Indiana Down Under
Local explorers have doubled the size of Binkley Cave since 2008, and they know there’s more to find.
YOU'RE CRAWLING limb over limb, dodging rocks and sliding through mud, an elaborate game of “follow the leader.” When it gets too narrow you lie on your belly, pushing yourself through with your forearms and knees. The rock beneath you is cool and slick, slightly slimy. Your breath is visible in the darkness, like breathing on a winter day, illuminating how still the air sits.
As you navigate the winding passageway, tiny stones dig into your palms and kneecaps, stinging the skin. You pass an uprooted barbed-wire fence, a piece of sheet metal, two tires, a can of Mountain Dew. The cave smells stale, with the occasional hint of cigarette smoke from your companions. If not for you and your headlamps, it would be completely dark, completely silent.
This narrow tunnel is one of many entrances into Binkley cave. The Binkley project is currently the biggest ongoing caving project in Indiana and possibly in the United States, one of the few places with uncharted territory still to discover.
Every weekend, a core group of explorers find something: a new lead, a new passage, a new crack that could open to an entirely new passage of the cave. Every time, it’s a new adventure.
GARY ROBERSON OWNS the Indiana Caverns, the “show cave” portion of Binkley. Although not the first to enter Binkley Cave, he was one of the first to see its true potential. He’s been exploring Binkley since 1967, when he started going on weekend adventures with friends from the Purdue Caving Club. Even then, based on the way the air moved in the cave, he knew that large passages lay ahead, that there was more to Binkley than met the eye. He decided to map and develop the cave.
By 2008, after exploring and surveying the cave for almost 40 years, Roberson and his team had found just over 22 miles. It seemed they had hit a stopping point. They had no idea how much more Binkley was keeping from them. They had no idea how much was left to find.
WE ARRIVE AT 10:30 on a Saturday morning and meet our tour guides for breakfast at Frederick’s Café, the caver’s go-to diner. Explorers meet here every weekend before they venture underground. If you’re a regular at Frederick’s, you don’t even have to order. They bring out your breakfast without asking.
Our guide, Dave Everton, looks at us through his slim rimmed glasses and smiles. He’s wearing a Tools of the Trade shirt featuring an electric guitar, camouflage pants and flip-flops. We laugh nervously and squeeze into the booth across from him.
You can’t tell from appearances alone, but we are eating breakfast with the caving celebrities of Southern Indiana. They are the big guns, a robust group of men, and one woman, who know Binkley Cave better than anyone in the world.
Dave has been involved with the Binkley project since 2009, when he started taking photographs for owner Gary Roberson’s book Fifty Years Under the Sinkhole Plain. He’s been exploring Binkley almost every weekend for five years now, along with several other core members who started exploring Binkley and fell in love.
Everton introduces the group, going name by name down the table. Among these cavers are Laura Demerest and Tim Pride, who’ve been part of the Binkley team for years and discovered a new river system in the cave last summer.
Today, Dave is introducing our group of caving newbies to his underground world. There’s us, Jose Aponte, an ex-military veteran and photography student and Brayden, a master’s student researching the Ice Age’s influence on Indiana caves.
“Let’s go,” Dave says.
BINKLEY IS NOT a friendly cave. It can be wet, muddy and incredibly narrow. In some portions, surveyors wade through underground rivers in their wetsuits, submerged up to their chins, tilting their faces toward the ceiling to breathe out of the two or three inches of air space available.
Surveying is a slow process, particularly in Binkley, where the passages intertwine at random intervals like “a bowl of spaghetti,” Dave says. They dip back and forth with no regard for the explorers with their hardhats trying to map out what goes where.
Cavers are never quite sure what they’ll find. Sometimes it’s a hole in the wall, leading down a passage. Sometimes the cave dead ends with a big pile of rocks that needs to be chipped away at with bare hands. There are still many leads in the cave waiting to be followed, many tunnels and cracks marked for further exploration.
