Michael Girard: [00:00:00] Don't feel alone about that. Especially when I'm going out with my ROV boy out in the middle of a flooded cave or mine and suddenly someone said, "Did you remember to push recording?" You're like, "Ah, I went into so much footage."
Emily: You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.
Emily: Outdoor explorer Michael Girard has traveled all over New England and in many other places across the world. In his journeys, he has rediscovered some of the most interesting forgotten history and lost locations. He works hard to uncover extraordinary tales of mysterious caves, enigmatic petroglyphs, and sinister brutes that most people have never heard of. Michael, thank you so much for being with us today.
Michael: Thank you for inviting me.
Emily: How does somebody get started with exploring? What was your journey like?
Michael: My journey was kind of stumbling around before I finally started becoming an explorer. I think it was always in my blood or something I always enjoyed. Growing up I explored, I'd wander around, but I lost touch with that when I came to, when you got to get a job, you got to go to college, and so on. It was funny that I completely forgot about it until I actually worked a job where I traveled around to do work, different companies across the US, and people used to tell me when I'd say, "Hey, I'm going off to see this on my free day," they say to me, "No, no, no, you don't want to go there. You want to go here."
They'd share with me the interesting places that only locals knew about, people who have been there for a long time. For many years, I enjoyed that with a variety of people I worked with for a short period of time across the US. When I stopped doing that, I missed it. That's [00:02:00] when I really started to get back into exploring on my own. I thought to myself, those kinds of places are all over America and in all these cities I've worked in, there must be stuff here in New England. I started digging and researching and trying to find places around here that I could explore. Actually, it started with going to the library and digging up old publications and starting to see what I could find, and then it took off from there.
Emily: What's that process like? How do you find where you want to go next? How do you do that research?
Michael: Usually the way it begins is-- nowadays it's often that I have a long list anyway. I've been doing this for quite a while, but in the beginning, the way it would work would be I'd be starting to dig through a story maybe that most people knew about. Maybe an interesting place that's only people who like to do outdoor things know about, but I wouldn't just leave it at that with just the tip of the iceberg, just the general information. I keep digging deeper and deeper, getting more and more information. What happened with that was incredible, because while on these journeys of exploration and information in literature, I would stumble on another story, a mention of something, and I put that on a list.
Then I keep digging, I find about another person or a place and I put that on a list, and then I would dig for those. Now, this is where I think going to libraries in the beginning helped out a lot because I think libraries are a good place to be. If you're not good at researching, librarians are masters at it. They are the original Google. From then, I learned more and more how to use these great resources that were available and dig more and more and deeper and deeper to find more stories.
The wonderful thing about the journey is that along the way, you're going to be collecting more and more leads of things to follow up on. After that, then it's getting out [00:04:00] there and exploring and interviewing people. When you go to towns, it's good to talk to the local people, see what they know about, and sometimes they give you another lead. Also going to historical societies are a wonderful place to go to.
You can look at what kind of information they have about the locals that may have been involved in what you're researching, and you'll find more information that you want to follow up on later. It's this complicated web of information that's out there that you just keep following those leads to see where it brings you. Sometimes it's a wonderful story and a wonderful location to go find, and sometimes you hit a dead end, but you know what, the journey just getting this information itself sometimes is more enjoyable than finding the destination eventually.
Emily: Sounds almost endless.
Michael: It is.
Emily: It sounds like you've done exploration a lot on your own. Are there also groups that people can get connected with if they want to explore with other people?
Michael: I don't know of any real exploration groups that are available out there. There may be some, and I don't necessarily do things totally on my own. In the beginning, I did. I was pretty much on my own and I would get friends to come along with me to do these journeys of exploration, but really, it was a more of an independent venture for quite a while, but over time I found there are other people like me doing exactly the same thing, but different focuses, different points of interest for them, and we would join up to team up on things. As a matter of fact, right now I'm working on a project with Mike Sandone.
