THE REAL LAND DOWN UNDER

Stefanshellir lava tube by Dave Bunnell, Creative Commons photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Sorry Australia, caves are the real “Land Down Under.” The past few years, I’ve been researching caves for a kidlit book project. I’ve went to national caves like Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park. The visitor centers at each, as well as the park rangers, have excellent information. But I’ve also enjoyed many lesser known caves. In each cave, I’m always amazed at the efforts to construct safe entrances, passages, and staircases that let the public experience these natural wonders. A century ago, ropes, ladders, and candles were the norm, limiting who could tour caves. Here’s a few pics of developed “show caves” I’ve visited.

In recent months, I’ve gone to two notable places that long-time cavers know well (even if they’ve never been to either). The first was The National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. If you’ve never heard of the word ‘karst” before, it’s basically soluble rock areas where underground water and aquifers flow. This subterranean water often creates caves, hidden rivers, and sinkholes. Or, surface water can also transform karst areas into scenic landscapes. In fact, NCKRI states, “Over 90 World Heritage sites and 70 UNESCO Global Geoparks were designated entirely or in part for their karst and caves.” If you’re curious to learn more about NCKRI and karst, their website has extensive information.

The second fascinating place was this year’s National Speleological Society (NSS) annual convention in Rapid City, South Dakota. I attended just a fraction of many simultaneous presentations–you simply can’t see everything! Microbiology and extremophiles. Cave cartography and mapping software. Cave photography. Fossil excavation. Cave conservation. Expedition logistics. And much more. You appreciate why entire teams are mobilized to explore difficult caves. One popular program has cavers detail their expeditions in rapid-fire, 20 minute presentations. These fascinating stories are scheduled for two entire days! Each story details new cave discoveries and/or unique challenges.

A convention highlight for me was the photography and video contest. I even got to chat with Dave Bunnel, a famous cave photographer. Overall, the audience was wowed by dozens of photographers and filmmakers who make dark caverns come alive. In their captured images, caves become magical. Their explorers, heroic.

In addition, seeing authors and books I’ve read, such as Hazel Barton’s awesome Exploring Caves, was inspiring. An entire auditorium, including me, was excited to learn she’s working on a new book about Lechuguilla Cave (it’s supposedly the world’s most beautiful cave, but only scientists can explore the complex to protect its unique formations and microorganisms).

Craters of the Moon lava tube cave entrance

Is caving for everyone? No! You must tolerate tight spaces, inky darkness, and the fact you have umpteen tons of rock above you. At Jewel Cave, I saw a man’s claustrophobia overcome him, forcing him to leave. During Wind Cave’s “wild cave” tour, the advice given to us all was “Caving isn’t pretty.” Soon, our group was low crawling through muddy passages. Passages you often contort in ways that are undignified. Small adults and children are well suited for caving though. Why?

Have you ever tried squeezing through an 8.5” gap that’s two feet long? Jewel Cave’s “wild cave” tour requires guests to prove they can fit through such a gap before they can go on this special tour. I tried several times to push and squirm through their concrete test gap. On my last attempt, going for broke, I got hopelessly stuck (the park ranger then releases the “ceiling,” so you’re easily freed—no panic required). I was disappointed, and my sternum area was sore for days.

Afterwards, the park ranger guide suggested I check out CaveSim, a fun “cave simulator” exhibit (kids LOVE this mobile education exhibit). CaveSim has a station where you can adjust gap space to measure what you can easily crawl through. There I learned I can worm through a 9.5” gap. Less than that, I won’t try again! Knowing one’s limits is essential in caves. Why?

