Cavers (the term for people who love to explore caves) from Huntsville, Alabama discovered Fern Cave and the 437-foot-deep Surprise Pit in 1961 when the art of exploring deep vertical holes in the ground (we call it vertical caving) was in its infancy. Cavers used new and innovative techniques to plumb the depths of the deepest vertical pit (so far!) in the United States. For many years, Fern remained just that—a challenging vertical pit—until a combination of discoveries in 1968 and 1969 when Huntsville cavers once again made two of the most significant discoveries in southeastern caving history. They discovered the Morgue Cave and New Fern Cave, setting off a flurry of exploration and cave mapping in an attempt to connect all three caves into one system. They would achieve that goal, but the amount of effort that went into exploring the new caves was far beyond what cavers first expected—and along the way, cavers discovered much more cave than they ever imagined.
The book starts in 1961 with the discovery of Surprise Pit, continues through the discovery of the Morgue Cave and New Fern Cave, and the lengthy process of connecting all three caves together into one cave system. Cavers found out that the cave is over 15 miles long, 400 feet from the top levels of the cave to the lowest levels, and has 18 distinct and very different levels.
The book describes the discovery of the colony of endangered gray bats, ancient animal bones (and a human bone!), and locating torch marks throughout deep reaches of the cave. I also discuss how the cave became a wildlife refuge in 1981, how cavers teamed up with biologists to effectively manage the cave, and how that partnership sort of fell apart in the era of white-nose syndrome. Throughout the book, I describe many of the interesting personalities involved in discovering and exploring this massive cave system and I describe the cave itself. In fact, the cave is the most important character in this story. I also tell many fantastic stories of what it took to find all of the interlocking and extremely confusing sections in the cave.