The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park parallels the Potomac River as it winds through scenic Maryland valleys. Visitors have long appreciated its geology and wildlife as they travel along the canal towpath. What most do not know is that along the canal exists a world of caves and springs just as fascinating and much more fragile. This world has gone unnoticed for many years, but now a collaborative effort between the U.S. National Park Service and West Virginia University seeks to better understand it and how it is affected by the surface.

“We are investigating the karst and the creatures living in it,” says doctoral candidate John Tudek of the Department of Geology and Geography. “Karst is an inclusive term to mean not just caves but springs, sinkholes and sinking streams—the whole landscape.”

Tudek is working under associate professor of geology Dorothy Vesper, Ph.D., on this $218,000, two-year project funded by the National Park Service. Joining the geologists on this multidisciplinary effort are Benoit Van Aken, Ph.D., microbiologist at Temple University; David Smaldone, Ph.D., associate professor of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Resources in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design ; and Dan Feller, biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

To study such a large area the team must first divide it into manageable parcels. Biology, geochemistry, hydrology and cultural information will be collected from each parcel. As the data are gathered, each parcel will be rated for sensitivity and threat. An area is sensitive if it contains uncommon or unique features or creatures. An area is threatened if the environment around it is in danger of imminent and drastic change. Areas that rate highest are the ones most in need of management.

The National Park Service requires interpretive components in research projects of this scale, so Smaldone will use the team’s scientific findings to help develop educational resources for park visitors about these fragile cave systems.

Not all challenges are scientific. “A unique challenge is the narrow, linear nature of the C&O property,” says Tudek. “We have to be aware of this and be able to reach out to neighboring landowners, because the water that shows up in park springs may originate from private land.”

In the end, it is the experience that attracts Tudek to the project.

“I’ve been exploring caves for more than 20 years,” he said. “This is something I would happily do as a hobby. To be able to do this professionally; in an area rich in biology, geology and history—it’s a bit of a dream come true.”

For more information, contact Tudek at



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