Rolling smoothly off the tongue, the word "spelunking" is perhaps as fun to pronounce as attempting the underground adventure it represents. Spelunkers thrill on exploring little-known places in caverns' massive geologic formations.
Indian Caverns in Spruce Creek, Centre County, claims to be the only commercially run Pennsylvania cave that still permits "high adventure caving," or unguided exploration of cavern corners. Spelunkers can squeeze through small passages and see seldom-traveled sections not shown on tours, provided that an experienced staff member tags along to insure safety.
Although it's common to explore for sheer enjoyment, spelunkers at Indian Caverns may come with more motivation -- to find potential hidden treasure.
Tour guide Lake Ingle explained that the cave plays a key role in the legend of David Lewis, a famous 19th century local outlaw. Nicknamed the "Robin Hood of Pennsylvania" for his preference to rob the rich and provide for the poor, the thief used Indian Caverns as a frequent refuge spot for his band of highway bandits.
Legend has it that while dying of gangrene in jail in 1820, Lewis leaked that he stashed $10,000 worth of stolen gold -- a haul appraised at about $2.5 million today -- in a secret cavern location.
Ingle said that cave staffers see 10 or fewer spelunkers searching for the gold each year. He attributes the small number to lack of general knowledge about the legend, even though the tale is published on the cave's Web site and recapped during guided tours.
"Usually we only get people who have been to the cave before or are familiar with the old story," he said. "You don't even have to be that experienced to go [caving] ... we see a lot of treasure hunters and people who want to do something fun that involves exploring."
Unlike guided tours (which usually cost $12 per person for adults) high-adventure cavers are not charged a fee to follow their own curiosity. All cavers start at the same point -- one narrow passageway that splits off in several directions.
It's not an appropriate activity for the claustrophobic, said Ingle. Participants must crawl on their hands and knees through tiny tunnels that measure about 4 feet by 2 feet. For safety, all spelunkers must harness themselves to ropes that lie within the reach of a staff member and are tethered to manmade concrete cave fixtures.
Although visitors are encouraged to bring their own equipment, some tools such as helmets and flashlights are available to borrow, also at no cost. For best preparation, Ingle suggests bringing items like Mag-Lites, lighted hard hats and electric lanterns to illuminate the cramped, pitch-black spaces.
Although there's no time limit to exploring the cave, Ingle said that all possible areas are usually covered within a half-hour to an hour.
"It's dark and creepy and hard to get out," he said with a laugh. "People don't want to spend more than an hour in there."
The experience is open to anyone but small children, and the best candidates are people in good physical condition who have reached at least middle-school age. Ingle recommends coming in clothes that "you wouldn't mind ruining" and going in groups of two to five people -- parties larger than that tend to make caving difficult. Also, high adventure caving is not available while commercial tours are being conducted, since it can be disruptive and distracting to other visitors.
On the slim chance that an explorer ever does strike gold one day, Ingle said that the hefty reward would probably be divided between the lucky spelunker and the owners of Indian Caverns.
If present at all, the treasure is believed to lie behind a thick wall of broken rock rubble that earlier cavers "didn't have the tools or equipment to get past," he explained. Even today, removing the rubble "would be a feat in itself" and would demand a heavy haul of machinery and manpower.
Not only that, it presents a huge safety risk.
"Rocks could fall on you, and areas are hard to see ... no one has ever been back there before."
For now, amateur and experienced spelunkers alike can simply enjoy the adventure of searching for it.
Jennifer Rizzi can be reached at 412-263-1985 or firstname.lastname@example.org .