J is for Johnston Cave

There is very little information about Johnston Cave other than a very sketchy (and hard to identify Johnston from due to lack of any detail) map. The coordinates seemed somewhat accurate, and is in an area that I know some people used to cave in regularly in their youth. With a few texts and a phone call, I got the description of what they remembered to be the entrance “back then” (10 years? 20 years? some long time ago!). Basically, a small crawling entrance with a tight squeeze, that you continue crawling through for a while, then it opens up to borehole and there is a 60 foot drop to a lower level that dries out. I was warned that the entrance is at the bottom of a wash, and takes lots of debris (not uncommon in the location as it takes a lot of water when it rains). Be careful, don’t go when rain is in the forecast, and the entrance will probably need opened back up (from all the debris).

So on a Wednesday morning, Troy and I decided to do some scout work. First stop was some houses nearby to find the landowner and get permission. Some really friendly people let us park on their land and walk in. We at least wanted to find the entrance and confirm coordinates. We found this, right near where it “should be”. Seems to fit that description of the entrance, yes?

So we pulled out the logs, dug out the leaves, and went in. Air was blowing – always a great sign! But about 15 feet in, we hit a jam. The passage ducked down in a U shape, and in the bottom of the U was a boulder making it too tight. We dug some, as much of the rock is held in with mud, and got it more open than it was, but no way either of us would fit.

It’s tight in here! And we won’t be getting it open today.

So we gave up after about three hours or so, and I showed Troy another really pretty entrance I found a couple hundred feet away (I had gone looking while he took a turn digging). It in no way fit the description of Johnston, so I was thinking it might be a different cave, or perhaps one just not turned in to the survey database yet as much of this area has probably not been well ridgewalked.

Impressive entrance! Check out the size of those boulders compared to little tiny person! Oh, and did I forget to mention the waterfall?

Yes, this doesn’t fit the verbal description as I understood it at all, but it was worth checking out! We didn’t even bother taking vertical gear inside, as the entrance you can climb down. Once down we made it into a hands and knees crawling stream passage, with some large white (no pigment) catfish and a white alligator snapping turtle. Probably all were washed in at some point, as this cave clearly took a lot of water as well and the water flows through from a stream. We crawled along, hitting the annoying cobblestone crawl (in my opinion, cobbles are the worst things to crawl on!). Troy pushed it and popped back into the water, so I followed. We didn’t even bother bringing our packs through the crawl, thinking there is no way this is anything known as it didn’t match up at all and we just wanted to scout it out quick.

We came to a maze section, some junctions shooting off in five directions, with only a few feet before more turning options. I stationed at a crucial one while Troy took a few more turns – we were attempting to follow the water, but passable passage wise meant some of our twists took us out of the water and we had to re-find it again. We were at the point of no further without high potential for getting lost, and Troy made one more turn, and popped into borehole! Yay! That’s great, we can follow the water back out it won’t be too bad and we had left a few sticks as markers at crucial turns (did I mention this cave takes lots of water? there was some debris in it but by no means a choke-it-up quantity). We continued until we came upon a hole in the floor – well, more of a crack. It looked about 20 feet deep. Then another crack. And another. Each getting progressively deeper. Then a fourth crack of about 50 feet we estimated. Huh. Okay so the really bad map of Johnston, the four circles must be these four drops, because the four circles were above the lower level but from the map there is no way to know if it was a rock/boulders or a hole or what! Convinced we had actually found Johnston, and with time running late and rain was predicted that evening, we headed back out with plans to return that weekend with more people and vertical gear.

So a few days later we returned, again asked permission and got it, parked, and hiked on in. The catfish were still there (and we saw more than before!) but the snapper was not in sight (fine with me!). It was slower going through all the crawling with a rope and larger packs full of vertical gear and rigging, plus now we had four people rather than two.

Crawling, after about 100 feet of cobbles, back in the water, before the maze.

The maze was easy to find the route in this time, and soon enough we popped out into the walking passage. Borehole isn’t quite right of a name for where you enter it, but at least it is walking! If, that is, you know *where* to walk…

Ceiling rifts winding through the passage…walk circuitously or crawl on cobbles – your choice!

One could tell there was a poor rock/silt/something layer because there were huge slabs of rock fallen from the same ceiling level as the top of the rifts; there were bus-sized chunks down on the floor that perfectly fit back up to where they’d fallen from.

Once through this part it does open up into more what I would call borehole, and the stream is still present but a distant roar grows louder. The floor turns from cobble to sculpted water, with little potholes and swirling down to the lower level.

