from Boone County, in the same coal country region of the state. Ten years ago, if you told me that there would be an outdoor recreation and tourism program in Boone County, I would have told you to stop snorting ketamine.
Low-and-behold however, the Boone County Career and Technical Center is making tremendous strides in promoting tourism in a county where coal was king. The death of “King Coal” left the area without much industry, economy, or much of a reason to stay. I myself fled coal country to the high mountains as the beginning of mine shut downs swept the region and hardcore drug abuse ran rampant. However, a shift is happening where people are trying to revive their communities, and tourism is playing a huge part.
I watched as 30 students poured off the bus followed by Bobby Miller, the leader of the program. Mr. Miller is an extremely kind and dedicated educator committed to giving these students the best experiences and possibilities available, and his enthusiasm is contagious. We handed out helmets and lights and started the short hike to the cave.
The cave is in Monroe County and has a history going back to the 1770’s during the American Revolution. I picked this cave because of its rich history and the saltpeter (an ingredient in gunpowder) mining artifacts still in the cave. The cave is also an easy cave for beginners with large passages and relatively smooth terrain. We saw 150+ year old bridges built by saltpeter miners and talked about cave geology.
I started caving 10 years ago when I moved from Wayne to Randolph County and enrolled at Davis and Elkins College. I grew up in the woods, hunting and fishing, but caving was different. The adventure, risk, reward, and uncertainty captivated me and became an obsession. Once I graduated from D&E I moved to Monroe County to find new caves. West Virginia has over 4,500 documented caves, but that’s only a fraction of what is still to discover.
After the cave tour, Jackie Lambert and I loaded up and lead the Boone County bus to our next destination. This trip was not just to one cave but three. We were on a full blown caving rampage. Since these students were enrolled in the outdoor recreation program we wanted to give them a taste of the whole spectrum of caving; from wild to commercial.
Wild caves are just what they sounds like: no lights, no trails, and no paid guides. They are just holes in the ground; holes that can go for miles and miles. The next stop was the commercial Organ Cave. We wandered around their museum/gift shop for a while then followed their guide to the entrance.
The tour was exactly what you would expect. The guide did a fine job at explaining the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, the folklore of the cave, and basic cave geology. Organ Cave is some 40 miles long, but the commercial tour only covers a small percentage of that space.
The last stop on our tour was Lost World Caverns. Lost World is the highest rated commercial cave in West Virginia and deserves to be. The commercial tour room is 1,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and contains the best collection of huge cave formations in West Virginia.
We walked around the big room and talked about everything I could think of about caves that we had not covered already. This didn’t include a whole lot after the previous two caves. There was one thing that we did talk about extensively though: bones. Caves preserve artifacts very well due to their constant temperature and humidity, so whatever ends up in a cave can last a long time.
While working at Lost World, before I came to Experience Learning, I found a bone pile on a high ledge. At first I pulled out a large tooth and took it back to the surface. Later, under the instruction of the Smithsonian Institute and the West Virginia state paleontologist I removed the rest of the bones for them to study. The bones were found to be from a common black bear, but carbon dated to 34,000 years ago. The students were stoked to hear my story about finding the oldest black bear in the Appalachian Mountains, and we worked our way back to the surface.
Steve Silverburg, the owner of Lost World and board member of the Southern West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau, led a discussion about outdoor tourism with the students once we got out of the cave. Steve took Lost World from an abandoned and nearly condemned business to one of the number one attractions in southern West Virginia and talked about the role social media, advertising, and reputation plays in the tourism industry in the state.
As the students boarded the bus for their return trip to Boone County I really felt like they had made a connection. Caves are such an easy thing to blow peoples’ minds with. They are multidisciplinary vortexes that can suck you in, and once you’re there you can’t help but keep exploring and learning.