First of all, I want to wish West Virginia a happy 155th birthday.  Today is West Virginia Day in our state; a holiday we celebrate to commemorate the founding of West Virginia as the 35th state on June 20, 1863.  You will hear it said that, when our state was born, it became the first state to be created from the boundaries of another, but that is an over-generalization—one of many I have tried to correct or clarify through my website posts.  Actually, the State of Maine became the first state carved from another (formerly a part of Massachusetts) when it was formed in 1820.  I recognize this historical qualification out of respect for native “Mainiacs” everywhere.  West Virginia simply became the first state carved out of another as a consequence of war (the Civil War, specifically).  You see, Virginia had already seceded from the Union when West Virginia was formed, so technically, we became a U.S. State carved from the bowels of a Confederate State.

Second, I have to correct an announcement I made in my previous post regarding the official broadcast date for the dairy farming news segment filmed at our farm on June 1 by WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg, VA.  In my last post I said it would air on Tuesday, June 19.  At the time I said that, it was correct.  However, I received an e-mail yesterday afternoon from Marina Barnett, the reporter who is producing the segment, informing me that the broadcast date had to be postponed until the 10:00 and 11:00 PM news broadcasts on Tuesday, June 26.  If you tried to view it last night and was disappointed to miss it, I apologize.  It appears the segment required more time to edit than they anticipated.  I am not surprised, as they filmed more than an hour’s worth of interviews, plus some additional footage, that must be edited down to a three or so minute story.  I knew that would be a difficult task, as I once served as a producer (and Board member) for the community access cable television station in Middlebury, VT nearly 30 years ago and struggled with my own editing decisions.  I am eager to see the final news segment, and I hope you will “tune in” to view it live on the station’s website, www.whsv.com.  It should contain video of our first doe kid, Esmeralda (our Essie), who now lives at the Carroll’s Nigerian Dwarf goat farm at the entrance to Smoke Hole Canyon.  Now that I have taken care of immediate business, I wish to tell you about another of our local natural wonders, the Sinks of Gandy.

Our son, Michael (who took all of the photos accompanying this post) recently expressed an interest in touring a noncommercial cave with a small group of his friends.  There are many such caves in our area, but the most renowned of them all is the Sinks of Gandy located high in eastern-most Randolph County, close to the Pendleton County line.  Although the main cave passage is only about 3,000 feet long, it is very unique in that it was carved through the slopes of a mountain knob by Gandy Creek.  Gandy Creek, which begins on nearby Cunningham Knob, flows west towards Yokum Knob, which has a slightly lower summit elevation.  Instead of winding around the summit of Yokum Knob, it carved a passage through it and emerges on the other side before wending its way along the eastern boundary of Randolph County.  Although the cave is located within the purchase boundary of the Monongahela National Forest, it is located entirely on privately-owned lands.  The upstream entrance is located on land owned by the Teter family, in whose trust it has been held since the earliest days of European settlement in that area.  Therefore, sensitive respect for the property owners must be observed when visiting the cave, but they have generously allowed access to the Sinks for more than 150 years.  I had toured the cave some six or seven years ago with a local group of cavers I know, so I knew it was a relatively easy cave to negotiate for first-time cavers.

However, when I say that, I am not encouraging inexperienced cavers to try it recklessly.  ANY cave, regardless of the apparent ease or simplicity of it, poses life-threatening hazards and dangers, and should not be attempted without an experienced guide or prior training from an experienced guide and appropriate equipment.  In the case of the Sinks of Gandy, the passage is a creek channel, so water levels in the cave as well as the strength and temperature of the current are important factors to anticipate.  As it turned out (and as I had forewarned), these factors were not in our favor when I took Michael and his friends to see it this past Friday (June 15).

The cave has large, open entrances that make it very impressive to approach from either direction.  The upstream side of the cave has one single entrance that serves as the iconic image of the cave.  The first published illustration of the Sinks by West Virginia native David Hunter Strother (Porte Crayon), which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in the 1870’s, depicted this entrance.  Although the landscape surrounding the cavern has changed significantly over the years, the rock entranceway has not and remains immediately recognizable.  The downstream exit of the cave consists of both a dry and wet exit (along the creek).  Because the dry exit is located above and away from the wet creek exit, it can be difficult for inexperienced visitors to find.  Having toured the cave before, I could remember where to find it.  While the natural condition of the cave has been undoubtedly impacted over the years by the many people who have toured it, I know of no “improvements” that have been made inside it.  This makes it a good natural environment for aspiring cavers to explore.

The passage is quite large, especially at the upstream entrance, so it is easy to follow.  Cavers must negotiate the creek several times, regardless of the water level, to traverse it.  On the day we visited it, the water levels in the creek were so high, there was no dry land at the entrance.  The depth, cold temperature, and strong current of the water quickly ended any innocent interest my son and his friends had in touring the full length of the cave.  Instead, they spent an hour or more studying the cavernous entrance and the cave environment.  We noticed that a number of swallows had built nests in the cave, and they soared defensively about the entrance as we approached.  (We have had to defend the front porch of our house against nesting swallows by placing rubber snakes along the railing and trim.  This trick has encouraged them to seek alternate nesting sites.)

Swallow nest at Sinks of Gandy – By Michael Umling – 6/15/18

The kids (kids to me, but “young adults” by their own definition) also noticed scores of spiders along the roof and walls of the entrance, as well as crayfish in the creek bed.  Mineral deposits in the cavern roof shimmered in the light of their headlamps and salamanders scampered along the rocks at the base of the walls.  Although the air temperature outside the entrance was in the 80’s, every breath we expelled hung in the air before our eyes as a thick mist.  The water temperature probably hovered somewhere between 55 and 60 degrees, cold enough at the depth that day to pose a significant risk of hypothermia.  I knew from my past visit that the main passage narrows near the middle of the cave and that the water level at that point might be above my head.  Although it was too dangerous to attempt a tour of the cavern, they found plenty of features in the entranceway to satisfy their interest in visiting the cave.  No one was disappointed because we decided to abandon our tour.

Spider in Sinks of Gandy Cave – By Michael Umling – 6/15/18

The Sinks of Gandy is another iconic and wonderous natural treasure of our Potomac Highlands region of West Virginia.  It is a fabled natural curiosity that is tied to local folklore by many tales and stories.  History records that Union forces chased a Confederate troop into the cave during the Civil War.  Other stories of intrigue and mystery, too numerous to give proper attention in this post, enrich its heritage.  If you wish to truly understand West Virginia and her impressively distinctive and colorful heritage, a visit to the Sinks of Gandy must be part of your bucket list.