Swirls! And here is a cool video of it in action!:  Swirling Water

Onward! We got to the 50/60 foot drop; Troy brought a disto and got 62 feet. We had an 80 foot rope and some webbing, and found a BFR to rig the 20 feet of webbing around and had the perfect length of rope to do the drop. Nice high rig only needing a pad where it falls over the rock, otherwise all freehanging through the small crack in the floor.

I wasn’t kidding about the crack thing…

It was a really beautiful drop, not in the waterfall at all but next to it, and very wide open after the three feet or so of solid rock right at the top. It is the right choice to rig here, as if you were to rig a crack further back you wouldn’t make it to the bottom and then have to drag the rope down over the last tumble (or maybe more) of the waterfall, and you’d be in it the entire time. The landing zone was a bunch of huge breakdown, gnarly crumbling rock and razor sharp edges.

With all the mist in the air combining with steam rising off our bodies, it was really difficult to see much of anything. We could tell we were in a chamber, but where to go next was the question. From the poor “map” (if one could even call it that) we were now in a elongated teardrop shape that trended south. Seriously, that was the only clue. That was it. No more detail or help than the upper level had been other than a notation of “gypsum needles” in nowhere particular. So we checked the south side and found some walking passage with a rift in the floor to the water below to chimney over. It lead us to a sump. Above, there was a belly crawl. Not even army crawl, belly. On rocks the size of golfballs. You could garden a path a bit, but it didn’t really help at all. Ugh. Troy went ahead and after about 50 feet of suck there is a sandy bottom and one could sit up, so Danny and I went to join. Brian wasn’t going to have any of that crappy crawling though. We tried saying “OOOH look, gypsum needles!” but it didn’t fool him. He would wait and look around in the area he was in.

Danny, Troy, and I continued on. Crawling and crawling and more belly crawling. Most of it the use-your-toes-to-scootch-forward kind. A mix of sandy floor and the golfball rock floor. A couple hundred feet of this fun and Troy, in front, said it ended but he could probably dig out a spot and slide under the ceiling rock. He did and we heard, “Hey guys, it’s borehole!” Excited by this we, about 50 feet behind him, pushed on, making a left after the gold.

Gold! We’re rich! Okay, maybe not…

About when Danny was sliding through, we heard a “BO!”. For those not from around here, TAG cavers have long used a loud “BO” as a method of communication both in ridgewalking and inside caves. The sound carries extremely well. One “BO” is a marker, calling out to nearby people for a reply, like radar pings off of objects, to determine where people are. Two, “BO! BO!” means “I am coming to you!” and three “BO! BO! BO!” means “Come to me!” and typically means someone found the cave entrance, or the way on. And then of course three sets of three is an emergency.

Anyway, so we heard a BO from Brian! We replied. After Troy, Danny, and I got into the borehole, we were able to ping BO’s back and forth and find each other. Brian had found a really short not-so-tight crawl that went to walking passage, and just came around a different loop to us. So we didn’t need to do those hundreds of feet of terrible crawling after all! Oh well, it’s all in the adventure.

We got into large passage full of huge breakdown. Unstable breakdown. As in, test ALL of your footing as it has probably rarely been walked on, your particular rock might have never had weight on it, and it juuuust might skitter all the way to the floor or down a crack 20 feet below. On top of that, the rocks were covered in a thin layer of slimy mud. So boots can’t grip the mud as it’s not deep enough, but it’s too much to stick to the rock. We spotted some pretty helectites though.

Still looking for the elusive gypsum needles notated on the map. All the way at the back of the cave is where we found them! I have seen better ones but these weren’t bad, and they were pretty, and there were some flowers and snow-like specks too.

Needles with the dust/snow like sparkles surrounding them

Cute little flower/curl

A little further on back a section was wet, and there were some nice draperies, soda straws, and other little decorations. The undecorated crawl between the two areas confused Troy a little bit though.

Wait, is this how to crawl? I’m confused…

We turned around and headed back out, this time opting to go the way Brian had found. There was a really cool cracked mud floor with mud rimstone. It was hard to tell if the water formed the mud like this, or if it’s covering up actual formations. Some of these areas definitely see water, some rarely, some periodically, some with every rain that hits.

There was also a high level formation room, full of soda straws, bottlebrushes, and small stalagmites.

