Kyle Mills

Delineation of Bigwater

In the canon of traditional Appalachian music, there is a haunting old time fiddle arrangement known as the “Yew Piney Mountains.” It is likely that no one ever actually composed this tune, but rather, it materialized out of the mountain culture itself- slowly evolving with each generation that played the song. The music is born of a place, played by the people who knew the terrain the best. Every note being deliberate like careful steps along a switch-backing trail leading up the side of a steep mountain. For over one hundred years the ghostly mixolydian melody has oscillated through the West Virginia air. There is a long bow draw several measures in that makes the tune too crooked for dancing. The notes are high, lonesome, and slur together. The music seems meant to be played unaccompanied, and alone.

I skip back to the beginning of the track and listen again.


The Yew Mountains are a true place, clearly labeled on the wrinkled topo map rolled out on the table in front of me. They are the last high mountains of the Alleghenies before the long ridges disintegrate into the dendritic labyrinth of the Appalachian Plateau. In this foggy high-country, rivers are born. Headwaters in the mountains are special places- locations where enough rainfall cohesively bonds together to bite into the earth-which creates waterways that become unstoppable as they journey to the ocean.

The thin blue lines streaking across the map are not just ink to me. I have been to the three-dimensional world this flat piece of paper is trying to represent. I slide my capped pen across the highlands, pausing at headwaters and studying the names. The Gauley, famous for its legendary rapids, begins peacefully on Buck Knob. I once planted over 2,000 spruce and black cherry trees here. The Elk and its cool, trout-laden pools are filled with water originating from Gauley Mountain- just the seeing the words Elk River brings an image to mind of my father standing in this river.

Going south across numerous contour lines is the Williams- the most mysterious of all. I trace the blue up the mountain an find the tributary called Hell for Certain. What a name for a little creek. There is no missing the Cranberry Glades on the map. The antique Cranberry River is born in alpine-like, paleo-tundra surrounded by Ice Age flora. My favorite remnant of this vicious time still to be seen in the Cranberry is the little, carnivorous sundew plant.

The Cherry is the southernmost river of the Yew Mountains. Flowing past Richwood, it filled the tanks of steam engines 100 years ago as they roared through the mountains hauling the timber that fueled the industrial revolution. Most of the dash-marked roads spider-webbing through the mountains on the map were once railroad grades- with miles and miles of them now being reclaimed by the forest. 

I find another stream in the Yew Mountains, one that springs to life on an unnamed knob over 4,500 feet above sea level. The text reads Hills Creek- and I know this stream well. Hills Creek is much more dramatic and ultimately gothic when compared to its neighbors. Of all the waterways in West Virginia (with an exception being the small, unnamed creek I grew up on that flowed past my grandparents’ house) Hills Creek is the creek I feel the strongest connection with- a waterway with a spirit that my soul can touch. I follow its line downstream and reflect on an unassuming section of the map.

Instead of flowing west with the other Yew Mountain streams, Hills Creek doglegs to the south-east in a suicidal leap known as the Falls of Hills Creek as it tumbles off the eastern flank of the Yew Mountains. Surviving the plunge, Hills Creek regains its composure at the base of the mountains where it then gently flows through the Lobelia Valley. Lobelia is a somber area nestled against the mountains with its namesake flower growing wild in polygon shaped meadows. Shortly outside of Lobelia, Hills Creek begins sinking into the huge depression seen on the map, erroneously label as a spring, because here Hills Creek flows into the mountain. Denying itself of the light, it plunges completely into darkness. Hills Creek quickly finds itself at bedrock bottom- a great contrast to the spruce-crowned mountain top it hailed from. There is nothing particularly special noted on the map- just a few bland lines, but to me this place is important, and has a much deeper and interesting tale that the map is not telling. This area is also where I found, on two separate occasions, something that had been lost.     

Standing beside my truck parked along a wide spot on a narrow, one lane backroad, I could see what has left of Hills Creek’s first route through the Friars Hole Valley- back before it was captured underground roughly 5 million years ago. It is peculiar here. Standing in the U-shaped incision separating Droop and Parker Mountains leaves a nagging feeling that something is missing- like a highway without the lines painted on, and it is disorientating. Creeks, so common in the Alleghenies, are rare here- at least above ground. The few streams around do not stay on the surface for long until they fall underground- being tributaries of the lost Hills Creek. Over the hill I could hear such a stream flowing, and I planned on following it underground as far as I could. Hopefully, farther than anyone else had before.

