Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

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Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby BillRigg » Aug 9, 2017 1:53 pm

Hey all - hope today finds you well.

I'm posting today about something I learned recently in Howe Caverns, NY. I went on a pretty commercialized cave tour of both Howe Caverns and Secret Cavern, which are right next to each other. On these trips I learned that the Howe Caverns tour ends pretty early into the cave system, which continues downward following it's oh-so-cleverly named River Styx (sidebar - I wonder how many River Styxs there are in caves around the world, and if their namers think they're being original :big grin: ) so naturally I was curious about what was further down.

There are so called "adventure tours" down that way where you can tour with an experienced guide assuming you have sufficient gear and can demonstrate your seriousness and capability to them. Apparently though Howe Caverns' sister cave has a similar feature - the nearby Secret Cavern also ends with a watery descent to lower caves.

Some research showed me that the caves below Secret Cavern were owned by some cavers who bought them to preserve it. I've heard them referred to as Benson's Caves but can find no information online about them. Additionally, I've read a mention or two that the lower portions of Benson's Caves lead to something called the Master Cave System, which apparently runs deep beneath the earth and connects the two caves among potentially dozens more.

I want to know everything I can about the Master Cave System - has it been explored? Has anyone made the connection from Howe's Caverns to Benson's Caves to Secret Cavern, or vice versa? Is the lack of information about the Master Cave System because it's only theoretical? Or is it because it's too dangerous to explore? And how might one explore and potentially map such a deep, sprawling network of caves?

It's a bit of a goal of mine to get down into those super-caves, and as such I need to know all I can about it. Any offhand mentions or insight would be greatly appreciated, as well as connections to anyone who might know more about this alluring mystery.

Thanks for your time!


:cavechat:
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Steve_S » Aug 9, 2017 6:36 pm

Hi, There is no master cave system there. Secret cavern is connected to Bensons cave and they are separated by a gate where bensons ends and Secret Caverns begins. And neither one connects directly with Howe caverns except possibly through the river flowing underground. I think I read somewhere that they dye traced together but I could be wrong. Howe caverns is connected to Howe's mine but nothing else. I have been through both systems pretty thoroughly and can tell you for certain that there's no master cave system there.
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Vince » Aug 9, 2017 6:55 pm

Ditto what Scott said about contacting a local grotto under another topic. Either of the NJ grottos should be of help getting started.

Meanwhile, search the NSS web site for NSS Nature Preserves and you'll notice that the NSS' first preserve - over 5 miles of passage - is within proverbial spitting distance of Howe and Secret. Also check the Northeastern Cave Conservancy web site for info on the preserve they own in the immediate area. While both of these caves require experience and technical skills to explore safely, both organizations own other properties within the same county that are new caver friendly.
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby BillRigg » Aug 9, 2017 7:03 pm

Excellent, thanks for the replies folks. I'd still like to check out Benson's Caves at some point - are they particularly dangerous at all, or just less accessible than Secret Cavern?

And I will certainly check those sites out - thanks a bunch for the tip!
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Steve_S » Aug 9, 2017 7:08 pm

Bensons cave is a vertical cave with a 50' entrance drop. And you need to have prior vertical caving experience to get access and permission to go. Plus a minimum of 4 people in your group
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Caving Guru » Aug 10, 2017 4:34 pm

I would say that there is such a thing as the Master Cave System in Schoharie, NY. Many of the caves in the Schoharie County area are connected hydrologically including McFail's, Howe Cavern, Secret, and Benson's. They just haven't been physically connected. In order to physically connect all of these a lot of sumps would need to be pushed & it would require a lot of digging most likely.

A similar situation exists in Greenbrier County, WV. Over 100 miles of cave passage are connected hydrologically in the Greenbrier Valley but most of the 1,000+ caves in the valley haven't been connected physically. Some of the caves in the Greenbrier Valley that are part of the Greenbrier Valley Master Cave System include Benedict's, Maxwelton, Savannah's, Friar's Hole (the longest cave in WV), and many others.
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby BillRigg » Aug 10, 2017 5:58 pm

Steve, phew, that is quite the drop. I knew about the permit access and minimum group size, but that's a crazy detail I must have missed. Are there any other interesting traits about Bensons? No wonder it's so hard to find information about, that seems like some pretty advanced caving. I need to get vertical experience for sure, I haven't really done any of that yet. I guess doing some rock climbing would be a good exercise to prepare myself first, though.

