02 August 2009

Notes from the Underground


This last Saturday, I went with the Alabama Museum of Natural History to explore Ed Johnson Cave in Franklin County, AL, a few minutes outside of Russelville. It was a total blast. The cave is in a limestone bluff, and the creek that formed the cave drains into Little Bear Creek, right below a TVA dam. The story behind the name of the cave is that, in the 1850s, there was this eccentric old coot named Ed Johnson who loved to go exploring caves. One day, he decided to explore this particular cave, so he hitched his horse outside and strolled in with two torches. His plan was to go as far into the cave as he could until his first torch burned out, then light the second and head out. He made it to the end of the cave in about an hour, as it’s not a very big cave, and he lit his second torch, as his first one had just started to go out. There are many tight passages in the cave, and you have to shimmy on your belly through more than a few. He was shimmying through one of these spots when he dropped his torch in the water and it went out. The cave was pitch black, with only the slightest sound of water trickling. Undaunted, he decided he would continue to make his way out of the cave, lighting one of the few matches that he had left to get his bearings every so often. But he soon began to run out of matches, and soon after he used his last match, he became disoriented. Knowing that there was a dangerous drop-off near where he was situated, he became a little panicky and was afraid to move. The human mind does tricky things when it’s presented with a dearth of sensory input, though. After a few hours of no visual or auditory stimuli, most people start experiencing vivid hallucinations, and this is what happened to Ed Johnson. He became convinced that evil spirits were pouring out of the cracks of the cave, rushing past his body, surrounding him and tormenting him with their song, trying to steal his soul. He didn’t move for two days, convinced that if he did, the devil would steal his soul. On his third day inside the cave, a local stopped by and saw Ed’s horse tied to a tree outside the cave, and so he returned to town and arranged a search party. When the search party came upon Ed Johnson, he was completely hysterical. When they guided him trembling out of the cave and  brought him into the light of day, they were horrified to see that his hair had turned completely white. Ed Johnson lived, but he never recovered from the incident. At least that’s the way I’ve heard some folks tell it…



Some beautiful flowstone formations. I didn’t realize that the second was so magnificently colored until I looked at my photos later. I wonder what caused the color. Copper? Cobalt?




Some other nice stalactites and stalagmites. Unfortunately, as you can see in the first picture, many of the geologic features have been broken off as souvenirs. In the last picture, Michael is examining a nascent stalactite. The last centimeter or so of it was a few drops of water encased in a transparent crust of just-deposited lime. It was beautiful. Unfortunately it didn’t photograph well. I blew on it to dislodge the drop of water, and the crystal was as thinner than paper.



The two examples of fauna that we found, other than some insects by the entrance, were this bat and this spotted salamander. Both were in abundance, and were distributed fairly evenly throughout the cave. What did the salamanders eat in the cave, I wonder?

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed your cave tour. Tips are always gratefully accepted. Watch your head on the way out.