I have always loved the anxious anticipation that comes while gearing up for a cave trip. The giddy nervousness, the clanking of metal gear, getting prepared, suited up- for challenges unknown. I tucked my wallet under the floor mat, hid my keys, and turned off my cell phone and put it in the glove box. This holy trinity of ever present 21st century pocket sundries are worthless where I was going.  I was recruited to help dig in a place called the Avalanche Room (a grim name with insinuated danger) with the routine intention of discovering a new passage. I had never been to this part of the cave before, and the unknowing of what to expect along the way provided the air the butterflies in my guts were fluttering on.

Before the South Friars Entrance collapsed on Hunter Campbell and me while we were exiting once- very nearly killing Hunter while only taking a hip shot at me- it was the best way into the southern end of the cave system. Unlike the many of the other postcard worthy entrances to the system, South Friars is a body sized hole barely above the stream bed, and regularly takes the surface stream. A 15-foot climb down over a jumble of VW beetle sized rocks just inside the entrance is relatively easy when it is dry outside, but with rain it becomes a waterfall and in the winter ice. Luckily, our trip to the Avalanche Room departed underground on clear skies, so it was easy getting to the first drop, down the first drop, to the second drop, and down the second drop. However, above the second drop is a canyon that must be traversed to get to the rappel anchors, and this was before we rigged a safety line along the traverse.  For about twenty feet there is no floor below- just four stories of blackness and the sound of a waterfall crashing underneath. I just wedged my body the best I could in the canyon and carefully breathed to get to the far ledge and the safety of the rappel anchors.      

Creating an underworld has not always been the work of Hills Creek; though it has always been its inevitable, erosional fate. In its youth, it was the utmost headwaters of the Cherry River. Its fall from elevated grace happened once it breached a knickpoint gap between Point and Spruce Mountains that is visible on the map. Hills Creek’s delineation is complicated, puzzling, and with large parts of it unknown. Hills Creeks sub-surface capture involves at least three routes which vary on the discharge of the creek. This is not evident on the big map. I dig out my papers and notes on the Friars Hole Cave System, all-the-while referencing back to the topo map. It has been discovered that under normal flow, Hills Creek gradually sinks in its bed. Undocumented fissures and passages underneath the stream-bed guide Hills Creek into Cutlip Cave, before pooling in an unexplored sump. I find the sinkhole containing Cutlip Cave on the map- the first place Hills Creek can be seen underground. From this sump, Hills Creek follows an impassible route for several hundred feet before reemerging in Clyde Cochran Cave, but only briefly as Hills Creek fills a passage too wet and low to follow. Downstream of this hiatus, it appears in the Friars Hole Cave System in the Rocky River Passage before disappearing again, this time, not to be seen for miles until its resurgence at the Spring Creek Cenotes. I put my finger on where Hills Creek sinks and the end of my pen on its resurgence back to the surface at Spring Creek. In between, is one of the largest cave systems in the world.

In moderate to high flow however, Hills Creek not only sinks in its bed but flows into the Hills Creek-Bruffey Creek Cave System and flows northeast away from Friars Hole to resurge at Locust Spring, miles away from the Spring Creek Cenotes. It is not common for flowing water to split in two and come out in vastly different places, having created two individual, large cave systems in the process. In torrential floods, Hills Creek not only sinks in its bed and flows into the Hills-Bruffey system, but it also epically over-flows on top of its underground self and back into Cutlip Cave- creating what has been described as a maelstrom over the submerged entrance.

This was as much as was known of the delineation of Hills Creek for decades. However, within the Friars Hole Cave System a unique opportunity exists to look at the paleohydrology- since the ancient routes, the creek left behind a millennia ago are preserved as cave passages- long abandoned as the path the water followed underground has changed over time.