He lives in Connecticut. On his free time, he explores the oldest mines in the northeast and he is looking for the oldest mines in North America. Him and I work together to go explore them, and we just have to meet on a project we crossed paths on. I think with that, you start to build your own group of explorers that you can team up with, but in the end, I think [00:06:00] very independent because everyone has their own interests, their own focus.
Emily: That project that you do with Mike Sandone, you're also documenting that for a series?
Michael: He's working on a series of documentaries he does called Mines and Mysteries. He'd been doing that for quite a while. Every time we go out, he ends up publishing a short documentary on the piece. Matter of fact, we just did one just about a week ago. Yes, I think it was exactly a week ago from today. We went and ran an ROV in a sump in a cave in New York. It was a wonderful journey, and within one week, he had a 10-minute teaser out for the end result. We got to go back there in spring to do further research, but already we've stirred up a lot of interest in the community of explorers and cavers around the world.
Michael: In Cumbria, England is Eden Village, a quiet part of the UK with its traditional towns and pubs, beautiful hamlets, and sandstone villages, some dating back to Viking Times. Few miles North of the historic town of Penrith is a small village called Little Salkeld. On the west side of the village is the Eden River. It was known to the Romans as the Itouna. This name derives from the Celtic word Itunā, meaning water or rushing. It winds its way north towards Carlisle. The largest house in the village is the manor in Little Salkeld confirmed by King Edward I. Is said to be the original home of the Salkeld family of landowners in Salkeld Hall built in the 16th century.
The village has a vicarage with no church and Little Salkeld Watermill that was built in 1745 [00:08:00] and is still operating. Little Salkeld is also known for Long Meg and Her Daughters. A Bronze Age stone circle consisting of 51 stones, of which 27 remain upright. The tallest stone is 3.7 meters high and stands outside the circle. It is made of local red sandstone carved with a spiral, a cup and ring mark, and concentric circles. Poet William Wordsworth deemed them to be the country's most notable relics after Stone Age.
Emily: What tips or advice do you have for people who want to start exploring? They've never done it before, they want to get their feet wet and get out there.
Michael: The first thing, of course, is just start. It doesn't matter what you're doing, no matter what you think you-- even if you think what you're looking for isn't that really exciting, just start doing something. That's how I had to begin, and get out there and explore. Over time you're going to find what your focus is and you're going to sharpen your skills. I think that's the beginning. Sharpening those skills. If you enjoy exploring, it won't feel like you're doing any work to sharpen those skills. It feels second nature. That's a wonderful thing about doing something you're passionate for. Those research skills that I've honed doing exploring now come in handy with a lot of things I do.
Now, once you get better and better at doing the research, then you can start to utilize the many assets that are available from your library and your historical societies. The key thing I would say when you're doing the research is don't give up. Don't just call it quits once you find, "Oh, here it is, I'm going to go find it," and then that's all, because I don't think you get the whole experience from that. Now, when you do go out exploring, I suggest that you'd be very careful depending on where you're going. If you're going to go in caves and mines, that is definitely something you shouldn't do alone.
[00:10:00] When I go to caves or mines on my own, I will only go to the entrance. I will not venture inside. I highly advise do not do that without experience also of doing underground exploration. There are things that are dangerous, so be careful, but really, yes, it's just getting started. I think when you find what your passion is, your passion will lead you, and that's how it worked with me, is that I didn't know what I wanted to end up exploring, but where I am today is not where I began back in my early 20s. You can't really plan exactly what it is that you're going to be focusing on until you start doing.
Emily: Was there a specific location that changed your mindset and led you to where you are today?
Michael: Yes. I would say it was-- Well, the moment I was able to explore this wonderful marble cave, it's the most beautiful marble cave in the northeast, when I went in to see-- I actually read the story, it was from a book about a young boy who had read a story actually in a magazine about caves, and after he finished reading the story, he thought about the things he learned from the magazine. He thought to himself, "Well, I know an area on a mountain near me where it fits that description."
