Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Trip to Brandenburg Cave

First I want to thank Ruth Billings for granting us permission to visit Brandenburg Cave at Knowlton, Kentucky.  I knew of the cave from a visit 25 to 30 years ago with my dad.  I could still remember generally how to get to the cave from the church.  What I didn't remember was the setting and the cave itself.  The cave was brought up during the recent "permit conference" concerning the proposed limestone quarry at Knowlton.  It occurred to me that someone should get in and photograph the cave in its current state.  Rhonda Tipton was kind enough to ask permission for us.  I took my kids along so they would get to experience this unique place.  I had visited it when I was between the ages the kids are now.

I also need to thank Ronnie Tipton for guiding us to the cave.  If I'd followed my nose of memory we'd have found the cave, but likely we'd have done a little (it's all relative) bushwhacking.  Plus, he was good company and knew quite a bit about the area and the cave.  What's interesting is even though Ronnie's family once owned the cave, and he only lives a stone's throw away, he had never been inside.  That made it an even more special visit.

Ronnie's maternal grandmother was Annie (Brandenburg) Martin.  Her family hauled water twice a day from the cave and stored their milk and other perishables in the cave.  When she married she moved to Cat Creek.  Ronnie and his wife live nearby on Knowlton Ridge overlooking the area where the cave is and where Ronnie's family lived.  They also overlook what may become a huge naked hole in the ground if the mining permit is granted.

We met at Knowlton Church of God.  My connection to the area is through that old building.  My great-grandfather Stewart preached there when it was the Knowlton church of Christ.  While the kids and I waited for Ronnie we chatted with the current preacher, Kenneth Wasson, and he gave us a tour of the building and the expansions they've made since I was last in the building over twenty years ago.

After Ronnie arrived we shouldered our gear and headed into the woods.  We walked down into the drainage below the proposed site for the quarry.  A little further down we came to the lip of the lower limestone band below the quarry site.
The red polygon shows the approximate area of the 44 acre quarry.  The blue star is the mouth of Brandenburg Cave.  The red arrow shows the flow of water from the sinkhole shown in the center of the quarry plot through the cave.
Please don't trespass.  We visited the cave with permission.  This entire area is private property.
We dropped through a gap in the cliff-band and walked along a narrow path on a steep hillside into a magnificent limestone rockhouse (overhanging section of cliff).  Ronnie told us a little of his family history while the kids poked around in the talus and boulders under the huge overhang at the mouth of the cave.
Finally I could contain my little spelunkers no more and we headed into the dark passage at the back of the rockhouse.  I always love going into caves that have water flowing out of them.  There’s something intriguing about the added soundtrack and motion of water that makes a cave more interesting.
In the later years of my life I’ve not been much of a caver.  With achy knees and other interests, combined with the relatively simple and small configurations of local caves I’ve just not ventured underground much in the past fifteen years or so. 

The kids followed Ronnie into the cave with no reservations.  I hung back with my camera and tripod and worked out the mechanics of underground photography.  I’d read a little bit online before we headed out, and I’ve got some experience photographing the night sky, so it wasn't a foreign concept to me.  On the other hand I had only dabbled in painting with light, and I didn’t fully think through my light choices.  We ended up underground with a 250 and 700 lumen LED bike lights and a couple of weak LED headlamps and a pen light.
I discovered quickly that either my flash was too strong, or I hadn’t adjusted the intensity low enough.  What I had read online suggested that taking the flash off the camera to get oblique angles to create more shadows would result in the best photos.  Since the flash was too intense in the narrow confines of Brandenburg Cave I opted to continue with the handheld lights.  With Ronnie’s help I managed to get a small handful of decent shots, but I would still consider it a learning experience and I am far from mastering underground photography.  My biggest handicap is getting the image in focus in the dark.  My vision is so poor to begin with that getting fine focus is hard even in daylight conditions.

While I played around with the camera the kids sat and composed an article about the cave.  Here’s what they came up with:

“I love The Cave.
It[s] awesome”

“When I entered the cave I only saw a rockhouse but then I found the cave.
It was very large at first then it gets smaller and smaller.
It is full of life.”

“It is cool and I saw a cradad [crawdad].”

We did see quite a bit of life.  I wasn’t thinking and was at first surprised we didn’t see a single bat, but then remembered that in the summer they typically will not be hibernating.  Doh!  We also saw the standard fare cave crickets, some oogly spiders, and a handful of vibrantly orange salamander-type critters.

Some small mammal tracks deep in the cave

Brandenburg also has some pretty cool mineral deposits and rock formations.  Again, the caves in our area aren’t big and therefore have few stalactites and stalagmites.  However, they do have small versions of the bigger formations people are used to seeing in places like Mammoth Cave and the like.
Many of the local caves have almost no bonus formations and are simply smooth water courses through the rock.  Brandenburg has interesting textures and shapes.  Our favorite part was the streambed just before the quasi-room where we hung out for a few minutes.  It has cylindrical holes that are perpendicular to the water flow and the color of the underwater rock is a tannish-gold. 
There was a decent flow of water out of the cave.  It would be hard for me to estimate, but it was definitely a good sized smaller stream with a steady flow.  There was little mud in the water and the clayish deposits in the cave were very plastic and had been carved by previous visitors.
Finally we made our way back to the daylight and explored the big rockhouse a little more.  In the talus and boulders under the overhang we saw lots of cool formations, fossils, and mineral deposits.  One band in the limestone almost looked like the local sandstone complete with solution pockets and a sandy yellow color, but on closer inspection it was obvious it was the hard smooth limestone of the thicker layer around it.