I take an aerial photograph of the Friars Hole Valley from my notes to find where the Haunted House Sinks are marked and draw a corresponding star on the topo map. Here is where the cave began, where Hills Creek was first trapped underground. There is a large space on the map between the Haunted House Sinks and where Hills Creek currently sinks. I know this space shows a 5-million-year autobiography of Hills Creek’s life creating the Friars Hole Cave System. I pull out a graduate thesis written by Steven Worthington in 1984 about the paleohydrology of the Friars Hole Cave System- which focuses on how Hills Creek exploited various sink points over time while tunneling under the land. This is as much a well-researched thesis as it is a thought experiment- exploring the notion of thinking about the way land and water and stone once was and interpreting and connecting the minute clues available to figure out a history.

At the bottom of the second drop, we stripped off our rappelling and ascending gear since these are the only vertical sections we would have to negotiate. Gathered here at the bottom of the drop was Keely Owens, “Mountain” Dave Knox, Dave’s adult daughter Donna, or as he called her, “Care Bear”, Mitch Berger, and myself. This trip was the first time I had been caving with Keely and Mountain Dave, thought I had known them for years as since we were all members of the West Virginia Association for Cave Studies. I had been caving around Lewisburg and in Monroe and Randolph Counties mostly, but Friars Hole lingered in my mind. I had only been in the cave twice before this, so when Keely asked if I wanted to come help dig, I immediately jumped at the chance. Years later, Keely, Mountain Dave, and I still find ourselves gathering at the bottom of this drop regularly together.

The passage from here is a brief, streamer-in-a-gentle-breeze shaped canyon that T’s into the Friars Trunk. Keely leads us to the left, and we climb over a breakdown pile reminiscent of the “Agro Crag” from the Nickelodeon show Global Guts. I wish I could tell my seven-year-old self that one day I will get to climb up real, truly aggressive Agro Crags. On the other side of this stone-not-Styrofoam rock pile is a water scoured, pothole ridden passages that lead to another junction at the Pool Room. I had been to the Pool Room before but went straight ahead where Keely led us to the right and down a larger passage with several waterfalls that we climbed down.

Suddenly Mitch was nowhere to be seen. I noticed first and yelled up to Keely we had lost Mitch. We wait for a couple of minutes and then see his light coming down the passage. We regroup and continue for a while, until Mitch vanished again. Somehow, we come up with the idea that the Blair Witch must have gotten him, and it did not take too long after talking about this to come up with the idea of the “Blair Mitch.” He caught up to us again, and we shortly came to a dead-end room.

But it was not a dead-end room. To anyone with a grain of sanity, even by relative caving standards, this appears as a place with nowhere else to go. A waterfall plunges into a rock pile and disappears. I saw it though, a pink piece of flagging tape on a rock- marking the way on. This was not so much a hole as it was gaps in the rock pile, and one by one we wiggle into it. Places like these are worrisome places. It is like going through a door separating us from the rest of the world. We close this door behind us, and hope it does not get locked behind us (a small shift in the rocks would seal us in.) We do not have the key to get back out.

Once we were all through the door hole, we decided to take a detour and visit Barbra’s Room, a large chamber adjacent to the Avalanche Room. A mean, sharp, grabby bedding plane crawl lead us into the room, a large breakdown room with small, but loose rocks everywhere. I started to get the idea of what we were going to see in the Avalanche Room, but as it turned out we would not make it to that room this trip, and I still have not been there.

I have a small line plot of the Friars Hole Cave System that is overlaid onto a topo map out on the table now. Knowing where the cave is relative to the surface explains so much of what the big map is hinting at. Large sinkholes sometimes correlate to underground rooms, and vanishing streams on the surface can be followed through passages. The cave map and topo map serve as equal halves to a complete whole.

Underneath the Haunted House Sinks, an ancient path can be seen on the cave map as originating in The Downlets and flowing through the Skyway Passage. This route constitutes the first miles of the cave ever formed and is the oldest passage in the system. This is a special place on Earth that was created so long ago- yet can still be seen basically as is has been for millions of years. As Hills Creek cuts through the rock, it is always looking for the easiest way to get to base level. A main factor to its development has been the downdip progression of upstream sink points. This geological system caused Hills Creek to sink in various locations over time- always creating a deeper flow path. As the cave further developed from the initial Haunted House Sinks, it abandoned the Skyway Route and next created the paleo-drainage path that can be followed from the Downlets through the dusty Canadian Hole Highway to the large Upper Rubber Chicken Highway. This old course of Hills Creek is called the Highways Route. The Skyway and Highway Routes can be traced through the cave but are not always follow-able. The missing connections between passages on the maps do not mean that there is nothing there, but that it just has not been found yet. On cave maps, I get most excited about what is not there.   