He went out and within a day he found a cave, ends up being one of the most beautiful and the longest marble caves I know of. He went in there with just a candle, very dangerous, but at the time, this was I think in the 1800s. It was a wonderful experience, and the way he described it was so beautiful, but it sounded a lot more dangerous than it really is. When I heard that story, I needed to see that cave. I eventually hunted it down for myself, and when I got in there, it was as beautiful, if not more beautiful than he described. The quality of marble in that cave is awe-inspiring with swirling grays and bluish grays and reddish grays, and of all styles.
All the way through, it's about 900 feet long. Every little [00:12:00] bit along that journey though, I was frightened. I was afraid that, "Oh my God, I'm going to get myself stuck." Actually, I had someone with me though, but every time I stepped outside my comfort zone, soon I found that "Well, no, there's nothing to worry about. I can do this." That kept on happening for the whole 900 feet, and then when I left there, it changed me and it made me realize two things. Number one, I loved the underground. I love exploring it.
I love the history connected to it, whether it's a mine or a cave, but also it taught me an important thing, is that I don't see that anxiety you get, that discomfort when you are stepping outside your comfort zone as a stop sign anymore. I see it as a yield or a warning sign to say, "Be careful," but when you're at that moment, when you're stepping outside of your comfort zone, that's when you're going to start to learn new things and learn your abilities and what you're capable of.
You should trust yourself that you'll know when to stop because if you keep pushing through it, in the end, what you find on the other side of that comfort zone is the most rewarding experience that you'll ever have. When you go back from it, now you've changed yourself, now your comfort zone has grown exponentially, and the world is so much more interesting, a lot larger for you. I would say that's another lesson to learn, is that don't let discomfort stop you, but at the same time, be very careful.
Emily: Especially if you are alone.
Michael: Yes. Actually, you shouldn't be alone.
Michael: Hidden in the forest along the eastern edge of Eden River, just a few miles north of the village, you can find five curious chambers known as Lacy's Cave. They are named after a Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Lacy of Salkeld Hall, who commissioned their carving in the 18th century. Colonel Lacy is best known for the caves, and it's also said that he ordered Long Meg and Her Daughters to be blown up so the fields could be [00:14:00] plowed, but a terrifying storm broke out as work started and the workmen fled.
Lacy's Caves consist of five chambers carved out of the sandstone cliffs directly above the River Eden when such romantic follies were popular on country estates. The area was originally planted with ornamental gardens containing colorful rhododendrons and laburnums, some of which still survive. The chambers were used by Lacy for entertaining guests. No one is sure what inspired the caves, but some suspect Lacy was emulating the caves at Wetheral, further up the River Eden.
Emily: What's your favorite place that you've explored in Rhode Island, and then what's your favorite place that you've explored worldwide?
Michael: Worldwide, okay. Let me see. In Rhode Island, let me see. In Rhode Island. There are so many places. You'd be surprised there's lots of caves in Rhode Island too. I did an article about them. I think there's about 40 different caves, some not very impressive, but I have to say it's a counterfeiters' cave. This was a lost counterfeiters' cave that's probably about 100 or more years ago. It was big in the news because-- Actually, it was probably early 1800s, late 1700s. Big news because these counterfeiters had been operating out in the middle of the forest in Rhode Island, and they had discovered on this piece of property this natural cave.
It was just a strange triangular opening on the surface of the forest. You would not expect a cave to be there. It was very small, but what they did was they set up a hut, a wooden structure they built to do their counterfeiting nearby. They would do their counterfeiting there by nights, and then when they had to go to their day jobs, they'd take all [00:16:00] their materials out of there and hide it in the cave. Since it was on the forest floor, they'd just drag a slab of rock over it, force debris on top of it and honestly, if you didn't know where it was, you would never find it.
They did this for many years, and eventually though, because they let a dumb boy, I believe his name was Zavick, get involved with it, because he had discovered them, so they let him become involved. He was a teenager, and he foolishly ended up spending the counterfeit coins where he shouldn't have, and then was arrested and told what was going on. They were arrested, went to court. They actually got off on it. No charges. Some talk about political involvement in this counterfeiting too with that, but that's a whole other story. Everyone went free, but the cave became a big thing.
