Monday, November 24, 2008

TAG Is....

I'm sure by now some folks have heard there's going to be a National Geographic article about TAG. Stephen Alvarez, the photographer who's been privy to so much exotic cave beauty in places like Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Belize, and many more, has turned his focus a bit closer to home - right into TAG. A beautifully lit (with flash powder I might add) shot of Surprise Pit was snapped two weeks ago. He and his two friends (John & Luke) were back for more this past Saturday. Every one's been to Surprise - but very few really play down in Fern's mazey depths - and to me - that's the real Fern. Two plus years and 32 trips later it never ceases to amaze and challenge me. And I hope it never ever will.

Steve P., Ron M., Steve C. and I met Stephen A., Luke and John at the turn off to Fern at 9:40 or so on Saturday. We tossed a few ideas back and forth as muddy water splashed across the windshield - areas that would be the most photogenic and the routes we'd need to take in between. The Crystal Room, The Balcony Room and Helictite Heaven were placed on our final itinerary. Sections of the Waterfall Dome route & the North Cave were scrapped just because of the time and distance considerations. If time and distance hadn't been a consideration - phew - we could have spent days dragging them all over the place. But we had to narrow it down to what we could show them in a span of one day.

Steve P. let me take the lead so I could practice my route-finding - which was cool - but a bit nerve-wracking all the same - making me all the more aware that I still have a heck of a lot more to learn in the Middle Cave. Johnston to the Blowing Hole I've got down cold and I know enough of the Middle Cave Short Cut route to get myself (and anyone else who's with me) good and properly lost. Anyway I've kinda rambled off subject...

A little sample of Helictite Heaven in Fern Cave.

I hope Stephen A., John and Luke were pleased with our final choices. We spent about an hour each time we stopped. Stephen A. would do a quick survey of the area, pull out certain gear from everyone's packs for each shot depending on the subject and size of the area and set to work. Stephen A, Luke and John definitely did most of the grunt work hauling the heaviest loads - camera, strobe, various other lights and equipment were all safely locked in pelican cases and stuffed into monstrous packs. They crammed them through crawls, shoved them through squeezes and balanced with them in canyons. Ron M., Steve P., Stephen C. and I hauled and helped with what we could. I always get aggravated with myself because I know I'm not really pulling my own weight on a vertical/photo trip like this one - but there's only so much I can physically drag through a cave - and still keep up with the boys (what a wimp, right?). I ended up packing a huge bag of flashbulbs that promptly maxed out the top of my already overloaded Lost Creek pack. I lost a cool point for forgetting the bulbs at the top of the Blowing Hole - but luckily Luke still had to come down - so he grabbed them for me before we headed into the Gold-Level Canyon.

So Stephen captured photos in the Crystal Room, some action shots in the Balcony Room, action and stills in Helictite Heaven, and then a few more action shots climbing up out of the Blowing Hole. He said he got some good photos - so our trip was a success. It really was an honor just to be along for the ride - getting to help and watch Stephen A., Luke and John capturing Fern on digital film - while getting in some route-finding practice along the way.

Everyone at the Blowing Hole - Ron and Luke are in the middle of derigging the rope.

Part of the talk as we hiked back down to the trucks from the Johnston entrance was a Q&A between Ron and Stephen A. on the general gist of the article that was to run with Stephen's photography. If I caught it correctly the article isn't on one specific cave - its on TAG - all of it - the caves and the cavers in it. Which really got me thinking as I tromped down the mountain's leaf-strewn rocks. Would readers really be interested to learn of TAG? Or would they flip the page instead to one of those wild fantastical far away places Nat Geo is so famous for? What makes TAG special? What's the heart and spirit and soul of TAG - this place I now call home? Whose voices will be heard echoing up out of our caverns into the nations ears? What is TAG - to me?

Fair warning - another long introspective ponderation (Yes, it is a real word.) ensues - if you can't handle some pondering throw up the white flag and get out now - the trip report is over.

Still here?

