By Jeff Nations
Front Royal's Janet Tinkham discovered her love of caving while attending college at George Mason University.
One of those early caving trips even led to a different sort of love -- one of those early excursions led to an introduction to her future husband, Rex.
"Caving has always been special to us because of that," Janet Tinkham said.
With that shared love of caving and a desire to find others with the same interest, the Tinkhams helped form Front Royal Grotto in 1991. The fledgling chapter gained its National Speleological Society (NSS) charter that same year, and has been by turns exploring, educating and working to protect and conserve the Shenandoah Valley region's cave ever since.
Conservation, especially, forms the foundation of Front Royal Grotto's activities. Members regularly participate in cave cleanup, cave gating, building karst trails and groundwater education initiative.
One of those caves closest to home, Allen's cave in Front Royal, has been a particularly personal project for the chapter. Located on the Skylines Cavern property, the cave was physically reopened in 2001 and was soon vandalized by trespassers. Using a grant from the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias to gate both Allen's cave and nearby Front Royal Caverns, Front Royal Grotto went to work. The gating of Allen's cave was completed in October 2005, but determined vandals dug out the rocks underneath the gate soon after. Undeterred, Tinkham and her group reinstalled the gate with a cement base to prevent further vandalism.
"There's always a few people who take things as a challenge," Tinkham said of the gating. "It's a shame, too, because most landowners I've encountered who have caves on their property are willing to let you go in if you ask their permission."
Within six months of the completed gating at Allen's in the spring of 2006, the group discovered at least four species of bats inhabiting the space.
The gating of Front Royal Caverns took four years due to delays relating to the construction of nearby Skyline High School, but was completed in the summer of 2008. The primary purpose of that gating dealt centered on protecting a little-known resident of the cave, the Madison Cave Isopod. Listed as threatened species since 1982, the blind, free-swimming crustacean lives solely in a handful of limestone caves in Virginia and West Virginia -- almost exclusively in the Shenandoah Valley.
"It was mainly done to protect some pretty significant critters that were discovered in there," Tinkham said of the gating project. "It's a pretty delicate cave."
Although Front Royal Grotto has been active in gating some of the area's caves, Tinkham said the chapter isn't in favor of universal gating of all caves.
"It's to control access and to protect them because caves are such a delicate environment. We're not pro-gating for caves everywhere. We're just concerned about caves that are ecologically sensitive."
Front Royal Grotto also works to protect and rehabilitate caves above-ground by working with landowners to restore natural groundwater drainage patterns. Specifically, the chapter volunteers to clear and maintain natural sinkholes, which provide that drainage and are a natural source of groundwater to the caverns below.
"We're willing to help landowners clean out sinkholes, or fence existing sinkholes," Tinkham said.
Another recent above-ground project undertaken by Front Royal Grotto was at Front Royal Caverns, where the chapter built steps and a hand railing to allow safer access to the cave by high school students and teachers at Skyline who can use the cavern as a natural classroom. The group, which ranges from 45 to 50 members each year, also built a karst trail/nature trail at Crystal Caverns in Strasburg and another at Skyline Caverns.
Tinkham said the group also stays active in support like-minded conservation groups through active participation and fundraising. Currently, Front Royal Grotto is raising money in support of the northern Virginia-based Save Lucy Campaign, a charity focused on raising awareness of the plight of native hibernating bats battling the deadly White-nose syndrome.
For more information on Front Royal Grotto, visit the chapter website at www.frontroyal.varegion.org/.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>