One of the great things about being a student at a large university is the number and variety of clubs you can join. One of my favorites is the Purdue Outing Club, a group of students that enjoy all kinds of different outdoor activities like kayaking, backpacking, climbing, and spelunking. I’ve only participated in a few outings with the club, including a wintry week-long backpacking adventure in Shenandoah National Park and an equally cold trip in the Smoky Mountains, but I’ve enjoyed all of them. This weekend I joined a club trip and went spelunking in Doghill-Donnehue Cave.
Planning the Trip
As this was my first foray into spelunking, I did not participate in the planning. However, here is what I’ve learned so far. First of all, dress for wet and cold conditions. Wear clothes that wick moisture away from your body and keep in mind that your clothing may very well be permanently stained after crawling around in the mud. A headlamp and helmet are also must-haves, and I would strongly recommend knee pads. As with all outdoor outings, prepare for the unpredictable and bring extra batteries, snacks, and water.
Navigating a cave is a non-trivial exercise; I would not have made it through Doghill-Donnehue without the guidance of more experienced group members. Even with a map, I had trouble differentiating between branches of the cave system. Maps seem to be guarded secrets among caving enthusiasts, and, to my knowledge, the best way to gain access to them is to join a spelunking club.
Exploring Doghill-Donnehue Cave
September 23, 2017 | ~3 mi | View on Map
We all meet up in a church parking lot in Bedford, Indiana, not too far from the cave. The walk to the Dog Hill cave entrance isn’t too far – perhaps a mile – and I soon find myself facing a black awning on the side of a hill. A creekbed leads into the cave, where we gather for a quick pow-wow. The more experienced group leaders let everyone know what to expect and assign everyone a number for roll call. An Indiana University caving club accidentally locked one of their members in the nearby Sullivan Cave for three days last week – it made the national news – and we are not about to duplicate their mistake, hence the roll call plan.
Into the Depths
With the ground rules agreed upon (under-ground rules?), we begin our journey into the cave. The first stretch is easy to follow; there are no side corridors and I’m able to walk, albeit stooped over in places. I stride through dry, rocky sections and slosh more slowly through occasional pools of water that are slowly trickling deeper into the cave.
After walking hunched over for a while, we reach a taller chamber and do a roll call to ensure everyone has arrived. I’ve brought my Fuji X-T2 and Rokinon 12mm f/2 along to document this adventure. Even with the wide f/2 aperture, I’m forced to dial the ISO up to 6400 or higher to capture much detail in the dark cave. I also have a large ziplock bag to seal up the camera for the really wet spots; I’m not too worried about it getting a little damp and muddy (it’s weather sealed), but I’m not about to submerge it if we encounter some underground rivers.
Following the first, straightforward section, we reach a branch in the cave. A passageway opens up on the right and we pause to check it out. The tunnel loops back to this spot, but it is tiny. To my eyes, a human being will not fit through. However, our experienced group members know better and encourage those of us that haven’t visited the cave before to give it a try. I stash my camera and snacks on a nearby ledge and then follow the others around the loop.
I wait my turn to try squirming through the minuscule passageway. One guy gets stuck for a minute or two but manages to free himself with some coaching from the others. I remove my helmet as I crawl forward; the tunnel is no more than 12-inches tall and my head doesn’t really fit with the helmet on. In fact, if I want to keep my eyes looking forward, I have to turn my head sideways.
While I wait for the person in front of me to wiggle their way through the tightest section, I relax and watch a spider march past me into an even smaller side passage. I’m pleased to discover that I’m not afraid of tight spaces. I’m almost comfortable, lying here in the dirt with only an inch between each of my ears and the muddy walls. Once the person in front of me has made it through the tight squeeze, I claw my way forward and soon emerge on the other side. What an exhilarating experience!
Rimstone Dams and Bathtubs
Once everyone that wants to has squeezed through the narrow passageway, we continue onward and reach a very wet area. The floor of the cave is now a full-fledged stream. As it flows through the cave, the water cascades over a series of rimstone dams. On the upstream side of each dam, the cave floor slopes gently up to a rounded formation of rimstone. The water slips over the smooth stone and then slides silently down the face of the dam until it reaches a pool below with a steady gurgle.
At first, the dams are short and I simply step over them like a series of watery stairs. However, as we progress deeper into the cave, the pools grow deeper and the dams grow taller. I’m forced to jump or slide down the near-vertical stone to reach the next pool several feet below. After jumping from one of the dams, I sink up to my chin in the cold water below. I gasp in surprise at the sudden submersion and quickly thrust my camera above my head. With my other hand, I find a handhold and pull myself up to a small ledge where I can take a moment to seal the camera in its protective bag. The last thing I want is to submerge it on the next drop.
I wade to the next dam and peer over the edge to scope out the fall. With my camera safely sealed and stowed in my bag, I carefully lower myself over the dam into the pool below. Submerged up to my shoulders, I feel around for the floor but am unable to find it so I use various handholds to pull myself through the water until my feet find solid rock again.
