a review of my first two trips with georgia girl guides/ my first time in a wild cave.
Let me preface this review by saying: Andrew and I do not spend money willy nilly on adventures or tourism – we MUCH prefer to get out in the world the ole’ fashioned way: on our own two feet. We are very DIY when it comes to travel, usually researching hiking, swimming, floating, whatever on our own time then getting out just the two of us. When we travel, usually our only expense is gas. We pack everything else in and do everything else ourselves. This isn’t because we are cheap – it’s just that we prefer to do things on our own, with just each other as our company. Touristy shit annoys us, especially in the great outdoors. SO, if we do decide to spend a little cash for an experience, we make sure it’s top notch or something we could never do on our own.
I had read about Georgia Girl Guides (G3) for over two years – basically since I moved down to Georgia. G3 is an awesome small business started by two gals who used to work for the Georgia DNR. Sick of the government red tape and lack of funding, they quit their jobs and founded Georgia Girl Guides. G3 offers all kind of recreational programming, from educational classes to guided hikes, but their feature attraction is wild cave tours in Northwest Georgia. I had wanted to go on one of their tours for so long, and Andrew expressed interest in caving, so I decided to buy us tickets for a two-hour tour of Sitton’s Cave at Cloudland Canyon State Park.
Our first tour with them was badass, but it left us wanting much more. I had been in a wild cave once as a teenager, but it was nothing like this one. Sitton’s Cave is very decorated with all kinds of formations. The section we caved was mostly large open rooms. Although we did get to try some squeezes, the tour wasn’t physically challenging for us. Also, we had some older folks and kids on this tour (our group size was 8), so the tour moved slow at times. It was still amazing though! Our guides (Christine and Alice) gave some awesome geology lessons and taught us about responsible caving. Really, I wouldn’t call it a “tour” – it’s more of an adventure. You move through the cave single file and stop every once and while in big room to chat. My favorite part was what they called “lights out” – we all sat down and turned off our headlamps and shut up. Wow – being in complete darkness and silence for a few minutes is CRAZY!
The guides were so friendly to us, and encouraged us to come back for a longer tour. They told us about a different cave that was much more physically challenging – a lot of squeezing, crawling, and bouldering. We came home and saw they were offereing a half day (4-5 hour) tour in late August at the cave. We waffled around a bit, because it was kinda expensive (to us) at $60/ person. I couldn’t resist though, so I eventually talked Andrew into it.
The second tour would take place at Pettyjohn’s Cave in Pigeon Mountain. We camped in the WMA the night before, and man oh man did it storm. It was still raining when we showed up for our tour the next morning. I was stoked to see we would have the same guides (Christine and Alice) again! They even remembered us (talk about good customer service)! After we chatted and got geared up, they told us to stay in our car, as dry as possible, so we woudln’t run the risk of hypothermia. All caves are a constant 56 degrees, but if you’re wet that can feel a lot colder. We were pleased when we found out the only other people on our tour would be a group of kids from the Navy base in South Georgia, and they would only be with us te first two hours. Hell yeah! Everyone on the tour would be in great physical condition, and best of all, no kids. No offense to children, but we don’t have kids and we don’t really want them. We seek out experiences conscientiously to avoid children, so it was truly a treat to be in group with a bunch of other people our age at similar fitness levels.
It was still raining when when hiked out to the cave entrance, which is basically a tiny hole in the ground. Once you get in though, it dries up immeadiately and you can no longer hear the rain. This was comforting after spending the last 18 hours wet. We immeadiately saw salamanders, which I was so stoked for. We saw them on the last tour any they are so cool! Anyways, the tiny entrance opened up into a giant long room with massive piles of boulders they called “breakdowns.” You descend one pile then head up another, and they are so fun, similar to climbing. After you get through the first big room, the real caving begins – the squeezing and crawling. The first leg of the tour concluded with a test called the pancake squeeze, where you belly squeeze between two long flat shelves.
We headed back to the main room and said goodbye to all the navy folks. While Alice took them out, Christine stayed with us for a snack and chat. I really enjoyed talking to her and hearing her story. She’s one of the G3 founders, and she talked to me at length about working for the DNR and starting her own business. We related on a lot of topics, since I work in a very similar situation as she did at the DNR. She inspired me – she quit her job to pursue her passion with no formal business background. She encoraged us to do the same! I can’t say I haven’t been thinking about it a lot since then. I mean, how cool is it get to go CAVING all day and get paid?
Christine took us down a few mouseholes (dead end crawls) and let us play around in the big room while we waited for Alice to return. I have to say, at this point I was started to feel tired in my arms and back. Little did I know we were about to get our butt kicked on our adventure down to the Volcano Room. Once Alice rejoined us, it was just the two of them and us – we lucked out and got a private tour! They told us the plan and described the route, telling us that half day tour groups don’t always get to see the Volcano room as the route is challenging. I was ready!
The caving got serious very fast. No more big expansive rooms – now we were constantly on all fours, shimmying down walls, squeezing through corkscrews, hoisting ourselves up and down. It was so intense. I had a moment where we were descending a really tricky wall with a hole at the bottom, and Andrew was struggling … I started feeling like I was going to have a panic attack. There’s a point though where you realize you’re committed – there’s only one way out of a cave, and that’s back the way you came. No skipping sections because you’re tired or scared. I was tired and beat up, and realized we had further to go before we turned around and did it all again. I closed my eyes, smiled, and remembered I was with great guides who woudln’t let anythig happen to me. Also, hello, this is like a once and a great while experience! Enjoy it while it lasts! Test your limits!
Were my limits ever tested! About halfway to the room, Christine stopped us and told us this is where the last tour made it before they had to turn around. She said we were doing great and would definitley make it. After a few hand ropes and one final corkscrew squeeze we popped out into the Volcano Room. Wow. It’s a giant funnel shaped room, and you come out on a ledge near the top. Below you is a drop that seems endless. After a solid hour of never being able to stand up because the hallways and passages were so tight, you are suddenly in a huge room again. SO COOL. The way out was hard, obvs – I can honestly say it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.
I don’t know what’s more powerful: sitting in the total dark and silence or emerging from a cave after many hours and seeing daylight again. It was surreal. The whole experience was. I feel like we’ve been telling people about caving, and the reaction is WTF why would you ever do that! You just can’t explain it. Exploring a cave is like exploring our planet’s history. Seeing the work of water over geologic time, it’s just incredible. It’s a rush too, never being able to clearly see ahead where you’re going and what’s next. I’m SO glad we decided to come back for this tour.
Georgia Girl Guides are a badass women-run small business that does awesome conservation work in addition to their recreational tours. They even serve as volunteers on cave rescue teams! There’s something SO IMPORTANT about supporting small businesses like this (more on that here). When I meet people like G3, it reminds me that cool humans do exist – that we humans are capable of doing so much awesome shit with our lives if we just follow our passions and take care of ourselves and our environment. Not only did we have a great time with G3, I left feeling inspired!