The icy water lapped around the caver’s face as he sucked the ceiling for air. He was not dressed for swimming, but curiosity propelled him forward: it was too late to turn back.
After risking hypothermia through the dark, frigid channel, geology professor Chuck Sutherland emerged into an opening, becoming the first known person to set foot there.
Professor Chuck Sutherland’s interest in geology is rooted in his childhood. “Growing up in New Mexico, there were all kinds of cool things in my backyard. There were pottery sherds in my backyard, obsidian, and cool rocks and minerals. So I was always picking up rocks…”
Sutherland’s curiosity was also established by exploring and mapping where he had been. “I think I’ve kind of always been a caver, too, in the same way. Because growing up out there, there were these drainage culverts which ran underneath our subdivision. And I was crawling through . . . And it was like mapping them out.”
Sutherland grew up in a military family, spending time all over the country. The drastically different landscapes are what led him to caving. The contrast between New Mexico’s desert plains and Tennessee’s abundant greenery was particularly intriguing.
“. . . I was 11 when I got to Tennessee . . . the first cave I saw had water coming out of it . . . and for someone who went from, like, desert to ‘here’s a place where the water comes right out of the ground.’ That was nothing short of miraculous for me.”
The water source immediately sparked curiosity in Sutherland’s mind, “Where did the water come from? What’s the story there?”
After some exploration, he found two more caves. He drafted a map of how he thought the caves were connected, but never explored them further until years later. He ventured to the back of the cave with a colleague and decided to test his eleven-year-old self’s map, swimming through icy cave water with strained access to oxygen.
Sutherland repeatedly tested for hypothermia throughout the swim by pressing his pinky and thumb together. Although his fingers could touch, his body was unnaturally warm.
“My brain’s getting me psyched out like, ‘I’m in cold water, my body shouldn’t feel hot like this. This is concerning.’ So my option is to turn around and go back through everything that I’ve been through, and then take another 30 minutes to exit the cave, which is also through a bunch of water. Or I trust my gut, which tells me the other way out is faster, that it actually exists. I don’t know that it’s there. Because I’ve never been, no one’s ever been. But that 11-year-old me thought it was there. And I believed him.”
Sutherland kept swimming, despite the risk, and found that his map was accurate: there was a connecting cave. “Sure enough, I popped out in the back of
the other cave. And it was a hot day in July. And it was a very welcome heat as I rolled out into the sunlight.”
There is more to Sutherland than geology, caving, and cartography, however. Although he documents his discoveries for the Tennessee Cave Survey in words, he also captures them through photography for the public. He strives to take unique pictures of unique areas.
“The kind of photography that I’ve always enjoyed doing is taking the photos that no one else has,” he said, “. . . the stuff that really resonates with me is when you can take that photo that no one else has, which is why caves were such an alluring
environment. So if I go into a cave, and I take a photo, I’m guaranteed to be the first person to have ever stood in that spot and snapped a picture.”
To view Sutherland’s photos, visit flickr.com/photos/chucksutherland/