Exploring passages and canals of Minerva’s historic Burroughs’s and Brown’s caves
By Carl Korn
In 1863, the pioneering naturalist, poet and teacher John Burroughs chronicled a visit to a cave near Minerva.
“We squeezed and wriggled through a big cleft in the side of the mountain for about 200 feet, when we emerged into a large dome-shaped passage …,” he wrote, noting that deep within there appeared “innumerable bats and at all times … primeval darkness.”
Some 160 years later, I found myself, a novice caver, accompanying my friend Tom Zelker, a Roman Catholic priest and experienced spelunker, as we walked along an old railroad bed off Northwoods Club Road. On that warm, buggy August morning, we scanned the hillside for the same cleft in the side of the mountain that Burroughs wrote about in his journal.
From somewhat more advanced caving maps and guidebooks, Tom knew that, about two miles from where railroad tracks crossed the road, we needed to locate that gash in the mountain—and a brook created by the outflow from Hotwater Pond. The brook and a small waterfall would mark the entrance to what is now known as Burroughs’s Cave. With no foot paths, signs or trail markers, this was the best we could do.
Suddenly, Tom called out, “I think that’s it,” and we scrambled up the hillside to a large crescent-shaped mouth resembling something from Jurassic Park that marked the entrance to Burroughs’s Cave.
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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Soon, we left daylight behind, crawling like tentative toddlers through inch-deep water and over rocks and gravel. Just 50 feet in, we lauded our first discovery—a pile of sticks and leaves that, over the winter, had been a bear’s den. Fortunately, the bear had long vanished as had the bats, likely victims of the white-nose fungus that have decimated the Adirondack bat population.
With illumination from our lights, but black-ness everywhere else, we worked our way through passages—some narrow, some large enough to stand—and around a few bends, which we marked with neon-green glow sticks to provide direction on our return.
We stopped in the large, dome-shaped passage identified by Burroughs, and admired the vaulted ceiling carved over millions of years from water flowing through the granite and marble. After we admired this giant underground room, we continued deeper and deeper, carefully lowering ourselves over mid-sized boulders to our destination: a sump, the area where water enters the underground at the bottom of the cave.
Any nerves at that point had been calmed, overtaken by a sense of awe and wonder as the glow from my head lamp lit the marble walls and specks of condensation that glistened like small diamonds. At various points, odd-shaped intrusions of iron ore—rust in color—protruded from the walls like primitive sconces.
Eventually, we found the sump and took turns posing for pictures in the cold, knee-deep water. Our warm breath in the humid air created a fog not unlike the dry ice of a rock concert.
Two hours later, we emerged safely into the bright sunlight.
Weeks later, we decided to explore nearby Brown’s Cave, especially exciting because, after repeated excuses, my wife Cara gamely promised she would conquer her fears and join us.
Little is known of Brown’s Cave. I could find no footprint on the internet. Other than a photocopied map compiled by the Northeast Spelunking Society which Tom handed me “in case something happens down there,” we had little to go on once Tom found the “correct” telephone pole on 14th Road in Minerva that marked the start of the tamped down leaves and grass that sent us hiking in the general direction.
A pink ribbon tied to a bush. A yellow blaze on a tree. A left at a giant boulder just before a depression in the forest. Step after step, for more than one mile, these haphazardly placed clues served as waypoints leading us toward the cave’s opening, which appeared out of nowhere as just the top rungs of a faded red steel ladder. Someone, sometime had once carried this ladder through the woods, lowered it into the mouth and then tied it to a tree for stability —a service we greatly appreciated.
Tom volunteered to go first. He would swing over the entrance, steady himself on the ladder and climb 15 feet down a shaft to the narrow floor below. He would ascertain whether the cave was dry, unoccupied and safe. And it was.
Once our group was safely on the cave floor, Tom explained that Brown’s Cave is a linear cave, with a chimney that allowed a small shaft of light in at one end, and a very narrow exit more than 400 feet away—an opening we had labeled on a previous expedition as “the Birth Canal.” Numerous branches and shelves —some explorable, some not—extended from the main chamber like tentacles.
For more information on responsible and safe cave exploration, check out the Northeast Cave Conservancy’s website
For nearly two hours, we walked, crawled and slithered into various corners and crevices. We marveled at the “Wow Room,” so-called because, according to Tom, that’s what first-timers’ often exclaim when their lights first hit the 25-foot-high ceiling.
We crawled some more, admiring the way our headlamps illuminated constellations of beaded water. We positioned our lanterns just right, so we could take photos of marble veins carved by melting glaciers over millions of years. In one compartment, a small natural bridge presented a vexing option: To climb over and risk a fall or wriggle under, compressing our bodies tight against the wet, cold cave floor.
With each new wonder, we seemed to increasingly lose track of time and any sense of anxiety about being deep in the woods, some 30 feet underground, and totally alone. Soon, however, we reached the far end of the cave—and the narrow exit.
“We can go back and climb the ladder up and out, or we can take this way—go through the Birth Canal,” Tom said.
We made a few jokes, and unanimously voted to drop to our bellies. One after another, helmeted head to muddy booted foot, we slowly wormed our way toward the outside world, contorting our old bodies into unnatural positions so we would not get stuck before we reached the forest floor and daylight.
We groaned and grunted, hunched our shoulders tight and, of course, emerged from the canal alive. Muddy, wet and exhilarated, we high-fived and vowed to explore other “wild” Adirondack caves soon.
Carl Korn is a Saratoga Springs writer with an Adirondack camp near Indian Lake.