Looking at the map, the Bigwater passage is the newest addition to the cave. The sketch of it is well done, and clean. On its discovery, the source of the stream flowing through Bigwater could only be speculated. It is obvious though by looking at the cave map and reading the research that one large stream had created the major trunk passages found throughout the system. The Worthington thesis suggests that after Hills Creek was captured at the Haunted House Sinks it created a new sink point Trough Sink. I pull back out the aerial photo and find the Though Sink on the map. The Upper Crowsnest Route was created via this new sink point. This route began under the Trough Sink at a place called Almost Heaven and flowed through Younge Street, the Sand Crawls, Second Canyon, the Promised Land, and the Lower Rubber Chicken Highway. By this time, the Skyway and Highway routes had been abandoned by Hills Creek in preference to this new, lower route. These “fossil passages” are the smoking gun in trying to figure out the paleohydrology of the system. However, like all good clues this one creates new questions. Hills Creeks paleo-resurgence for these routes is unknown. While still flowing into the proto-Greenbrier River; exactly where is still impossible to say.

Looking over the big map, I can only dream as to where this resurgence was, and the undiscovered paleo-passages associated with it deep inside of Droop Mountain. The topo and cave maps are a team, but when the cave map ends, and unexplored passages must exist the only clue is the topo- leaving only having half of the larger picture. I can and have looked at this map for hours, picturing different scenarios as to where new passages might underlie sinkholes. When I find a likely candidate, I go out and see it firsthand, and learn for myself what the map is trying to interpret. Learning a place from a cave map is a different story. The three-dimensional puzzle that caves are is difficult to document on maps, and it is hard to understand the nature of a certain cave unless it is experienced.

The map of the passages leading up to Barbra’s Room is like this. A jumbled mess of spaghetti lines which is undecipherable to most. Only having been there can I vaguely see what was going on.  In Barbra’s Room, I followed the breakdown to the lowest spot in the room which was like a cone that the breakdown was slowly funneling into. I wiggled in between large breakdown blocks going further down with a bedrock wall on one side and the massive rockpile on the other. I noticed a breeze coming from under the bedrock wall and saw the hints of a void through the loose breakdown. I carefully removed large blocks until there was body sized hole opened. Keely had found me in the hole, and she slithered feet first into this new place. I slid in afterward and we found a muddy, sloping room leading to a small pool of water with no creek flowing into it- just standing water in a place no one had been to before.

We told the others we had broken through into something new, but Donna was getting cold, and said she would leave, go into Lewisburg, and get pizzas for us to have at the cars once we got out of the cave. This seemed like an outstanding plan to everyone, and Mountain Dave volunteered to go with her to make sure the trip out went ok, and he said he would come back an find us once Donna made it out.

In the hole, we followed and obvious passage that led from the pool of water, but after a hundred feet or so a huge rock blocked the way, with only a nine-inch gap at the top. Through the gap we saw the passage kept going, but we just could not get through. Excited and disheartened at the same time, we turned around and backtracked, but we left the packs by the rock in case we would end up having to use the explosives in my pack to get through. Unfortunately, my hammer drill was in another pack, on the far side of Barbra’s Room and the mean, sharp, grabby bedding plane crawl where I left it since this was supposed to be just a sightseeing side trek on the way to the Avalanche Room. Someone would have to go back and get it, but before I committed to doing all that I poked around a little more and found a passage that was later named Kyle’s Bypass- which is explanatory of what it achieved.

The lead us to directly the other side of the rock that initially stopped us, and into a passage with a solid wall on the left, a massive breakdown pile on the right and a small stream flowing further into it. We followed the water downstream through several tight squeezes until the passage slowly opened to a large sand floored room. The sound of rushing water grew louder. I was shocked.

