April 2006 Issue
No place above the Earth's surface matches the darkness found underground. Beneath the forested floor of Highland County, deep within the Cave of the Springs, a candle lantern casts a warm and welcoming glow, bathing the intricate sculpture that water has wrought on the limestone in yellow light. Behind it, the subterranean passage is steeped in darkness, with no sign of the entrance or the mid-day sun left behind. There's nothing but blackness and the sound of running water, unseen but felt in the air's moistness. There is no wind, and with a constant temperature of 52 degrees, visitors are comfortable enough in jackets. Larry Henry, guide and lead naturalist for the Highlands Nature Sanctuary, draws attention back to the path ahead. The passageway grows increasingly tighter before opening to a cavern that is large enough for 10 or so to squeeze into, with a high ceiling and a broad pool of still water shimmering in the lantern light and disappearing into the blackness beyond.
For decades, this cave was one of several that were brightly illuminated by electric lights for the ease and comfort of the thousands of visitors to the tourist attraction known as 7 Caves. Over the past year, however, Henry and the rest of the staff at Highlands Nature Sanctuary have been busy pulling out the lights and erasing other signs of human activity in the caves for the benefit of the wild things that live in them. Highlands recently bought the 13-acre 7 Caves property, adding it to the network of nature preserves that the nonprofit conservation group, founded by Henry and his wife, Nancy, have been building for a decade along the Rocky Fork Gorge. After months of work, they're inviting visitors to share the caves with them again, but on nature's, not humans', terms.
Beginning in May, Highlands will offer naturalist-guided tours at 7 Caves, using replicas of 18th-century candle lanterns to light the way. The lanterns, built by a Highlands volunteer and powered by natural beeswax candles to cut down on pollutants, provide a sense of excitement and mystery electric lights can't match. Henry believes the public will be intrigued.
"We're offering them the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to help us in re-wilding caves in Ohio," he says. "Caves are the most endangered ecological system in the state."
The caves of the Rocky Fork Gorge have attracted tourists since the late 1800s, when Ohio's pioneer settlers traveled there to escape the summer heat, fish in the creek and hold dances in the lantern-lit caves. It took a Hoosier entrepreneur, however, to find the gold buried here. Clyde Chaney and a group of investors bought the caves in 1928 and over the next quarter century built a modern tourist attraction, with concrete walks, electric lights and wooden signs featuring fanciful names marking the rock formations - "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Coral Grotto" and "Witch's Cave."
Chaney's relentless marketing, which included stapling promotions to the wooden bumpers of cars and erecting roadside signs all the way to Indiana on U.S. Rte. 50, was enhanced by improvements to motor vehicles and highways. Subsequent owners continued the "improvements," adding a snack bar and a gift shop to hawk rubber tomahawks from Taiwan. And while the attraction was marketed until the time that Highlands bought it, the allure had faded considerably. Modern amusement parks, video games and cheap travel had rendered it obsolete long ago, and attendance had dropped considerably since the 1970s.
It was a proposal to sell the caves that first inspired the Henrys to form the Highlands Nature Sanctuary and begin raising money to protect the unique natural system surrounding the Rocky Fork Gorge. Both are naturalists and worked for many years at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. They recognized the ecological importance of the area, and understood the connection between the geology and the unusual flora and fauna of the gorge. The retreat of the last continental ice sheets created tremendous meltwater flows that carved a 100-foot gorge, creating a network of caves and leaving behind Peebles dolomite near the surface. (Peebles is pocked with small cavities that were previously occupied by fossils, and it provides a special foundation for botany found in few other areas of the state.)
After the cave tour, Henry heads for the area visitors knew as the "Enchanted Valley." It's a place draped in ferns and mosses, and in the spring is host to a spray of colorful wildflowers, including columbine, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Dutchman's breeches and squirrelcorn. Larry and his entourage descend about 75 feet, using stairs bolted to the steep sides of the valley, and then peek over the rim of a small waterfall. Hemlocks and cedars are everywhere. Enchanted, indeed.
