The first time I visited Fern Cave in north Alabama, I thought about the Mines of Moria. The cave is vast, beautiful, and more complex than anything I’d ever imagined. I was immediately hooked. I started visiting the cave fairly often with friends who understood the vast and complex cave system, and over time, I started to learn my way around the cave. I still know only a fraction of its secrets. My husband Steve is now the only person now who truly understands the cave. It’s over 15 miles long, over 400 feet from the passages at the very top of the mountain to the passages near the valley floor, and consists of 18 distinct interconnecting levels. The passages alternate between winding canyons, huge rooms, mazy tunnels, beautiful streams, and deep pits. The cave is confusing and bewildering and it takes years to learn its secrets. About ten years ago I started to think about writing a book about the cave. I finally got a draft finished, and the book will be out in July!
Here’s a tiny bit of background: cave explorers from Huntsville, Alabama found a cave in 1961 with a stream passage that led to the deepest vertical free-fall pit that had ever been discovered in the United States (that record only held for a few years). They named the cave Fern because the entrance sinkhole is lined with a lush carpet of fiddlehead ferns. They named the pit Surprise. In 1968 Huntsville cavers discovered another cave nearby they named the Morgue (I’ll tell you later how it got this creepy name). The next year, they found yet another cave also very close to Fern. It was huge. The passages the cavers found continued for miles. It took them years and a huge amount of work, but the Huntsville cavers finally managed to connect all three caves together into one cave system. In the end, Fern ended up with five entrances.
The story of Fern spans more than five decades, involves hundreds of people, and is one of the most exciting and fascinating tales of exploration in southeastern history (at least I think so). Today, the vast majority of the cave is closed because the US Fish and Wildlife Service now owns four entrances to the cave and closed their entrances in 2009 (the Southeastern Cave Conservancy owns the fifth entrance, and cavers can apply for a permit to visit Surprise Pit). The book I’m finishing describes everything about the cave’s history, from its discovery and exploration, through the government buying four entrances to the cave, how cavers stepped in to serve as volunteer managers of the cave (cavers performed that job for 27 years), and what happened after the cave was closed for several years (vandalism!). I’m in the final stages of getting the book ready. Right now, my editor Cara Stein is working her magic on it and I’m about to start the design phase (my good friend and graphic artist extraordinaire Sabrina Simon is designing the layout and the book cover so I’m sure it will look fantastic). Due to the generosity of so many people involved in the early exploration of the cave, I have hundreds of fantastic historic photos of the cave from the 1960s all the way up until today.
I’m really excited about this project and can’t wait to hold a finished book in my hands. But more importantly, I can’t wait to share the story of Fern with others. To help raise seed money for this project, I’m in the process of setting up a Indiegogo page. If you pre-order a book, you’ll get to choose from a range of gifts, including prints JV Van Swearingen IV took of the cave (the photos in this post are JV’s), prints of some of the gray bats in the cave, copies of small sections of the new map of the cave, and much more. That page will launch tomorrow.
I collected so much information and so many photos while researching this book there is no way I could include everything I found. Some of the best stories, like the time a caver got hit by lightning at the bottom of the 105-foot deep Morgue pit, just didn’t make it in. People who pre-order a book will get access to a password protected page with lots of “extras” that didn’t fit in the book. I’ll also be blogging an absurd amount about this project until it’s finished. So check back soon. More to come!