“The cave is like a big puzzle,” Dave says. “Sometimes it lets you solve part of the puzzle, and sometimes it doesn’t give up its secrets so easily.”
FIVE MINUTES DOWN the road from Frederick’s, we pull into a small farm on the side of the road. Chickens and a couple of cats wander along rows of corn.
We put on our old shoes, zip up our jackets, pack AAA batteries and napkins in our pockets and charge our flashlights, preparing physically and mentally for the journey ahead.
Dave emerges wearing an old light blue “Welcome to Indiana” tourist t-shirt with holes in the center, loose khaki pants, elbow pads, a helmet with two headlamps attached and dark rubber boots reaching to just below his knees.
We follow him behind the house, into the corn and down an obscure, overgrown trail. We trip over stray branches, push aside dead corn stalks and dodge thorny branches.
“This reminds me of the rice fields in Afghanistan,” Jose, the veteran, comments.
The cave entrance is a five-foot opening at the bottom of a hill of rocks and tree branches, a small open mouth in the earth. We scramble gracelessly down the hill and sit quietly for a minute.
“If you haven’t turned on your lights, now would be a good time,” Dave says cheerfully. “Who wants to go first?”
IN FEBRUARY OF 2012, everything changed for Binkley. Two individual caves, Blowing Hole and Binkley, became one. Together, the expanded caves stretched to 34 miles, adding twelve miles to Binkley. This breakthrough revealed a cave portion that was close enough to surface to open it as a show cave. The Indiana Caverns opened to the public in June 2013, a little over a year later.
This formerly wild portion of the cave now features a metal ramp, spiral staircase and even a boat ride. But Indiana Caverns’ main feature is Big Bone Mountain, a precarious pile of rocks stacked on top of another like an extreme game of Jenga, reaching about 70 feet in the air.
“We had to be really careful when we climbed that,” says Tim Pride, one of cavers who discovered this room.
The room itself is the size of a large auditorium, lit with dim yellow lights that illuminate rock formations and Ice Age fossils of black bears that once hibernated there and smaller mammals. From the ramp, you can see several passages marked off for further exploration, small tunnels where explorers hit a dead end on the first or second try.
IN RECENT YEARS, cave exploration has declined in Indiana. In the 1970s, Indiana caves were largely uncharted territory, but now many of the easy openings and passages have been found and mapped.
That’s not to say there aren’t any discoveries left to make. However, many of these discoveries will require time, grit, experience and a drive to find more.
The volunteers’ reward is finding new cave passages that no one else has seen. “Cave exploring is one of the last frontiers where anyone can truly explore something that hasn’t been found by mankind,” Dave says. “Where else can you go to go where no one else has ever been?”
This summer, for example, members of the core group found a new river system. The team divided into two groups and followed the river, at some points 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. However, at both ends of the river, they hit stopping points, where there was not enough airspace to safely continue.
At age 58, Roberson no longer goes on the all-day surveying trips. But he’s always there waiting in his lawn chair by the exit, even if it’s 2 or 3 a.m. “I couldn’t sleep anyhow,” Roberson says. “I wanted to know what they found.”
WE NOW BEGIN our exploration and Dave is “volunteered” to enter the cave first. He ducks into the darkness confidently and quickly as we follow his lead. Jose jokes about not fitting in the tiny opening as he follows behind us.
“Remember, head protection. No sudden movements,” Dave warns. “Be aware of your surroundings.”
We crawl in slowly, cautiously. Our bodies adjust quickly to the rocky terrain, damp walls, low ceilings and the 52 degree air. The tunnel narrows quickly and within five minutes, even we -- the shortest in the cave by at least eight inches -- have to crouch to a crawl. We forgot to bring knee pads, so our knees burn from the sharp rocks.
Dave moves through the cave effortlessly, propelling himself forward on his belly like a snake. Despite being the oldest and the biggest in the cave, he can out-crawl anyone in our ragtag group. He dips in and out of sight as we cautiously navigate the passage far behind.
