May 15, 1971, John Van Swearinger IV introduced us to New Fern Cave. John Wallace, Bill Meier and I were excited to see what all the cavers in the nation were talking about at the time. A huge cave system had been discovered in north Alabama. Vertical cavers from all over north America were coming to drop the deepest pit at that time in the eastern United States, Fern Cave.
The Fern Cave System is located in the west side of Nat Mountain in North Alabama. Fern Cave was discovered June 4, 1961 by Jim Johnston, Bill Torode, Louis Fox, Chris Kroger, and Butch Dill. It consists mostly of Surprise Pit, 437-foot deep and more than 200 feet long.
Morgue Cave was discovered June 9, 1968 by Bob Clark, John Cole, Jim Johnston, Don Myrick, Arch Swank and Lynne Swank. It consists of several pits 100 to 200-foot deep. The Morgue is a hibernating and nursery cave for roughly 50% of the entire Gray Bat species and perhaps 75% of the Gray Bat population in the south United States.
On January 11, 1969, New Fern Cave was discovered by Jim Johnston and is commonly referred to as the Johnston Entrance to the Fern Cave System. New Fern Cave consists of more than 15 miles of horizontal cave with three main levels connected by pits and canyons.
New Fern Cave was connected to the Morgue in January of 1969 and in April of that same year the lower level of New Fern Cave was reached. There was found evidence of pasts visit to the cave by torch barriers and large animals, some that are now extinct. Searches were made for a lower entrance, but none has been found. Caving in the Fern Cave System involves a long hike up Nat Mountain or if you know the roads, a drive to the top and a hike down to the entrances. It seemed strange to climb the outside of the mountain then go inside and climb back down the inside of the mountain.
Finely on October 10, 1971, the lower stream passages of Fern Cave and New Fern Cave was connected by digging out a stream in the cold water. This completed the Fern Cave System by connecting the three main caves and a few minor ones on the mountain. The map and most of the exploration of the Fern Cave System were completed Bill Torode and members of the Huntsville Grotto.
Our group consisted of horizontal cavers, only getting involved in vertical work when there was no other possibility. We made several trips in 1971, 1972 and 1973, at a time when the last discoveries were being made and the mapping was completed. I experimented with some movie taking in the cave but was not pleased with the results, which can be viewed on my web site. One scene does show the Elephant ears shortly after being broken and on the first trip and I have a picture of the Elephant ears before being broken with John Van Swearingern IV and John Wallace.
On November 20, 1971, we made our second trip into New Fern Cave, we would park by the river at the foot of the mountain and hike up to the Johnston Entrance. Just inside the entrance there is a drop of about eight feet where a wooden ladder was installed.
We continued to the southeast to the Upper Formation Rooms filled with helectites growing in all directions. We also visited the Red Lilly Pad Room. The room had round formations that looked like Lilly Pads in a pool of water and some of them had stalagmites growing up from the center.
The helectites are formed when the wind blows through the cave forcing the water droplets to blow off the sides of the formations, leaving mineral deposits. At different times the wind blows in different directions causing the odd shapes.
After exploring many of the formations areas, we continued south to the Elephant Ears and the Green Passage. The Green Passage is a smaller crawl and walking passage that leads to the Blowing Hole. The Blowing Hole is a short cut to the middle level of the cave. Bill Torode cleared the dirt from around the hole, placed a bolt in the wall and installed a cable ladder. The hole is about four feet around and an easy place to belay climbers as they go down the ladder. The last person down has to be belayed from below with the rope going up and through the carabineer at the bolt.
At the bottom of the middle level we continued down the canyon of the Gold Passage to the Crystal Room with large five inch gypsum crystals that jut out from the wall. The wall is more than ten feet high and almost as wide with these crystals side by side all over the wall. The crystals are pointed with smooth sides making the most striking formation room that I have ever seen. From the Crystal Room we continued to the Balcony Room. You literally can set on the edge of a balcony and look into a huge round room about eighty feet high and contains a massive flow stone called Myrick’s Monument that reaches from the bottom to the top of the room.
On July 21, 1973, I returned with Jack Pace and we spent eight hours exploring up stream from the Johnston Entrance. We passed the second dome and climbed over a ledge and into virgin cave. The room had many soda straws and helectites and no tracks or signs that anyone had been there. We left the formation room and reentered the stream passage at survey mark #18, just to the left of a dry stream bed.
On October 20, 1973, John Wallace, Jack Pace and I returned and went directly down to the Green Passage and the Blowing Hole. We continued to the Lunch Room, then climbed down the water fall drop rigging a rope for the return climb. We noted the white glacier flow stone and the small cave pearls. We climbed down into the first Big Room and after exploring it exited the cave after another eight-hour trip.