People were going out there to see it, but it was way, I remember, back then in the late 1700s, going to what we consider deep in the woods now was incredibly deeper, much more of a journey. Quickly interesting, it died off, and then its location was lost. I went out to find it, I was surprised that-- I actually researched it for a year, and then when I finally went out to find it, I never thought I would find it on the first try, but I got really lucky. I saw this area where I saw some bedrock, and I said, "That's where you find caves. This is it." With experience, you learn to spot things. You get better at reading the forest. When I searched the area, I couldn't find it.
I was just about to leave, and I saw out of the corner of my eye, this little black space under the leaves. I was going to walk away, but then the voice inside my head said, "Never overlook anything. Go look closer at it." That's another thing you have to learn. No matter how minute of an inkling you get to look at something, go check it out closer. There may be a reason why. I'm glad I did because when I swept the leaves away, I saw this big slab of rock there, and I tugged on it and it didn't move.
[00:18:00] This was winter time. I tugged on it again, and it didn't move, and then the last time I pulled it with all my strength, and then the ground released it from its frozen grip and there revealed a triangular opening on the ground and I realized, this is it. You could see the rocks put on the lip of that opening to make a flat surface for that slab to lie on. It was an amazing experience to think that something that these men were using over 100 years ago that had been long forgotten, now here I was in that place.
For that moment, I connected with them and also connected with those people that had visited it back in the late 1700s. I get an excitement. That happens often when I find these places, I feel a connection to those people. I just have to say the cave isn't big. The cave actually is not very-- it's 17 feet long, three or four feet high. Just big enough for three men crouched down to be in it.
Good enough to hold their equipment and their goods to make counterfeit coins, but there was something about the mystery of it and how it was so well hidden for hundreds of years out in the forest, and now once again, revealed. I actually talked to the local town and told them where it was, and last time I spoke to them, we're trying to work out with the landowner for what they call a conservation easement on it, so it'll be always protected, and they can regulate who can come and go on the property, but that way it keeps as a historical landmark for Rhode Island.
Emily: Are caves manmade or do people use them to their advantage, like this cave only being large enough for those few men who were counterfeiting?
Michael: No. Most caves aren't manmade. Caves are natural. There's different kinds. There's talus caves and fracture caves and solution caves and lava caves or lava tubes. Also, what you find in New England are solution caves, which basically water [00:20:00] with a little bit of carbonic acid from rain will basically melt away over 100s of years the stone, so that's very soluble. Then you have talus caves, that's where cliffs that crumble down and break down and make a big rock pile. Within that rock pile, there's spaces you can crawl.
Polar Caves in New Hampshire is exactly like that. It's a wonderful talus caves. Then fracture caves is where the tectonic activity will cause splitting of the rock, or also what they call ice wedging, where water gets between rocks and forces it open and makes these big spaces between it. Those also you find in New England, but there are manmade caves. There are stone huts that people made. Africa and Rhode Island, there was one that used to be where--
East Providence, actually, it was Massachusetts at the time, that a hermit made for himself. He made in such an igloo out of stone, and he lived in it while working on a local farm. You can find on old maps, I think called Hermit Hill. This cave is long gone. The property has been redeveloped, so unfortunately, we lost that bit of history, but there's a great story about it you can dig up from the libraries. There's a book that was published all about his life. He was a freed slave.
Michael: The hike to Lacy's Caves begins at the village greens in Little Salkeld. Along the way, you'll find yourself passing by the old vicarage on your right. Not far ahead, you turn onto a farm road that follows the Eden River north. After a mile, you divert onto a trail into the forest. This trail will bring you much closer to the banks of the river. Soon you'll notice a long since-abandoned gypsum mine that operated between 1880 and 1976.