On the way out, Brian was excited to show us his amazing find! He has thought it was a shark’s tooth when he first saw it, but it has ridges and bumps, and is hollow. It is quite impressive, maybe six inches long, and in very good condition. We don’t know what it was, but I will keep searching and will update this post if/when I find out.
We know what it is! Dr. Jim Lacefield who is an expert on fossils in this region identified it as a conularid, which is really rare. It is in excellent condition except for being “smushed flat” by the fossilization process.


An amazing find! We ogled it for a bit before continuing on out. I wanted to get a shot of the drop from the bottom, but the fog and mist made it nigh impossible so I changed the plan. Troy climbed up first, I second. I could then set up for some top-down shots, Brian firing the flash from below Danny who was on rope for the photos. They turned out pretty decent; extremely well considering the conditions.

An idea of scale/size. He is about halfway up in this shot.

Looking down through the crack from the rig point, this is probably one of my favorite shots of the entire trip.

So we headed on out. There is so much more to Johnston than what is on that map. It says about 3000 feet of passage, it is easily over a mile and that’s just the downstream side. With more water crawling, there is upstream passage too that we didn’t get a chance to check out. The upstream isn’t on the map at all. It would make a great survey project if one could get permission from the landowners to do that.


Some interesting history I wish to add: Johnston cave is indeed named after Jim Johnston, the same as who the Johnston entrance of the Fern Cave System is named. It appears the original map was a classic Bill Varnado sketch after running through the cave pulling tape. The survey file has not been updated since originally created in 1957, until now with the more accurate GPS coordinates and photographs. This cave continues to give awesome historical and geological tidbits even now, weeks after my visit!

I is for Ice Cave

I was itching to continue with alphabet caving; it seems like it has been a while! I had a shortlist of possible I caves, and with a holiday Monday afternoon free and with good weather we headed up to a little but interesting cave not far from home.

Entrance Slot: looking for a good spot to rig

We opted for a lovely high rig on a tree about 10 feet back from the edge, with a redirect off a tree near the drop for a nice high angle for an easy lip. Here, other than a bit of touch at the edge, it was a free-hang.

The Rig…ah I love engineering beauty!

I went down first and found a very fat salamander. It doesn’t look like quite like the classic orange cave salamanders we typically see…I am pretty sure it is a different species but exactly what I couldn’t say. Maybe a biologist will read this and identify it. Edit: Thanks Bradley Jones – this is a Northern Red Salamander.

Fat, short nubby tail, short arms without webbed feet, and spots forming a line?

There was another 10 foot nuisance drop slightly “inside”; we took the rope over to it and ended up re-anchoring off a BFR (for those who don’t know, that is Big “Friendly” Rock, you may hear folks substitute a different word in for “Friendly”!). Now we were into some neat canyoning passage with beautiful fluting.

Nice sculpted walls, the rock so thin in spots it was almost translucent.

The rest of the cave continued on similarly. We found the leftovers of a rope from a bolt climb about a decade ago to a high lead, which does continue on to a little bit more passage and another dome. But with the packrat chewed ends and no rope to replace it with if one person tried it and made it up, we opted to forget about that section and turn around.

Let’s not attempt that climb that without a good rope to replace it with…

We turned around and headed back out. We were never that far from the entrance, and with the high ceilings and relatively straight line of the passage, daylight could be seen from some of the farther reaches with the right framing…

I see green!

There were a few little side bits, one obviously taking in a lot of dirt and debris. It spiraled back up towards the surface, making it about halfway. There is a bit of a sink above it on the surface, so maybe one day it will collapse and actually be a horizontal entrance to this cave. It was worth the slip-sliding crumbling climb though, as there was the best blastoid fossil I have ever seen. It was a bit larger than a golf-ball in size too.

Best blastoid I’ve ever seen! Lovely detail, large, and complete!

So while we were at it, we looked at a second little side loop and found another really interesting fossil, perhaps some kind of coral but of what kind exactly I am unsure as I have never encountered this type. It was very radial fan-shaped and 3D, branches clearly came out from a central point. Very flower-like in that sense. It has a very weathered look but the branches didn’t seem segmented like you would expect with crinoids. The centers were a matrix look with star-shapes. There were negative impressions as well in this section of cave but sadly not in good locations for a clear photo. With help from Sabrina Simon we identified it as trochocyathus (a type of “Stony Coral”).

Trochocyathus fossil

Everywhere explored, it was time to head out. I climbed first so I could get some shots of Brian on his climb. Being only about 40 feet, we actually (gasp!) brought frog systems instead of our typical ropewalkers. The super-stiff rope that meant I was having to slightly feed and rappel at snail’s pace (on only four bars all spread out!) did make for a nice climb, I will admit.