The Boston Grotto is a chartered internal organization of the National Speleological Society (NSS). It was founded in 1952 for the purpose of promoting exploration, conservation, scientific study, and social activities in and about caves. The grotto sponsors caving trips every month, to Northeastern locations as well as other U.S. caving areas and other countries. Typical cave trip activities include: Training, Photography, Surveying, Exploration, Geological Study, Biological Study, Rescue Practice, and Rope work Practice.
Caving has several properties that distinguish it from other outdoor sports such as hiking, mountain climbing, canoeing etc. While it is usually physically demanding, the emphasis is on skill and endurance rather than strength. Body size is not too important - tall people get an advantage in climbing situations, but get penalized in the low cave passages that abound in the Northeast. Neither is it glamorous, you won't see any ESPN cameras in caves. Not to mention that a caver usually ends up covered with mud. Significant travel is usually required as well - there are few caves East of the Connecticut River, and most of them are small and short.
Caving with an organized group is generally quite safe, but common sense and creativity are required to avoid dangerous situations. While bruises and small cuts are common, major injuries are remarkably rare in organized caving due to a long term emphasis on safety and training. Initial equipment costs are low, but rugged warm clothing is essential for safety in our cold Northeastern caves.
Caving is an intensely social sport. It is easy to become friends with your fellow cavers due to the long travel times and teamwork required for the group to traverse a cave safely. Learning opportunities abound in caving, usually everyone involved learns something significant on every caving trip. Typical lessons include climbing moves, leadership, specific manual skills such as photography, surveying and rope work, safety techniques, new equipment, speleology topics such as geology, hydrology, biology, even civil engineering (rock moving)!
Caving is one of the few kinds of exploration left in the world where a relative novice can make interesting new discoveries. All it takes is noticing something no one has ever noticed before. The simple words "It goes!" are about the best music ever heard by cavers.
Caving is not an expensive sport, the dominant cost is transportation to the caving areas. Basic equipment is a suitable helmet, reliable light sources and heavy duty warm clothing. While there is much equipment available for specialized cave applications, the beginner can acquire this gradually, as his skill improves.
Although it is possible to see unusual, even amazing, formations such as stalactites, rimstone, gypsum flowers, helictites and large "borehole" passages, caves with easy access to such "speleothems" tend to be commercialized already. So it is usual to find that overcoming at least one (and often all) of four main obstacles are required to access such wonders in wild caves: significant travel, tight squeezes, vertical pits, and immersion in cold water. Some of us find that overcoming such obstacles is rewarding in itself, regardless of the potential benefits at the end of the journey - as mountain climbing has often been described. Overcoming each type of obstacle demands a different set of skills and strengths, and builds character in its own way. So if want to see pretty formations and large passages, without significant effort, feel free to visit the fine commercial and Park Service caves of America and the world. But if you want to challenge yourself in new and different ways, and see what the inside of the earth looks like, lit only by your own headlamp, then come caving with the Boston Grotto!
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Boston Grotto meetings are held on the first Wednesday of every month from 7:30 to 10:00pm in the Stata Center (Bldg 32), classroom 124, on the campus of MIT, on the first block of Vassar street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Convenient free Parking is usually available at meeting time in the MIT East Parking Lot. Annual Grotto dues are $15 which includes a subscription to The Massachusetts Caver. The mailing address is P.O. Box 304, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, MA 02138. Meetings usually include recent cave trip reports, announcements of future trips, discussion of local, regional, and national caving activities, and a program, usually photos, a video, or a speaker on some aspect of caving. After the meeting, you can usually find us eating pizza and discussing caves at La Hacienda tavern in nearby Somerville.
In addition to the monthly meetings, individual grotto members often host an informal party on the second Wednesday of the month. This is a good opportunity to explore better driving routes in the area, check out other members' caving equipment and decorations, learn to play Hearts for blood, discuss recent trips and plan future trips.
Several times per year, the grotto holds rope-climbing and rappelling practice and training sessions at local cliffs. The modern methods used to traverse vertical passages in caves are called Single Rope Techniques (SRT), to distinguish them from older methods that used an additional "safety" rope, which became obsolete after nylon ropes became available. Caving SRT is somewhat different from rope work in other sports, such as rock climbing, so we recommend that members attend at least one vertical practice before joining a trip to a vertical cave. Novice vertical practices are often held at College Rock, in Hopkinton, MA, or the famous Quincy Quarries, which are accessible from public transportation. For more advanced training, we often visit Crow Hill Cliff, in Leominster State Forest, near Fitchburg, Mass. This is about a 90 minute ride from Boston, but offers a 105 foot free drop, the highest in the area, and extensive views of Mt. Wachusett and the Eastern Massachusetts landscape.
