Zack Harold

writer/editor

A Creek Runs Through It

This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

The fish weren’t biting when Rick Burgess and his twin brothers Denny and Danny arrived at Spruce Knob Lake for a weekend camping trip in 1976. Denny suggested they try their luck in a nearby stream he’d heard about, so he and Rick threw their gear into the Mustang II they’d driven on the trip while Danny stayed behind.

The brothers drove the winding roads about 15 minutes away to a property separated from the road by a gate. They parked the Mustang, hopped the gate, and began walking a path they hoped would lead them to Denny’s trout stream.

The brothers rounded a bend. They found the stream. And then they saw the ground open up and swallow the creek whole.

Rick and Denny had found Gandy Creek. But they had also stumbled across one of West Virginia’s geologic treasures. “I had no idea what I was looking at. We were on this beautiful little trout stream and all of a sudden it goes into this cave,” he says.  It wasn’t until later, a good while after they returned from the camping trip, that Danny saw a feature in the Sunday newspaper and finally learned the name of the cave his brothers had found: the Sinks of Gandy.

This popular cave is located in eastern Randolph County just a few miles from the highest point in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. Gandy Creek runs through the Sinks for a mile and a half beneath Yokum Knob before emerging near Dry Fork Road. It has become a regular stop for cavers of all experience levels. Thomas Komir, a course director at the nearby Mountain Institute, has led hundreds of summer campers through the cave. Because the cave requires little technical skill, he says it’s a perfect introduction to spelunking. “There’s very minimal climbing,” Komir says. “You’re basically walking in the streambed, and it’s mostly flat.”

Although his campers are often intimidated at first, Komir says it doesn’t take long for them to overcome hteir hestitations. “They usually love it,” he says. “We walk through the water in the cave and when we reach the other side, they’re ready to do anything. Oddly enough it’s the adults who have a harder time with it.”

The Sinks are named for a family of early settlers in the area. According to family legend, the cave served as a hideout after Samuel Gandy deserted from the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. He was captured, jailed, and sentenced to hang but his brother Uriah broke him out. They escaped to Virginia and sheltered in what would become known as the Sinks of Gandy until spring.

The general public first learned of the Sinks through “The Mountains,” a fictionalized account by David Hunter Strother published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1872. In the story, a band of Virginia gentlemen organize an expedition to find the “tunnel of Gandy.” Although the story captured the imagination of readers nationwide, Strother, writing under the nom de plume “Porte Crayon,” did not paint locals in a flattering light. His narrator imagines West Virginians as “mountain nymphs” and “rude swains” with “loutish movements” and “bobbing steps.”

This, of course, is only recent history. The real story of the Sinks of Gandy goes much further back—more than a half-billion years.

A LIVING CAVE

Our tale begins in a time of great geological turmoil. At the beginning of the Paleozoic Period, more than 540 million years ago, all the dry land on Earth was joined in a supercontinent geologists call Pannotia. But the tectonic plates below the planet’s crust began to shift, and the land slowly began to break into several smaller continents.

These changes were accompanied by a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate. The oceans rose and created warm, shallow inland seas that covered parts of what is now North America. Over the next 290 million years, the bottom of those seas became littered with shell material, coral, algae, fish waste, and the remains of all manner of marine life. As that material piled up and was covered over by sand, dirt, and rock, the pressure compressed this sediment and formed limestone. “All throughout the Paleozoic, you have layer after layer after layer of different rock types forming. It’s like a big layer cake of different rock,” says Ken Ashton, a geologist with the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

By this time the continents began to slowly drift back together, forming another supercontinent known as Pangaea. The immense pressure created by these colliding landmasses caused the sedimentary rock to fold and crack. “That nice bed of limestone, now it’s being pushed up,” Ashton says. Eventually this created a long line of towering crags we now call the Appalachian Mountains.

At the time, the range was as tall as the Himalayas. Over the next few million years glaciers and prehistoric rivers whittled down the peaks to the gentle rolling hills of today. The limestone remained, however, buried deep beneath the mountains. And the water that eroded the tops of the mountains also started to cut caves beneath them.

The Sinks were formed in the same way as most of Earth’s caves—the slow, gradual dissolution of limestone. “Limestone is the cave-forming rock. Anywhere you’ve got limestone, you have a potential for caves,” Ashton says.

