"Some people call me Mole," said our companion. "Or sometimes Batman."

It's not that John Powers resembles a rodent, nor does he have bad vision. But a quick survey of our surroundings was all that was needed to understand how he acquired such a moniker.

We were consumed by darkness. Covered with mud from head to toe, we made our way through a confusing and seemingly endless maze of tunnels, alternately crawling, climbing and stoop-walking. Occasionally I would attempt to retrace our path in my mind, vaguely remembering where we made our last underground turn, backtracking into the corners of doubt and uncertainty. Not to worry though, we were with Mole. And we were on, or rather in, his home turf.

To outsiders, the sport is known as spelunking. To most of its participants, it is simply caving. And eerie unknowing as you explore and examine the magnificent underworld is just one of its many thrills.

While the sport is potentially very dangerous, novice cavers will find most of their fears are unfounded. You won't stumble over rats or spiders or dreaded pit vipers in most caves. In fact, due to the lack of any food underground, you're unlikely to stumble across any wildlife save the occasional bat, who likely will be hanging peacefully upside down from his perch, asleep and disinterested.

Our main concern was getting lost, the primary worry of all cavers, which is why it's a team sport. Powers was captain of our four-person team. He has more than 20 years of spelunking experience. We had none. Besides, he owns the cave. In fact, he discovered it.

"I found Cricket Maze on the 15th anniversary of when I began caving," said Powers. "It's really a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, every caver's dream."

According to Powers, Cricket Maze is the largest wild cave in the panhandle, with roughly 1 1/2 miles of passage. But you would never know it from looking down at an entrance just slightly larger than a basketball hoop. Once inside, the hole opens up to grand caverns, displaying breathtaking stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies and other speleothems.

It is for this reason that Powers and a group of experienced cavers decided to form Cricket Maze Cave Association and buy the surrounding land in order to protect the cave.

"We wanted to be able to preserve the cave for future generations," said Powers. "It's a real victory for conservation because just one person can do innumerable amounts of damage in a cave. It takes hundreds of years after the destruction just to get back to normal."

According to Powers, the stalactite growth is one cubic inch every 100 years. The final product is worth the wait.

Searching for these buried natural treasures, Diana Curtis, Todd Reasor and I got outfitted in boots, hardhats and layers of mud-worthy garb and followed Powers into the dark recesses of the earth. Our helmets carried carbide lamps that cast a dull glow toward the walls of the cave as we labored through narrow tunnels some 120 to 150 feet below the planet's surface.

Sometimes crawling under, sometimes climbing over rocks and formations in our path, all the while trekking deeper into the earth, I thought of it as sort of an inverse mountain climb.

Hard work paid dividends when we slithered through a tight squeeze into a large room full of ancient fossils, delicate crystalline soda straws and unusual hanging formations that drooped from the ceiling like Spanish moss or warm-weather icicles.

"To be able to walk on that ground, to see those formations, is just such a thrill," says Powers. "It's really like being the first person on a new planet."

That was never so evident as when we finally emerged from our subterranean habitat. Powers's underground instincts led us in a circular route and back to the keyhole that initially opened the door to this alien underworld. Above the ground we were greeted by a West Virginia hillside silhouetted by the setting sun, and I couldn't help but notice the contrast between the two worlds, each with its unique beauty.

To protect Cricket Maze, CMCA wishes to keep the location secret. There are numerous commercial caves in the area. For those interested in wild caving in the region, local clubs can help: DC Grotto: Dave West, (301) 460-4299. Potomac Speleological Club: Tom Kaye, (703) 379-8794. Sligo Grotto, CMCA: John Powers, (301) 262-3064. National Speleological Society (Ala.): (205) 852-1300.