The silence is broken only by Dave’s ongoing narrative about the cave, Jose’s huffs and the occasional drop of water falling from the ceiling. It’s a world unlike anything we’ve seen.
IT WAS JUST LUCK that we have any caves in Indiana. When the glaciers passed through Indiana in the last Ice Age, they bulldozed away the exposed limestone in the northern part of the state. But south of Bloomington a stretch of surface limestone survives and continues into Kentucky and Tennessee to form the cave-rich terrace we know today.
All Indiana caves are formed from limestone. Water dissolves into limestone instead of just running over it. Imagine a small stream running over a sheet of limestone. The water trickles into the large cracks in the stone, and those cracks get bigger and bigger with time. Pretty soon, the entire stream disappears underground, forming that first passage. The stream continues to enlarge the cave, carving out winding tunnels for future cavers to find. Many parts of Binkley still have water running through them, meaning that it’s still growing, slowly but surely.
Fifty years ago, no one thought it was possible for a large cave to form underneath the Mitchell sinkhole plain, where Binkley and all the other major caves in Indiana were discovered. They thought caves could only form in places where water was actively draining, over hillsides or other inclines. No one knew caves could form below the flat land of Southern Indiana.
FORTY MINUTES IN and, we have only a foot of space between the ceiling and the ground to move through. Dave cracks jokes in the front while Jose pants behind us.
The tunnel opens up into a room the size of a small bathroom. In front of us the tunnel drops into darkness, a 20-foot drop-off that Dave says leads to more passages.
We peer into the black hole, questioning how adventurous we really are.
“So you want to try to . . . not fall in it,” Dave says, starting to maneuver around the circumference of the drop-off, holding on to the sturdy rocks.
We follow, climbing from rock to rock like uncoordinated monkeys. We move to the opposite side of the hole and we’re in the biggest room we’ve seen today. A calcium deposit decorates the wall before us, hanging down the wall like thick wet icicles. Tiny drops of water dot the ceiling, shimmering like jewels in our headlights. For a moment, we are in awe.
“It’s a different world,” Dave says.
Jose snaps some photos of us, the “cave models.” We stand on either side of the waterfall and look at the camera. A few flashes of light later, and it’s official: We have proof that we made it.
The crawl back is easier, faster. Our movements are almost mechanical now. We’ve graduated ourselves from novices to more experienced novices. We’re more confident in how to move our bodies and how to navigate back to the sun.
AS WE SQUEEZE through the last portion, we see the sun shining through the small mouth we crawled into two hours ago. The air is crisp and fresh, and the colors are brilliant after all the gray.
We had only ventured 600 feet deep into a cave that stretches more than 40 miles, a cave that explorers have spent 24 consecutive hours in. As we stand above ground for the first time in two hours, we look at each other and grin. We did it.
Your Caver's Checklist
You’re excited to discover this underground world through your own eyes, but what should you bring? Here’s what Chris Parks, the faculty adviser for the Indiana University Caving Club and a newer member of the Binkley team who discovered the river passage this summer, recommends packing for a safe and enjoyable caving experience.
1. Three sources of light. At least one should be a headlamp, and the others should be flashlights with extra batteries
3. Sturdy shoes. Old gym shoes will do, but hiking boots or other shoes with lug soles do the job best.
4. Synthetic clothing, especially if you know the cave is wet or damp..
5. A trash bag if you’re worried about getting wet or damp. “We bring a heavy-duty trash bag, a poor man’s raincoat, and poke a hole through it for your head.”
6. A map of the cave. Don’t be solely reliant on the map because they can be complex to understand. When moving through the cave, occasionally look back. Caves look different from opposite directions, opposite sides of the rock.