Henry is as excited about this part of the tour as he is about guiding visitors through the caves by candlelight. He loves plants, and there is plenty to love at Highlands. In a recent survey, botanists identified more than 300 plants there, and most will be new to his guests, he says. "I bring groups through here, and 99.99 percent of the adults can't identify two trees by name - and I'm talking common names. As part of the 7 Caves tour, you'll get a personal tour guide, you'll see through the eyes of that guide the nature that we've forgotten. We'll talk to them about folk medicine, botanicals and herbs."
Despite Herculean fund-raising efforts, the Henrys could not raise enough money to acquire the 7 Caves attraction a decade ago. Instead, they purchased 2,000 acres of prairie, floodplain, rocky outcropping and other magnificent ecological features surrounding the caves. As they've acquired land - some containing homes that they have converted into lodges and meeting spaces - the couple have developed programs with themes such as hiking and bird-watching that combine nature education with opportunities for spiritual retreat and outdoor recreation.
In recent years, the Henrys have looked beyond the gorge to what they've dubbed the "Arc of Appalachia," a conservation concept that envisions a network of protected areas stretching across six counties in southwest Ohio. But when the owners of the 13-acre 7 Caves site decided to sell, the Henrys turned their attention once more to the core of their project, and ramped up fund-raising to buy the centerpiece of the Rocky Fork Gorge. They raised enough cash to strike a deal with the owner and take control of the land. Fund-raising efforts continue today in order to complete the purchase and renovate the cliffside gift shop.
Once they took control of the caves, the staff and the corps of 150 volunteers went straight to work, removing the wiring, the speaker systems and the decorative stone walls that had been built at the entrances to many of the caves. They've turned the gift shop into a bookstore, with the financial help of an independent bookstore in Cincinnati, and they've stocked it with field guides and volumes about the natural and cultural history of the region. The Henrys are adding an Appalachian Forest Museum that encompasses exhibits about the mound-building cultures, early settlement and Appalachian history.
Henry is respectful of the previous owners of the caves. The promotion of 7 Caves as a tourist attraction in the last century, he says, has helped protect the Rocky Fork gorge from other, more damaging development. And he knows he's toying with some fond memories as he tears out the fanciful signs and the electric wiring. He's talked to many who remember 7 Caves in its heyday, including a couple who visited the caves on their honeymoon 66 years ago.
But he's unapologetic about stripping the caves of their modernity. A host of species, from salamanders to bats, have returned to the caves. They have been missing for years, chased away by the constant lights and noise. "They survived, in remote sections of the caves, and now they're coming back," he says. "They're moving out and repopulating the caves. It's been exciting to see."
During the winter, four species of bats use the caves for hibernation, either hanging from the rock or tucking themselves into the holes in the dolomite. These include the big brown and little brown bats, the large-eared bat, and the Eastern pipistrelle, also called the pygmy bat, for its 3-inch length and maximum 10-inch wingspan.
May will be an exciting time to begin the tours, because early in the month is a peak period for the spring warbler migration, when colorful songbirds that spend their winters in Central and South America come through Highlands - some to nest; some on their way to nesting grounds farther north.
Henry is looking forward to the returning migrants, but also to the return of visitors to 7 Caves. "I did my first research here in 1967, and immediately recognized the high potential of this ecological system," he says. "In my 40 years in natural resources, this is the most exciting thing I've ever done."
Today's visitors won't see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and they'll be guided through one cave, not given free reign to explore seven. But they will get a personal guide to the nature of the caves and the surrounding lands, and Henry hopes they come away with a better understanding of the natural system that makes 7 Caves such a spectacular place. He offers a paraphrase of Senegalese statesman Baba Dioum: "What we don't know, we can't love. And what we can't love we won't protect." Henry hopes visitors will come to love 7 Caves as he has, in all their natural glory, without the trappings of man.