Usually, to find a new passage in a cave with as long and dedicated history of exploration that the Friars Hole system has, great measures (i.e., the explosives in my pack) must be taken to find some place new. However, the cave gave us this place with just a handful of hand moved stones. I cannot help but think of the idea of drug dealers giving away drugs to get someone hooked- from then on coming back for more- because this is exactly what the cave had done. We became addicted to the system- which is a habit that I only briefly broke, and for a reason I never saw coming until it was too late.

 Before we went any farther however, the ethics of “scooping” had to be addressed; the idea that we should not plunder this passage until we surveyed it. Surveying-as-you-go is a process that allows discovery and documentation to happen simultaneously and is the agreed upon righteous way to explore a new passage. However, we did not have survey equipment with us and the thought of having to live for the next couple of weeks not knowing what lied beyond was nauseating. We decided to scoop it, but only alongside Mountain Dave, who we figured should be getting back soon from escorting Care Bear out of the cave.

I had seen live black bears through the bars of Department of Natural Resources traps before, and they seemed like teddy bears compared to what I was approaching back down the passage we had come. I had decided to go back and find Dave to show him the bypass but was too late. He had made it to the big rock, the one we had left our packs at before we found the bypass, and through the nine-inch gap all I saw was the eyes of a creature determined to get out of something it was trapped behind. Dave had thought we had squeezed through by some fluidious miracle. The whites of his eye vibrated at me through the gap, and a voice was demanding to know how we got through the hole. Eventually, I explained the bypass, we rejoined Keely and Mitch, and started a proper scoop of this exciting new discovery.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were 200 underneath the Friars Trunk passage we had walked through earlier. The Friars Hole Trunk appears as the biggest and longest linear passage on the cave map. The sizeable South Friars entrance Series intersects this passage and is dwarfed in scale. On the surface overlay, the Friars Hole Trunk runs almost perfectly parallel to the Friars Hole Valley on the surface- which make sense because one way to think of it is that it is the valley floor; in that it is serving the same function as a surface valley floor would. It serves as a catchment for all the small, local surface runoff in the immediate area. The stream in the Friars Trunk is small, indicating that a much larger stream must have created the passage in the first place, and there is evidence that this is just the case. 

The evolution in Hill Creek’s development of the system known as the Lower Crowsnest Route was developed on an important thrust fault that finally brought the base level in the cave into the Upper Pickaway limestone. Hills Creek sank in the Upper Joe Hollow Sink and via the Temptation Streamway made Almost Hell and Irv’s Route- which led to the still undiscovered passages underneath Monster Caverns. This route without doubt has aided Monster Caverns formation. The Lower Crowsnest Route of Hills Creek reappears in the Droughtway as the abandoned and remote trunk passages of the Tear and Mint Rooms. From the Mint Room, the route is unknown until the beginning of the Friars Trunk and ends in the Lost Passage- with its traversable continuation stopped by the Friars Hole Kill Line. Along this route are the largest passages in the cave; Temptation Streamway, The Crowsnest Room, Monster Caverns, The Tear Room, The Mint Room, the Friars Hole Trunk, and the Lost Passage. The Friars Hole Trunk is the largest and most developed paleo-trunk in the system.

My table is an assorted mess of maps, papers, coffee cups, pens, and books right now, with a lamp illuminating the patterns that are evident in the two maps. Looking at the Upper Joe Hollow Sink point and following Hills Creeks flow through the system it all collaborates with the theory proposed in the Worthington Thesis that Hills Creek was able to stay at this level for a long time, and in doing so created the largest passages in a cave. Large passages are the most noticeable features on a cave map, and a big room immediately draws me to the scale on the map- to see just how large the room is.  It is all there in black and white on the map. Five million years’ worth of cave forming slowly revealed in several decades’ worth of exploration and study. There are places on the map I will never go to, and it is likely that no one will ever go to again. And hopefully, many more place to add to it.