The process is familiar to anyone who suffers heartburn. Limestone is made from calcium carbonate, the same stuff as antacids like Tums. “You might as well chew on a piece of limestone. It neutralizes acid. Consequently, acid will dissolve calcium carbonate,” Ashton says. Because natural water can be slightly acidic, over time rivers and streams began to cut paths through the limestone. “Everything you see in a cave, everything about any cave was formed by acidic water dissolving limestone,” Ashton says.

Over years and years, Gandy Creek pounded against the limestone under Yokum’s Knob and slowly began to work its way underground. Cracks formed, allowing more water to flow through, which increased the process of dissolution. “The cracks just kept getting bigger and bigger, and that’s how the Sinks of Gandy were formed,” Ashton says.

Of course, Gandy Creek still flows through the cave today. And since water still dissolves limestone, the Sinks continue to grow and change before our eyes. It’s just taking so much time we don’t notice. “Geologic time is very slow,” Ashton says.

A LASTING IMPRESSION

Time has moved faster for Rick Burgess. He left West Virginia for Texas a few years after that fishing trip with his brothers. He returned to the Mountain State in the mid-1990s and still thought about the Sinks from time to time, but never made the trip back. At some point, he realized it had been nearly three decades since he first laid eyes on the Sinks of Gandy.

“I always wanted to go back. I knew it was a place not many people knew about,” Burgess says. “I wanted to see it again, because it had made such an impression to me the first time.” In 2013, he decided to try and find his way back. There was just one problem. “I had no idea how to get there,” he says.

Burgess drove around, trying in vain to find the gate he and Denny hopped all those years ago. He eventually flagged down a pickup and the driver pointed him to right spot. He climbed the fence, walked down a gravel road, and found the familiar depression in the earth.

Although he did not explore the cave’s gaping mouth on his initial visit—he was pretty claustrophobic at the time—Burgess was braver this time. He waded into the cave’s entrance with his Nikon camera.

As he entered, a thunderous noise erupted around him—he had disturbed a family of swallows nesting in the crevices of the rock. “They just start darting out everywhere. You’re in a natural sound chamber, so the sound is incredible,” he says.

Eventually the noise settled down, and Burgess was able to tune into the other sights and sounds of the cave—the logs stuck in the ceiling from long-ago floods, the bird nests in the rock, the trickling of the water, the light reflecting off the surface.

After going nearly 30 years without seeing the Sinks of Gandy, Burgess is now a regular visitor. He has been back several times since his 2013 excursion. He’s taken photos of the cave in the spring, summer, and fall. He hopes to go back soon for some wintertime shots. “A lot of times that area, there’s always a lot of snow. I’d like to get a shot where there’s a few inches, being on the inside looking out.”

His photos have caused others to ask how to find the Sinks and see the cave for themselves. But, like an angler guarding a favorite fishing hole, Burgess is hesitant. “On one hand you want other people to know about it and experience it for themselves,” he says. “And on the other hand—it’s kind of selfish, I guess—you don’t want people to know about it.”

EXPLORING ON YOUR OWN

Spelunkers have been exploring the Sinks of Gandy for generations. But even a relatively easy cave like the Sinks is full of potential hazards for inexperienced explorers. Geologist Ken Ashton recommends cavers always have at least three sources of light. “Once you get in there, there is no light. Be prepared,” he says. “I’ve seen people go through there with nothing but a Coleman lantern, and that scares the crap out of me.”

He recommends wearing good, sturdy shoes—it’s all too easy to twist an ankle while walking across the slick rocks in Gandy Creek—and a helmet. “It’s dark and you can’t see the rocks in the ceiling.” Ashton also says it’s a good idea to take along some friends on your adventure. “It’s safer, and you’ll have a better time,” he says.

And because Gandy Creek is prone to flooding, cavers of all ability levels should keep the weather forecast in mind. In the event of heavy rain, water levels inside the Sinks can rise really high, really quickly. “Never go into that cave if there’s a chance of major rain,” Ashton says. “There are parts, you can look up into the ceiling and see sticks and branches that got stuck from previous flooding events.”

A 1941 Saturday Evening Post article tells the story of a band of Ohioans who became trapped in the Sinks of Gandy on Memorial Day 1940 when a cloudburst raised Gandy Creek by three inches, flooding the cave and cutting the party off from the outside world. Lucky for these spelunkers, they discovered the Sinks’ alternate exit and made their way out—wet, shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

With the proper precautions in mind, Ashton says the Sinks can provide a great introduction to the exciting sport of spelunking. “It’s a neat way to experience wild caving without getting the crap beat out of you,” he says. “As long as you can follow the flow of the water, you’ve got Gandy Creek to guide you.”