Lifestyle

In search of the Northeast’s mysterious marble caves

A small gang of spelunkers has an addictive hobby: seeking out the undiscovered caverns beneath our feet

All geared up, Ramon Armen is set to descend into a cave in upstate New York.
Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe
All geared up, Ramon Armen was set to descend into a cave in upstate New York.

In February 2007, Michael Telladira was hiking through the woods in Columbia County, N.Y., when he saw two plumes of steam rising from a melted spot in the snow, as if from the nostrils of a dragon buried beneath the frozen earth.

To a cave hunter like Telladira, it was a telltale sign. Warm air rising up from underground, he’s learned over the years, often means there’s a cave hidden under the surface. He made note of the location and returned a few weeks later to dig and shift some boulders, revealing the entrance to a narrow stone passage that arched steeply down into the hillside.

Recalling the twin plumes of steam, Telladira knew what he’d call the cavern he’d just discovered: Dragon Bones.

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Telladira is associated with the Berkshire Area Diggers Association, a group with an unconventional pastime even in the spelunking community: discovering the unknown caves that dot the landscape of the Berkshires and the Taconic Range in Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts.

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“It’s an addiction, is what it is,” Telladira said of the unusual hobby. “I feel like Neil Armstrong exploring the moon.”

According to John Dunham, one of the group’s most active members, the Diggers Association has been extraordinarily successful. Dunham estimates they’ve discovered a total of around 150 caves over the past decade or so, about 40 of them large enough to be of interest to spelunkers. The most sizable of the group’s discoveries, he said — like the Vermonster Cave System and Windy River Cave in Bennington County, Vt., and Merlin’s Cave in Columbia County, N.Y, near Dragon Bones —are now some of the largest known caves in the region.

Marble caves in New England and surrounding states are different from the massive limestone caverns in Kentucky or New Mexico. Marble is a harder rock, so caves here tend to be smaller, not to mention claustrophobic and muddy. Still, for the cave hunters, the notion that unknown grottos that have likely never before been disturbed by a human being still lurk under the surface of the thoroughly explored landscape of the Northeastern United States evokes a childhood thrill of discovery.

“It was mind-blowing to me that you could just go out and find places that no one had ever been to before,” said Dunham, whose day job is as the coordinator of Antioch University’s Writing Center.

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Dunham and other group members have developed a complex system to locate new caves. First they pore over geological records and topographical maps, looking for areas where they believe water might run through marble, which is soft enough that over the millennia the passage of fluid can slowly wear it away to form subterranean cavities.

Then, after they’ve identified a promising area, they hike out, as Telladira did in Columbia County, to look for subtle clues: a collapsed sinkhole, or a stream of water that appears or disappears underground — or often, as with Dragon Bones, a spot where warmer air is slowly seeping out from underground to melt a patch of snow.

“If you find a place where there’s a stream going into the ground, and it’s going into an area of bedrock that looks collapsed, and it’s melted deep snow,” Dunham said, “jackpot. That’s a cave.”

David McGee, an assistant professor at MIT who analyzes chemical deposits in caves to study climate change, doesn’t find it surprising that a group of hard-working enthusiasts could uncover scores of previously unknown caves in the Northeast.

“This is their passion,” McGee said. “It’s what they do on weekends. There’s a faction of cavers who aren’t just in it to do the same routes other people have done, but to find and identify new caves.”

Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe
Michael Telladira descended into a cave in upstate New York.
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There’s also an element of stewardship. After the Diggers Association uncovers a new cave, they feel that it becomes their responsibility to document it and map the interior. Because they worry that inexperienced spelunkers could injure themselves or cause damage, they only share that information with trusted associates in the caving community.

‘This is their passion. It’s what they do on weekends. There’s a faction of cavers who aren’t just in it to do the same routes other people have done, but to find and identify new caves.’

David McGee, assistant professor at MIT who analyzes chemical deposits in caves to study climate change 

If they find a cave they deem particularly significant, they might even take additional steps to secure its future. Soon after Telladira discovered Dragon Bones, for instance, the group found new passages in a separate cavern they’d previously discovered a few minutes’ walk away, dubbed Merlin’s Cave, that made it one of the largest caves in the area.

Anticipating that there might be even more passages in the vicinity — including, tantalizingly, the possibility that the two caves might connect — the Diggers Association consulted with the owner of the property about potential management plans for the cave system. The owner wasn’t comfortable with the idea of spelunkers visiting the property regularly, so the group took action. Working with the Northeastern Cave Conservancy, an organization founded in 1978 to protect caves in the Northeastern United States, they raised about $100,000 in funds to buy the land and establish a cave sanctuary.

One day in the spring of last year, Telladira and Dunham rounded up a handful of other Diggers Association members to try to dig deeper into Dragon Bones. Telladira was convinced that it still held undiscovered passages, hidden under mud and gravel, so he donned a rugged blue caving suit and a helmet with a headlamp, then climbed down, past the mossy boulders and into the murky darkness, to shovel debris into a bucket that his collaborators on the surface would periodically haul up on a rope.

It was a cramped chamber, too low to stand up straight, and permeated with the damp odor of earth, the bright sunshine outside offering only faint illumination. In a chamber a bit further down, which could only be reached by squirming in a prone position through a narrow, muddy crevice, the silence and darkness were so absolute that it was actually easy to imagine the grotto as the belly of some great beast.

As he shoveled, Telladira recalled his longstanding love affair with the region’s caves, which stretches back to the early 1980s in the Pittsfield area. In the decades since, he said, he would sometimes bring his children into caves, where he’d tell them there was gold in the walls and watch them run their fingers over the shining white aspergillus fungi.

“Sometimes I’ll remember a rock,” he said, surveying the narrow passage and recalling past expeditions to Dragon Bones. “It’s something only a digger could understand.”

May 5, 2016 | Upsate, NY Michael Telladira's headlamp lights up the cave as he decends into the space. Kieran Kesner.
Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe
Michael Telladira, his headlamp illuminating the way, explored the interior of a cave in upstate New York.

Jon Christian can be reached at jonathan.a.christian@gmail.com.