Relieved to be back on (mostly) dry land, I continue forward into the cave. I didn’t expect to be this wet… I was fully prepared for mud, crawling, and some shallow creeks, but swimming? Not so much. I soon reach what appears to be a dead end. Isaac, one of the experienced spelunkers, is standing near the end of the tunnel with a pool of water at his feet. Upon closer inspection, I notice a rope that disappears into the water. Oh no…
This pool is what cavers call a “bathtub.” The water is several feet deep and extends beneath the end of the tunnel. I’m instructed to pull myself through the water, under the rock, with the rope, like an underwater safety railing. Somewhere beyond the water-filled passage is another chamber. It’s not quite an underwater traverse – there is a 6-inch gap between the water and the stone ceiling – but it’s more of a swim than a walk or a crawl. Isaac reminds me to breathe as I army-crawl into the water.
While that might seem like a silly admonition, my breaths are short and anxious as I pull myself through the ice-cold water. I keep my head tilted to the side to keep my mouth above the surface, sputtering every once in a while when I accidentally inhale water. There’s not much room for my face in the thin layer of air; my helmet scrapes against the rough stone ceiling as I half-swim, half-crawl forward. This is certainly more than I bargained for.
After paddling through the 20-foot watery tunnel, I emerge in a cavern and clamber out of the water. Suddenly very cold, I shudder and hurry onward in an attempt to generate some body warmth. Only a few short minutes later, I reach another dead end complete with a rope disappearing into a dark pool of water. I sigh, wiggle into the water, pull myself through another frigid bathtub.
Berg’s Squeeze and Peanut Butter Pass
Now shivering uncontrollably, I hurry to rejoin those ahead of me. I find the group in a large cavern, some 40-50 feet tall. Our route will take us up over a cliff into a higher passageway. I dance in place and chat with my companions to pass the time while waiting my turn to ascend a makeshift wire ladder. I also take the opportunity for a snack and chow down on a peanut butter sandwich in the hope that the calories will help me warm up.
After climbing the ladder, I wait for everyone else to ascend. Following a precautionary roll call, we continue into a section named “Berg’s Squeeze.” It’s a different kind of squeeze than we’ve encountered thus far: the passageway is tall rather than short and I’m able to walk upright. Navigating the tight passage requires contorting my body to fit between the odd protrusions and strangely shaped walls. It turns out to be a fun challenge; I’m surprised that my body fits between the walls of this rocky puzzle.
After Berg’s Squeeze is “peanut butter pass,” a long, straight tunnel with a floor of thick, sticky mud beneath a foot or two of water. I’m glad my shoes are tied tightly; the muck pulls on my feet as I squelch through the cave.
We eventually reach a wider passageway and increase our speed a little. We leap over a thin crevasse and spend a few moments peering down into the depths of the cave. If we were to continue to the culvert entrance, we would eventually walk over a stone bridge some 20 feet below in the crevasse. However, we’ll be exiting through the Donnehue spring entrance instead. Exploring the crevasse will have to wait until next time.
We reach several branches in the cave and our group leaders quickly determine which black hole to walk into. I’m glad they know where they’re going; even with a map, I have no idea which way is which. Much of the remaining walk is wet, but tight squeezes are few and far between. One memorable section includes half a dozen stone bridges which you can either climb over or crawl under. The higher routes often include a risky jump of five or eight feet to return to the main tunnel, while the lower routes are wet and require crawling… choose your own adventure!
We reach what appears to be another dead end, but closer inspection reveals a small gap between a flowstone formation and the cave floor. One by one, we wiggle through and emerge on the other side. Those that have been here before recommend climbing the flowstone to reach a beautiful pool with cool rock formations. Although the flowstone is wet and appears slippery, its rough, sandpaper-like surface is relatively easy to climb. After a few attempts, I scramble up the stone and spend a few minutes admiring a pristine pool among a myriad of living, dripping rock formations.
The final set of tunnels and passageways feature a creek running through the cave, varying from fast, shallow rapids to waist-deep, slow-moving eddies. For a while, we crawl through a smooth shaft of wet stone and then emerge in a much larger tunnel, like we’re navigating an ancient sewer system beneath Rome. After a wet march through the creek, we reach the end of the cave. The warm air feels absolutely incredible! We take a group picture at the entrance and then walk about a mile back to the cars. We’re all covered in mud, so we change into cleaner clothes before departing. I had a great time exploring Doghill-Donnehue cave and (a little bit to my surprise) am looking forward to some more spelunking in the future!
I’m frequently asked what camera equipment I use to document my trips. On this particular excursion, my tools included the Fuji X-T2 and the Rokinon 12mm f/2 lens. The Fujifilm body is weather sealed, but the lens is not. However, the lens is manual focus only (i.e., no electronics inside), which, combined with the wide view angle and wide aperture, is one of the reasons I chose it for this trip. The camera was very dirty after spending the day in the cave, but I was able to clean it up when I returned home.