If you look closely at the trail you've been following, you'll realize it is the remains of the railroad beds that were once [00:22:00] used by the mine. You'll follow the trail into the forest for a little more than a half mile. Along the way, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river. When you come onto the caves, you'll see the trail continues up over the red sandstone hill. To your left, though, you'll find a narrow path to the face of the cliff that sits over the river. Here you'll find the entrance to the caves.
Emily: Back to your favorite places to explore. What was your favorite place to explore worldwide?
Michael: Worldwide. Let me see. Oh, that's a tough-- I have to say, probably my favorite place was exploring the lava tubes in Iceland. It was a wonderful change because the caves I'm used to experiencing here in America, lava tubes is not at all. They're completely different because, in a sense, you could say it's a cave that's created by fire. What happens is, as lava is moving, it's flowing, little by little, the outer crust will harden and more and more harden, but the lava in it will keep moving, so it creates this tube around it, and eventually, the lava inside will flow out and leave an empty tube.
The lava fields in Iceland, I'm sure everyone heard about the volcano that went off recently, the lava tube I went to wasn't that far away from where the volcano was, but I mean, far enough away, I wouldn't have had to worry about lava coming up, I would've been safe, but it's not that far. That's a giant lava field on the southern coast of Iceland, south of Reykjavík. It was just wonderful. It looked completely different than I've ever seen. Beautiful reds and purplish colors and then blacks and weird, looked like melted rock, and went on for over 1,000 feet, and huge, I think it was about 30 feet wide and maybe 30 or [00:24:00] 40 feet high.
The thing you got to keep in mind when you go in lava tubes, you have to be mindful and always make sure you wear your caving helmet because lava tubes are a little more unstable than solution caves. They are very porous rock. Water can get in them, freezing and creating it to break up, so you can get collapses. Don't go in something like that if you're not familiar with it or you don't know it's a safe place. That was an incredible experience and where I had to hike out to go was like a desert of lava. Wonderful experience and I definitely want to go back. I have plans to go back to Iceland to do some more exploring.
Emily: That's awesome. What is on your exploration bucket list? What's a place that you've maybe heard of that you would really like to see or tales that you've heard of, anything like that?
Michael: Well, one that I've been talking about with my friend Sandone, is up in Labrador. There is a mountain or mountain range in Labrador where the Inuits talked about a monster of sorts that lived in the caves of those mountains. There is limestone up there, so, definitely, there could be solution caves in this area. One of the things we've talked about doing, not necessarily within the next year, but not too distant future, is venturing out into Labrador. It's a very dangerous area. Something you have to plan way ahead of time.
This is going to be probably 100s of miles of trekking down river, probably by boat and see if we can find the caves, find those caves that the Inuits believe the monster or the evil spirit lived within. Now there's no way we can definitively say, "Yes, this is the cave," unless we dig up more history. That's what we're probably going to do for next two or three years, is dig the history up, see if we can nail it down, but that's definitely on my to-do list. [00:26:00] That's really high up there. It's just going to take time to work towards that. Now, a little closer to us, on my to-do list is more venturing into the flooded sections of local caves.
These are mysterious not for stories related to them. They're mysterious because these are places that people can't go to. They're very dangerous to go in. That's why cave divers may not have gone in some of the locations we're looking at, but we have an underwater ROV now, so we can safely send it in with no worries about loss of life. Mostly what can happen is we lose our ROV, but just to see what's on the other side and answer that question, and also understand the geology of what's going on underground, which is of value for geologists and other scientists out there.
Michael: The outer chambers appear to have been greatly weathered by wind and rain. The exposure to the elements has revealed thins of a harder sandstone hidden within the bedrock. The largest of the five caves is approximately 12 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 12 feet high. The deepest cave is reached through an arch tunnel, 18 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 7 feet high. In the largest of the outer chambers, you can find decades of graffiti covering the walls. As winded sands smoothed away the marks of previous generations, the next generations chisel theirs over their faint remains.
The deeper chambers have been protected from exposure. Here you can find the beautifully cut arches and alcoves as they might have appeared to Lacy and his friends. Walls and passages have been cut by hand with precision. If you look closely at the walls, you can still see the marks of the chisels [00:28:00] used to make this wonderful folly. Lacy's Caves are just one of the many beautiful treasures we found hidden in Cumbria.