We’d spent a decent amount of time exploring and finally headed out for the climb back out to the ridge.  It was noticeably warmer as we left the cool shade of the rockhouse for the heavy air under the summer canopy of the forest.  But it was still fairly pleasant and the hike wasn’t too far.
We stopped along the way and with a short safety demonstration Ronnie let Boone shoot his .22 rifle.  Lily opted not to shoot the gun.  I couldn’t help think that it is truly a unique thing in our modern lives to be able to wander through the woods and target shoot at mushrooms on a log without someone getting all riled up.  On Furnace Mountain—and other parts or rural Powell County—it’s a normal thing to hear someone shooting whether it be for hunting, or for target shooting, or for recreation. 
Once again we revisit some of the arguments that were made at the public meeting last Thursday.  People have lived there or have moved to Furnace Mountain because it provides a peaceful rural environment in which to live and to thrive.  It’s a place where people aren’t constricted by the necessary rules of urban living.  And this is the appropriate environment for those who love to walk in the woods, who love to live with the land, and who love to be away from the mechanization of modern society.
I make my case once again.  Powell County—its citizens and its government—needs to enact and support county-wide zoning ordinances.  If we had zoning in place prior to this proposed quarry operation coming to life the community could have had some control and decision-making power to either redirect the development and extraction operations of the quarry to a more suitable site in the county or to stop it outright if it was deemed that the project was not compatible with the community fabric.
How that would have worked is that when the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances are written there are places set aside for this type of activity and other places protected from it.  In this case the road accessing the site and the rural character of the community could have been outlined as being prohibitive to industrial activity in the Knowlton region while other more suitable areas could have been identified and zoned as industrial mining/quarrying sites.  And if a developer came in proposing to rezone this site for quarrying the local residents would have had a stronger voice to speak out against it.
I fear what will actually happen is that the permit will be approved because those doing the reviewing are not used to interpreting the regulations in the same manner that I would or you would.  It will be an approval of semantics and ignorance of the unique characteristic of the area.  It will be an approval of indifference to the needs of the many over the wants of the wealthy few.
Those that are for the quarry hinge their case on the jobs argument.  This quarry won’t bring enough jobs to the area to generate the kind of tax revenue that will mitigate all of the social damages that are sure to occur.  Again, the operation will leave nothing but a naked scar on the landscape that will forever be a memorial to the lack of priority our society puts on the human elements and the disproportionate value we place on exploiting the wealth of the land for monetary gain.
I’ll (begin to) leave you with this quote from Wendell Berry and his book The Unforeseen Wilderness.  Mr. Berry’s book was written to save a different part of our county and community from a different type of exploitation: the Red River Gorge and the threat of inundation.

"The wealth of a place is not to be reckoned by its market value at some given moment.  Its real wealth is not just its present value, but its potential value as it continues through time; and therefore its wealth is not finally reckonable at all, for we do not know how long the world, or our species, will last."

But Berry goes further and strikes straight at the heart of the matter and at those who would persist in mindless destruction:

"To be blind to everything outside an account book is, as we have been told over and over, to be spiritually dead; it is also, as we are slowly learning, to be an accomplice in the death of the world.  It is a form of insanity, for even in economic terms it has failed to make sense.  In the intelligence of a man governed exclusively or mainly in economic concerns there appears to be an inclination, compelling as the law of gravity, toward the quickest profit.  Cutting a stand of timber, he diminishes the possibility that more timber will ever grow.  Opening a strip mine, he takes out the coal, and assures in the process that there will be no more produced from that land for generations, perhaps forever.  Overpasturing a hillside this year, he reduces the number of cattle he will be able to pasture next year.  And so he is not only spiritually dead and criminally destructive, but on his own terms of economics he is stupid; his ‘practicality’ is only folly.  And this man—whom our grandchildren will look upon as the incarnation of evil, if they survive the results of his folly—is the man we have most honored and entrusted with power."

I don’t know what our journey to Brandenburg Cave will accomplish.  If nothing else it was a grand experience that I hope my children will remember for their entire lives.  Even if the quarry doesn’t go in, even if it does and the cave is destroyed...I hope the experience was beneficial to them for its own sake.  But if the environment of Brandenburg Cave is damaged and all of our predictions of the adverse effects come true then maybe our experience can mean a little more.  Maybe we’ll have the future ability to make a stronger case against this kind of pointless endeavor.
I’m not arguing that we should stop all limestone quarrying.  I would question why we need to increase our local output.  I would question what kind of precedent has been set in our area and if this perpetuates a negative or positive benefit to our community.  I would most assuredly put forth that the destructive act of quarrying should be limited to those areas only most appropriate for it; that we not sacrifice the health, safety, and welfare of people for profit.
But then again, that’s kind of standard operating procedure these days isn’t it.  We do it in health care.  We do it with employment.  Our culture puts profit before people.  And in that root we will find the rottenness that needs to be eradicated.