7. A bag for your belongings that you can tie around your boot when you’re crawling and don’t have a free hand.
8. A sturdy helmet. Even a biking helmet will do.
9. Food. “Bring foods that you can snack on, ones that won’t make you use the restroom.”
10. A minimum of four people. It’s the perfect number. If someone gets hurt, it allows one person to stay with them and lets the other two leave for help. No one is left alone.
Bacon: a thin layer of calcite with light and dark bands, giving the formation a bacon-like appearance.
Bathtubs: a stream passage where the water is close to the ceiling.
Calcite: calcium carbonate, the principal mineral found in limestone that forms stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and other formations.
Caver: someone who enters a cave for scientific or non-recreational reasons and who may rescue spelunkers.
Karst: the landscape in a cave caused by the dissipation of rocks. It includes: sinkholes, sinking streams, springs or cave entrances.
Lead: an unexplored passage in a cave
Sinkhole plain: a plain or nearly flat area where most of the relief is due to a sinkhole; it can be up to a few centimeters or kilometers across.
Spelunker: an inexperienced person exploring a cave for sport.
Twilight zone: the dimly lit portion of a cave that doesn’t receive direct sunlight.
Wild Cave: a cave in its natural state where paths, lights or other portions making it usable for the public have not been installed.
Caves are exciting and mysterious places, but if you’re not prepared for the challenges, they can be dangerous. Sam Frushour, 71, the author of A Guide to Indiana Caves and Karsts, has been mapping, photographing and exploring caves since high school. IN ANOTHER 812 STORY Although Frushour says you don’t necessarily have to be athletic or outdoorsy to have an enjoyable caving experience, you do need to be smart about it. Here are his tips for caving with common sense:
*Don’t go into a cave if it’s going to rain.
*Always tell someone where you’re going, who you are with and when you expect to be back.
*Don’t step into the dark places. “We joke about that a lot. Don’t run or jump in caves because you can get injured.” If you can’t see what’s there, you probably shouldn’t be rushing into it.
*Don’t leave trash behind or mark on anything. The general caving etiquette is to leave only footprints behind, and those sparingly.
*Always ask first. Many Indiana caves are on private property, and if you see any “No Trespassing” signs, you need to ask before entering. People can be fined up to $400 for trespassing.
*Go with an experienced group. Contact the Indiana Speological Society, a caving club at a nearby university or your local grotto to find a group to take you into a cave.
A Memoir of Tim McLain (1964-2013), a member of the Binkley team from Brownsburg:
As told by Chris Parks, IU Caving Club faculty adviser and member of the Binkley team.
Cavers get close to each other. It’s quick. There’s a familiarity, something that you sense. After you’ve done something as physical as caving together, have gone through narrow passages, had someone pull you through an area that your mind told your body that you wouldn’t be able to squeeze through, there’s an instant connection.
You depend on each other.
I never had an anxious moment in my caving experiences until Tim had a heart attack last fall in the middle of our trip into Binkley.
We were thinking, “Can we save him? What can we do?” Soon, the frantic motions of CPR ceased, and our questions changed. It became: What do we do?
We realized he was gone.
Dave Everton lead our group out of the cave, facilitating a rescue. I stayed behind with Laura Demeresk. We sat. We continued CPR. But we knew there wasn’t a point. We weren’t doing CPR for Tim anymore, he wasn’t the reason. We were doing it for his family, we were doing it for us.
I reached the cave’s entrance 12 hours after I had gone in. It was freezing outside. I was cold, tired, miserable and upset, but I wasn’t alone. There were more than 50 people there: our friends, fellow cavers, a few ambulances and police. They were all there to help us out, to support us.
That day is still a part of me, and it’s still part of the Binkley group. It’s hard to get started again, to get that enthusiasm back. It’s hard for us to go back to that cave remembering that our friend died there. That day was a difficult time for all of us, but at the end, amidst the emotional and physical exhaustion, I was touched. Our community was there. Our family was there.
Tim was one of our own, and everyone knew it.