 There was more water flowing through here than we had seen anywhere else in the cave, and while it sumped directly to the right- we got in the water and trudged upstream. I cannot remember us saying everything, put the pace at which we were wading the stream said it all. Our steps spoke of the excitement of seeing what surprises laid ahead. For several hundred feet the passage had a perfect, ten-to-fifteen-foot arched ceiling and twenty-foot-wide wall to wall water up to our knees, until we arrived at another sump. Looking into the green-blue waters, I was taken aback by the mystery of its depths and was in wonder of what journey this water had taken to get to this spot. It was decided to name this passage Bigwater, and we headed for Donna and the highly anticipated pizza waiting for us on the surface.

Eventually, Hills Creek abandoned the Lower Crowsnest Route, and the Friars Trunk was left high and relatively dry, and later inlets could carve canyon passages to this paleo-main drain creating miles of passages. The final steps in the evolution of the cave system were Hills Creek finding the Skid Row Route to Rocky River, by sinking at the Lower Joe Hollow Sink. From Rocky River, the route probably follows closely to its current unknown flow. The only deviation from this period to the current is that Hills Creek has abandoned the Lower Joe Hollow Sink (and in turn the Skid Row passage) to enter the Friars Hole System via the Stream-bed Sink- Cutlip-Clyde Cochran-Rocky River Route.

The discovery of Bigwater added a little over 1,200 feet of passage to the cave, but more importantly a great deal of understanding. When we found the upstream sump, we were hopeful in thinking that it was the lost flow of Hills Creek. Keely later dye traced Hills Creek to Bigwater, along with every other stream in the cave and the neighboring Robbins Run. This was a substantial discovery that answered several questions as to where Hills Creek goes and what is has done after it becomes unfollowable in Rocky River. Bigwater was a section of the lost Hills Creek-we had found it.

 Four years after discovering Bigwater, I stood at the sump, again. I smiled to myself when I thought of Heraclitus famous saying, “no man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” because I was believing what he said. This was not the same mysterious water I saw the day we found it, because we had now learned where it has come from, and the exciting implications of what that means.

As I studied my reflection in the deep sump, I also knew that I was not the same man who once stood here. I did not know if I was still the person who helped discover Bigwater. I did not feel like I was. I did not feel like anyone anymore. The person I was who found this place did not feel like someone I could ever be again. Less than a year after we found Bigwater a caving partner and best friend of mine who I loved dearly committed suicide. Grief, guilt, and sadness all engulfed me. I did not accept what had happened. I became separated from who I was and lost the passion inside that I needed to explore large, difficult caves- so I quit project caving. For a couple of years, I was completely lost in a muted depression- keeping all my feelings buried with no map to find out what had happened to me. When I felt the cool water against my legs again, I sympathized with Hills Creek, because I too was pulled down into a black void and desperately struggled to get back to the light.

This trip back to Bigwater was like a resurgence for me. Time had allowed the pain to ease away and the tinder of my soul finally able to be reignited- just waiting for a few small sparks. The ignition I need was provided to me when I noticed an unexplored crawlway in Bigwater, that while normally flooded, was now dry. My forlorn curiosity of needing to know what lied beyond rattled again in my bones- obscurely reminding me of who I was. I poked into it and saw that it kept going. For the first time in years, I got really excited about something- cave related or otherwise. This time, the cave had giving me not a recreational drug, but true medicine.

After this trip and back at home, I studied the maps and reread scientific papers about the Friars Hole Cave System- which was something that the old me loved, but I had quit doing. I wanted to go back and push the crawl I had seen, and at this low point in my life, having the motivation to do anything was a personal accomplishment. I started looking as to where the passage might lead, and where it might take me. I was able to rediscover the incredible potential that is hidden in life’s weirdest places- not just a reason to live, but that beautiful purpose.

Without realizing it at first, that trip to Bigwater four years after discovering it was how I found that which I was so afraid that I had lost- a process which I had been unable to do on my own. I finally had the direction I needed to route through the part inside of me that had collapsed. It occurred when my life’s path and Hills Creek flowed together at a place not directly labeled on the map, but I can point to exactly where it is. Where in one moment, at a deep dark place, surface of Hills Creek reflected the image of who I was back into my own eyes, so I could see myself again.

Kyle Mills is a wilderness educator, writer, and expert spelunker. He currently lives and works in West Virginia’s North Fork Valley.

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