Grotto members also often attend regional meetings, held one or two times per year in the eastern USA. These meetings often feature guided trips to area caves, and sometimes guidebooks as well, often with cave maps. The NRO meetings are held in the Spring, usually around Mother's Day and Fall each year, at a low budget campground, hosted by one of the grottos in the region. Grotto members also sometimes attend meetings of the MAR, VAR, and SERA Regions. Two other Eastern US caving get togethers are notable, and have been frequent destinations for Boston Grotto trips: the annual Old Timer's Reunion (OTR) and TAG Fall Cave-in ("TAG"). Each of these is a major event, held over a long weekend, usually attended by over a thousand cavers, at a dedicated camping facility, with lots of nearby caves to explore. Last, but not least, the annual NSS Convention is hosted in a variety of venues around the USA. This is a week-long event, featuring daily symposia, guided cave trips, and major events each evening. On Thursday evenings, the auditorium is packed for the Photo and Video Salons and awards, and Friday's Banquet features the annual NSS Award presentations.
The Boston grotto is a member of the Northeast Regional Organization (NRO), which includes grottos from Vermont, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as Massachusetts. The Boston grotto publishes a bimonthly newsletter, The Massachusetts Caver, which is supplemented by the NRO publication The Northeastern Caver. Grotto members who also choose to join the NSS also receive the monthly magazine NSS News and the scientific publication, Journal of Cave and Karst Studies published 3 times per year. NSS members can also join special interest groups, called "Sections", many of which provide publications. Some popular examples: the Vertical Section (Nylon Highway), the Survey and Cartography Section (Compass and Tape), and the Geology and Geography Section (Geo**2).
To round out the list of affiliated organizations, Boston Grotto cavers should be aware of several cave conservation conservation organizations. These are typically non-profit corporations established for express purpose of owning and conserving the scare resource of caves. Often, these conservancies own some of the most significant and popular caves in their respective regions. They have a dual role of both insuring the protection of the caves, and especially the life in the caves, and insuring access for cavers. For this reason, many caves owned by conservancies are gated, and prior permission from the manager is required to visit their caves. Sometimes, these caves are closed for part of each year, often to protect large colonies of hibernating or reproducing bats. The NSS Cave Conservation Section maintains an up-to-date list of all Cave Conservation Organizations in the USA. Boston Grotto members should be aware of several conservancies that own significant caves in regions that we frequent:
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Here is a short discussion of the regions frequently visited on Boston Grotto caving trips, in order of closest to farthest:
Near the New York border are a substantial number of solution caves, formed mostly in low grade marble. Some contain attractive passageways, but most are short, with small passageways. About 2-3 hours drive from Boston.
In the Green Mountains, between Manchester and Weybridge, there are a variety of modest size caves. Some are over 1000 feet in extent and contain interesting passageways and even some pits. Unfortunately, many are on the slopes of Dorset Mountain, which has recently been closed to cavers by the landowners, a large marble quarrying company. About 3-4 hours drive from Boston.
There are some large boulder piles in some areas of the White Mountains. In some places you can crawl around under the boulders for significant distances. About 3-4 hours drive from Boston.
New York State has several different caving areas with substantial numbers of medium and large size caves. The most significant is the Helderberg escarpment - Onondaga Formation region, and associated areas of the Appalachian plateau about 20 miles Southwest of Albany, in Albany and Schoharie Counties. Several multi-mile cave systems with large (walking size or greater) passageways are found here. Most Boston Grotto novice training trips use this area or Vermont caves. About 4-8 hours drive from Boston. Some small areas of the Adirondacks, especially near Indian Lake, contain some significant caves. There is also a narrow band of rock in the Southwestern end of the Shawangunk Mountains area, which contains several significant caves with large and extensive passages. Finally, the Watertown area, near the St. Lawrence River has some extensive maze systems with small passages, but many of these are on closed land.
About once a year, the Grotto takes a long weekend trip to visit caves in Central PA (the State College area). There are several significant caving areas within a two hour drive of there. This is about an 9-10 hour drive from Boston.
There are some very large and extensive cave systems (10s of miles in total length) in the extensive bands of limestone associated with the Appalachian Mountains and the Plateau to the west. These areas start around the Shenandoah Valley near the Maryland borders, and continue almost unbroken all the way to the southernmost Appalachians in Alabama and Georgia. The closest of these areas is about a 13 hour drive from Boston, so these areas are usually visited only on long weekends or extended trips of 4 days or more. The farthest areas accessible from Boston in a single day's drive are in Southwestern VA, near Blacksburg. The terrain in these areas is very rugged, towns are sparse, and long driving times between caves are common. The reward is some of the best caving in the USA, featuring extensive systems, large passageways and rooms, large and varied formations of many colors, interesting cave life such as cave crickets, salamanders, and bats, and warmer temperatures than the Northeast.
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Basic equipment can be obtained locally, but the mail order suppliers have a much bigger selection of cave worthy equipment and clothing. Click here for a reasonably complete list of American suppliers, most will send a current catalog on request. Because of the high cost of travel (fuel and wear & tear on vehicles, mostly) to the caving areas, it is often cost-effective to purchase high-quality equipment that will maximize the fun at the destination. This is the origin of the informal Boston Grotto Motto: Better Caving through Spending Money!
Some Boston area sources of equipment which can be used for cave exploration are listed below. They are mostly general outdoor equipment vendors, with a limited selection of caving specific equipment. However, you can often find high quality warm clothing, helmets, a variety of lights, seat harnesses, footwear, and some rope climbing equipment there.
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