Guru, super interesting. A quick googling informs me that a sump is a submerged passage in the cave. That makes a lot of sense as to the nature of the Master Cave System in Schoharie NY. My next thought would be if there were any of these passages wide enough to swim through. This admittedly makes the task of exploring/mapping the Master Cave System much harder and more dangerous, but I'm not necessarily deterred. It just means I need to look into cave diving as well. What do you think, could it be done?
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Caving Guru » Aug 11, 2017 3:59 pm

Most of the known caves in Schoharie County, NY have been explored and mapped. Even a good amount of underwater cave passage in these caves have been explored & mapped by SCUBA divers. There is a large underwater aquifer that is fed by a lot of the caves in the area. I don't think that the aquifer has been reached by any cave divers that I am aware of. Cave diving allows you to reach a lot of places that the average caver is not able to reach but cave diving can be deadly. The majority of cave deaths are from cave divers. Most cave divers get trained in Florida.

It would be very difficult to explore and map the whole master cave system. Already, some portions of cave that make up this master cave system take over 10 hours to reach from the nearest entrance. I wouldn't be surprised if there are even more remote sections of the master cave system. So it would require very long trips especially to map the most remote sections. So to answer your question, I would say no, that it would not be possible to explore & map the entire master cave system.

And you were asking about Benson's. I have been there. The entrance rappel is more like 60 feet, I would say. After that, it is similar to the average New York cave being tight, wet, and cold. After you rappel down, it starts off as a tight canyon that you can stand up in. A short distance farther in you have to get your feet wet. And not long after that there are about 3 duck unders where you have to crawl through water with a short ceiling height. After the duck unders, there is some more walking passage and you eventually reach this waterfall which is as far as you can go following the water since the water disappears into the floor after the waterfall. There are at least 3 dry passages that are offshoots of the main passage. They are all tight crawls. One goes to the Secret Caverns entrance and the other 2 are leads that have been worked on with digging. These 2 leads are pretty much on top of each other being 2 different levels of the passage. It's a pretty linear cave so you can't really get lost.
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Steve_S » Aug 11, 2017 7:05 pm

So the entrance drop in Bensons is actually 65 feet. http://www.necaveconservancy.org/bensons-preserve/ And its definitely a cave you want to do with a smaller group. You get SOAKED and chilled to the bone in this cave, and if you are unfortunate enough to be the last one to ascend out you'll be frozen. As I found out the hard way :yikes: And Caving Guru is 100% right about everything he said. Especially about the cave diving. It takes a special kind of crazy to do that in my book, since cave divers that run into trouble rarely ever make it out alive. Someone even died in Clarksville doing a sump dive a few years ago.
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby BillRigg » Aug 13, 2017 7:02 pm

Damn, cave diving really gives me the willies. I would love to try and map out the Master Cave System, and that aquifer sounds really cool - but I guess I when it comes to cave diving I can cross that bridge when I come to it. Is it really that deadly though? I know that even a single bit of trouble can turn deadly quickly in cave diving, but I've also read that when you do everything right and follow protocol it has a really low statistical likelihood of fatality. Maybe I'm just hopeful?

How did the guy in Clarksville die, if you don't mind my asking? I'm just curious as to what the nature of the hazard in the sump that got him was. If I'm going to consider this someday, I want to see all the variables first.

And also, is there any sort of cave diving drone one could use to reduce the risk of dying in a sump? Like, could you send a drone in first to explore it and see how dangerous it was re: current, silt obscuring vision, etc?
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby Caving Guru » Aug 14, 2017 12:47 pm

I don't know the answer to most of your questions but I can answer your question about the guy who died in Clarksville Cave. He was a college student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Rensselaer Outing Club and decided to try to dive the upstream sump of Clarksville Cave located in the Lake Room with no diving gear, I believe. There may be another air pocket beyond the sump that he was trying to reach. In order to retrieve his body, another entrance was created above the Lake Room in order to pump the water out of the lake so his body could be retrieved.
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby NZcaver » Aug 14, 2017 3:31 pm

The Clarksville fatality in 2001 involved a diver with SCUBA gear. He was not experienced in cave diving, and was pushing a tight sump when he got stuck and drowned.

Newspaper Article
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Re: Upstate NY - The Master Cave System

Postby BillRigg » Aug 24, 2017 4:53 pm

Yikes. I guess cave diving really is super deadly - lots of room for small errors that become big problems. Was he trying to reach a previously undiscovered air pocket? Is there any way to remotely check those kinds of sumps before exploring them physically?
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