MADISON TWP. – “There are only four caves of this kind in the state, and they’re all endless. That speaks to [its] significance from a caver’s standpoint.”
These words by Kim Metzgar, chairperson for the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy (MAKC), speak to the joy of discovery experienced by volunteer cavers as they explore and map the hidden recesses of the Barbara Schomer Preserve cave near East Brady in Madison Township, Clarion County (Due to safety and preservation efforts, MAKC officials asked that the exact location of the cave not be published.)
The MAKC is a non-profit corporation based in Western Pennsylvania that was started by 11 cavers who dedicated themselves to “the study, conservation and preservation of caves and karst resources, and the education of the public about those resources.”
In addition to the East Brady area cave, the group owns two caves in West Virginia and one in Huntingdon County. The MAKC also leases several caves in Westmoreland County — two owned by Metzgar and her husband — as well as caves in Bedford, Cumberland and Lawrence counties.
“We lease the longest cave in the world, and that’s in Lawrence County,” Metzgar said. “It’s made from the same kind of limestone that [the East Brady area] cave is.”
In fact, Metzgar said, it’s that limestone composition, along with its horizontal maze configuration and small passages that make the local cave unique. The cave is also unique in that it is well over a mile in length.
“There aren’t many caves in Pennsylvania that are longer than a mile because of the geology,” she said. She explained that the East Brady area cave is one of only four large naturally-formed limestone caves in the state, and the MAKC has access to two of them. “They are all different, but similar in their formation.”
Limestone caves are formed when rain water mixes with carbon dioxide in the air and forms a weak acid. The acid then dissolves limestone and creates gullies and caverns that are sometimes big enough to form caves.
The MAKC’s interest in the local cave dates back several decades, and members of the organization visited the site until it was eventually closed to caving. It wasn’t until the property was sold to James Kapp in 2006 that the site was once again opened to members of the MAKC.
“While he owned it, Jim Kapp gave us permission to go to the cave and reacquaint people with it,” Metzgar said. “It had been closed to caving for more than 20 years.”
Eventually, Kapp offered to sell all 200 acres of land to the conservancy. Since that was beyond the scope of the group’s plans, MAKC officials were able, by way of negotiating and subdividing, to purchase 20 of the original 200 acres including the cave from Kapp for $100,000.
“The rest is history,” Metzgar said, noting that once the agreement was signed in October 2018, the MAKC had until the end of the following May to raise enough money for the purchase. The deed transfer took place on July 1.
“We’re just now getting into the cave management,” she continued, explaining that MAKC volunteers were given permission to begin creating a map of the cave back in March before the sale was final. “We have a little more than a half mile of the cave mapped now, [but] we’re not sure how big it is.”
MAKC volunteers from all over the country — including Bert Ashbrook, Chris Hill and Jeff Jahan — have been working to map their way through the Barbara Schomer Preserve cave. The group is not sure how long the mapping process will take because Ashbrook said it is best to survey and map as you go.
“You don’t explore it all and then go back and survey,” he said, adding that the cave’s mazy configuration makes mapping even more difficult. “It’s better form to survey as you’re exploring.”
According to Ashbrook, the MAKC appears to have three goals in relation to the Barbara Schomer Preserve. The first goal is to determine how big the cave is and to determine what the organization has purchased. Second, the MAKC hopes to create a map of the cave, as well as document its biology and geology.
With a completed map, Metzgar added, future cave explorers will be able to navigate the cave more efficiently and safely.
“We want to focus on making the map because [the cave] is very mazy and people can get lost,” she said, noting that the MAKC has established a permit system so individuals with the right equipment can explore the cave at their leisure. “We want to show people how to go and encourage them to do it the right way.”
The final goal of the MAKC, Ashbrook said, is to train the next generation of cave surveyors.
“My personal thing is cave surveying and making cave maps; [so] I’m helping new cave surveyors learn how to survey — just as all the more experienced surveyors do,” Ashbrook said, adding that surveying is one of the few ways that non-scientists can contribute to mankind’s knowledge of the world. “Because surveyors have to be careful to methodically poke into every single passage, mapping a cave is the best way to find a passage where no human being has ever been before...which is a real thrill.”
Ashbrook added, however, that his role in the local cave project is just one singular aspect of much bigger team effort.
“I am one of about two dozen cavers who are studying the cave,” he said, explaining that MAKC also utilizes caver geologists and is recruiting caver biologists, and also relies on the organization’s leadership to navigate the financial and logistic processes above ground. “The [East Brady area] ‘project’ is really a cooperative of many volunteers, all under the auspices of MAKC.”
Once the mapping is complete, the MAKC hopes to add parking to the area and make the Barbara Schomer Preserve more accessible to the caving community.
“People go into caves for many reasons: recreation, to study different aspects of speleology, to do conservation projects, or to shoot photography,” Ashbrook said. “Other cavers work above ground, on things like cave history, land management, training, publishing, cave art, rescue training and landowner relations.”
One thing that all MAKC members share is that they take caving seriously.
“We document and map caves, we write about their geology and document the wildlife in and around the caves,” Metzgar said, noting the main focus of the organization is cave conservation. “It’s more than just a hobby. It’s a way of life.”