Well, ok then - on we go...

Six years ago I would have laughed in your face if you'd told me I was going to help with a National Geographic photo trip. I would have been rolling on the floor if you told me I'd be rapelling and climbing rope hundreds of feet off the floor and sketching for the Fern Cave Survey. Heck six years ago I'd never even heard of Fern - I didn't live in Alabama - and I'd never been caving. Why is TAG important to me? Because once I arrived here in the land of Swiss cheese limestone - I found two loves of my life at its heart - caving and my husband, Paul. Both of which I can't imagine living without now.

TAG can't be colorlessly defined as Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Nor can it be defined as just the largest concentration of caves in the United States - or even home to the National Speleological Society. TAG doesn't just stop when you hit the state line like some sort of geographical bookend. Its much much more than that. Its the cavers and caves that call this area home that define the heart and soul of TAG. We are cavers not spelunkers. TAG is a challenge drifting up from the dark to come explore - to step off that lip into the unknown, crawl through that stream, squeeze down that hole. TAG is Fern, and Stephen's Gap, and Ellison's, and Blue Springs, and Mystery Falls, and Gourdneck, and Tumbling Rock, and Rumbling Falls and Neversink, and Camp's Gulf, and Valhalla. TAG is stories that become the stuff of legend when told in complete darkness. TAG is laughter caked in mud - quirky characters - vertical legends - defiant pride - fierce protection - tough stubbornness - the SCCi - and an "Off Rope" bouncing off pit walls. TAG is smiling at your bruises because they're reminders of what you got to see last weekend - pure white stalactites, walls of flowstone, draperies, caramel stalagmites, crystal rivers, bacon, aragonite, helictites, stoke marks, haystacks, waterfalls and mountains of breakdown. TAG is a pack to pass, a tripod to haul, a good grip, a boost up, a shoulder to stand on and a voice of a best friend to talk you through.

Lots of people in their day-to-day cubicle world would coolly shrug and say they'd trust their life to a friend. With caving - sure you're all out to have a good time and see some cool stuff - but I don't think there is any other sport or hobby where that kind of trust is more important. I'm an only child and love my family very much. By high school I began to think of my best friends as the brothers or sisters I never had. I've held onto that belief tightly and as a result - have brothers and sister all over Florida, a spattering across the US, and as of five years ago here in TAG. I'm a fiercely loyal sibling - by blood or by mud. So for me personally - TAG is the family that I quite literally and unconditionally trust my life with - every time we venture together underground.

It will be interesting to see how National Geographic interprets TAG - and which caves Stephen photographed will come to define it in the dusty yellow-spined volumes years from now. Be gentle and be true. Because in those few pages - crammed between brilliant environmental discoveries, far away peoples, cultures, causes to take up and exotic locales - all with perfectly kerned type and slick photography - you will lay bare the beating heart of my TAG - my friends - my family - for all the world to see.

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At 12:43 AM, Blogger Karisse said...

I love that you're a crazy caving lady! And I enjoyed your introspectiveness. :) And I enjoy YOU. :)

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Brent Wilkins said...

eloquent! you've just described the heart & soul of caving and caving in TAG. place these words (thoughts) in nat'l geo along with the incredible alvarez photos and it's 'ready to go'.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Nathan Williams said...

Your words are so very true. It couldn't have been worded any better.
Thanks so much for expressing what so many of us share.
You make me proud kid :-)

...lets go shoot!

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Laura said...

Beautifully written, Sabrina. I love to read and cave, and your introspection couldn't have been better said. The older I get, the more I find I love learning about where other people live and why they love the places they do.

At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Jennifer said...

Nice post!

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Laura said...

sniff sniff. i miss you B.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Battery Man A.J. said...

Awesome blog, should publish that in the next newsletter...assuming there will be a next newsletter? Anyways, I finally made me one of this things so that I can share my photos and thoughts with fellow if you could help spread the word and drop a line now and then would be great!!!

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Brina Bat said...

Thanks for all your great comments guys!


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