By Katie Demeria
FRONT ROYAL -- Janet Tinkham keeps a shovel in her car. And when she approaches kiosks or pavilions, she always checks for bats.
Tinkham is a caver.
A self-proclaimed cave enthusiast for 32 years, she even met her husband while caving. Together they founded the Front Royal Grotto in 1991.
The Grotto provides information about caves and other underground formations to the public, as well as encouraging conservation efforts and helping landowners when new caves or sinkholes form.
For the first time this year, the Grotto will present the Cave and Karst Fest at Skyline Caverns on Saturday.
"We're very excited about it," Tinkham said.
The festival comes just at the end of the Virginia Cave Board's cave week. The week is meant to bring attention to the many caves found throughout the commonwealth.
Virginia is the only sate to have a cave board, according to the board's chair Meredith Weberg.
Underground streams make caves and the landscape around them very important, Weberg said, as they supply drinking water. In the past, no general education about caves was available, so farmers, for example, would throw dead cows down sinkholes without realizing they lead directly to the drinking water.
"So thank goodness Virginia was foresighted and passed the law to start the cave board when it did," she continued.
Soon the board hopes to make a "Cave and Karst Trail" similar to the "Civil War Trail" on which Virginia residents can follow signs and drive from one cave location to the next, Weberg said.
Groups like Tinkham's Grotto work with the cave board to provide conservation education -- their goal is to not just protect the drinking water but to encourage knowledge about a sometimes overlooked geography.
The ecosystems within caves, Tinkham said, are almost always overlooked. Bats in particular have a very bad reputation.
"We want to encourage people to learn more about them. In reality, less than half the population of bats in the country have rabies, yet that's what they're known for," Tinkham said. "They're really sweet animals, and they should be respected."
The festival will feature many activities oriented toward children, including a pin-the-tail-on-the-bat game, face painting, button making, and cornhole with bat-shaped beanie bags.
There will also be a great deal of information on conservation and how someone interested in caving can become involved.
Both the TriState Grotto and the Battlefield Area Troglodyte Society will be at the festival as well, encouraging local residents to put an effort into conserving cave and karst areas.
Those interested in caving themselves will also be able to find information at the festival. Tinkham said many cavers will be there, so opportunities to start exploring caves will be readily available.
The Front Royal Grotto recently went into parts of Skyline Caverns that are not open to the public and mapped it out entirely. Those visiting the caverns can now see a complete map of what lies beneath their feet when they are above ground.
Sometimes when Tinkham goes into a cave, she said she will shine her light on a puddle just to wait and see what sort of creature she sees moving there. She calls the small creatures that live in caves "critters."
"Once you go caving, there's really nothing else like it," she said. "You just want to go in there and see what you can find."
To learn more about the Front Royal Grotto, go to www.frontroyal.varegion.org.
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org