Emily: Anything else that you'd like to share with our listeners about exploring, about your travels, anything else that we didn't cover that you'd like to share?
Michael: No matter what your interest is in exploring, once you start your journey, you're going to uncover a lot of things that maybe you never thought you were interested in that are just as much fun. One of the things that I often find is some of the most interesting or strangest history, especially here in New England, in other areas of the world, and sometimes they're not attached to a location, but they're incredible stories to unfold.
You have to remember, here in New England, for example, we had people from all over the world coming to one place, bringing their cultural perspective, their worries and superstitions and beliefs, and when it came to, in a sense, what would be an alien world to them, totally new with things they're not familiar with, their interpretation of that is incredible. I've found some of the most strange stories about experiences, real experiences they had, but we're hearing it through the perspective of their cultural understanding of the world.
You hear about ghouls and creatures of all sorts and shadow people and so on, and it is such a wonderful cultural and historical experience to see through the eyes of those people at time. For example, there was pilgrims who believed there were lions in the new world. They used to run up the tree frightened when they would hear the noises because they thought really they were lions. That's what they were familiar with that matched the sound they had heard.
There was an incident where this seaside town in Massachusetts believed that these shadow creatures were attacking them, and they did it for, I believe it was a week [00:30:00] or more, and we can read the whole story right in the Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, where he got letters from the priest from that particular town and he published the letters exactly as they were, so you want to hear about the strangest experiences going on, you can read it right from a person who was there. It's wonderful things to discover with just doing that research.
Like I said, sometimes that journey trying to find what your destination is ends up being far more interesting than getting out on the trail and turning up a cave or mine or whatever it may be you're looking for. Just start doing it and take advantage of those resources you have. There are so many out there, many at the library. One of the things I really love is interlibrary loaning. I've gotten books that aren't available from no way around here that are sent over from Washington State.
Within a week, I got it in my hands and I'm reading through it and there's a publication that maybe a handful of places in America or sometimes in the world, depends on the library. Some libraries will inter-loan from Canada too. Now, you have this resource to dig through, so get out there and start doing it because you'll be amazed at what you're going to discover just from reading about it. You don't have to be an outdoor explorer like me, you can be an armchair explorer, that's just as valuable and just as much fun.
Emily: Speaking of resources, you have two websites where people can learn about where you're exploring and where you've mapped some places in Rhode Island that they might try checking out. Is that true?
Michael: Yes, I have a Strange New England, one I start putting some of my stranger history, and then also, I talk about some caves and things I do on Strange New England. That's strange-new-england.com. It's long. I also have-- and New England Explorers, which is [00:32:00] neexplorers.org. I just actually put up a new website for my stuff for my more serious exploration, that's michael-girard.com. If you go there, you can see some of the expeditions I've done. You can see the one I did just a week ago. I just put up a short write-up and a link to the short video we did there, so any of those.
If anyone has questions or maybe is interested in something and they want some help, just they can reach out to me. Maybe I can give them a tip or show them a lead to somewhere I've been before. I'll be more than happy to start off helping other people who want to do exploring out there. Just as long as they understand some places I go to, I can't give access to, or give information because of agreements with landowners or the danger of going there, so I just need you to respect that, but if I have many places that I'm sure many people will be interested going to them, happy to give them out.
Emily: Great. We'll put those links in the show notes. People can explore your websites, and then your contact information is on those websites?
Michael: Yes, they should have links there, they can just click on to reach out to me, send me an email. Any of them, you can do it from the call, comes to one bucket after.
Emily: Excellent. Thank you so much for talking with us and inspiring us to get outside and explore or get online, or in our libraries to explore it with our minds and our bodies.
Michael: Thank you for inviting me. Have a great day.
Emily: Radio Rhody is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and is brought to you by library staff and community members all around the Ocean State. Check the show notes for links to information from today's episode.
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