Tight spaces aren’t the only challenge for would-be cavers. At NSS’s convention, Carol Vesely detailed her team’s carbon monoxide alarms going bonkers in Belize. The bad air halted their exploration of parts of Panti Pit (of note, this cave team is all over 55 years-old, so caving isn’t just for the young and small). Wind Cave’s story of Rachel Cox is a cautionary caving tale about the dangers of pride and bad decision-making (read here how she got lost in Wind Cave for 36 hours, nearly dying). If risking hypoxia, hypothermia, or dehydration aren’t enough, cave ins, falling, and drowning are additional cave hazards. In fact, cave diving is one of the most treacherous activities on Earth. But with proper preparation, equipment, and experience, as long as you’re not alone, caving is a safe, exciting activity.

Carlsbad Caverns chandelier formation

Thanks to the countless cavers I’ve chatted with the past few years. But a special shout out to Devra Heyer at NCKRI and NSS’s outgoing president, Geary Schindel–both graciously offered to fact check my book project when it’s ready. I hope my book helps kids appreciate why cavers are so passionate about the magic that exists in the real “land down under.”

AMERICA’S BEST IDEA: PART I

Fat Man’s Misery by David Kem-NPS Photo

As a kid, my family visited Mammoth Cave’s “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s the first time I recall when being a kid had advantages—the cramped passage was only a problem for adults! Our family also went to the Grand Canyon one year. At the time, I didn’t comprehend the significance of national parks.

Years later, I worked at Mammoth Hot Springs, in Yellowstone National Park. I was a room attendant. This wasn’t a glamorous job. What mattered was the scenery. Although, as the summer progressed, the spectacular views became hazy from that summer’s historic forest fires.

Military firefighters in Yellowstone 1988 by Jim Peaco–NPS in Wikimedia Commons

Frequent fire updates showed the estimated burned acres. Each total resembled a lottery jackpot that kept growing. Stories of harrowing escapes spread, especially from Old Faithful. Thousands of firefighters arrived, yet couldn’t stop a single fire.

On my last day of work, ash fluttered down like snowflakes. I watched literal pillars of flame erupt along the surrounding mountain ridges. The fiery pillars dwarfed the helicopters dumping red fire retardant. The futility was apparent. Our location, the last still open, closed hours later. Employees were evacuated. Days later, an early snowfall snuffed out the widespread fires. The final jackpot total was a million acres burned.

Lechuguilla Cave’s Pearlsian Gulf by Dave Bunnell-Under Earth Images

Despite the forest fires, that summer was when I began to fully appreciate national parks. Parks preserve wilderness, history, and unique ecosystems. It’s humbling that past generations protected these areas for us to enjoy. But these public lands also help future generations. As we enter the age of genetic engineering, saving valuable habitat and biodiversity is allowing scientists to make breakthrough discoveries. Isolated ecosystems, such as Yellowstone’s hot springs and Carlsbad Cavern’s Lechuguilla Cave, have extremophile microbes. These rare organisms are helping develop future antibiotics, and understand what life might be like on other planets. Who knows what future scientists will learn in our national parks?

Southest Idaho highway

This fall, my admiration of national parks led me on another road trip out west. In seven weeks I visited five national parks, as well as other state parks and a national monument. With limited time and countless national and state parks, it’s overwhelming deciding which to visit. Each park is unique. Each, incredible in its own way.

To date, I’ve been to fourteen national parks, visiting several of these multiple times. What I’ve learned is in 1872 Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Although America has inspired many ideas, I find myself agreeing with Ken Burns. He made an award-winning documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There’s a book adaptation too. His belief is that America’s “invention” of national parks is its biggest legacy. Yellowstone inspired humanity to begin preserving wild lands for future generations.

However, we shouldn’t take America’s best idea for granted. New threats and ongoing challenges face all parks. I’ll touch on this topic with a “Part II” blog post. Safe travels to all amid our ongoing pandemic.

 

(For those interested, what follows are comments and photos of the parks I visited this fall.)

Fall 2021 Camping Trip Parks

Badlands National Park. Rapid erosion of sedimentary rock has created a maze of hills, canyons, and colorful rock layers.

Craters of the Moon National Monument. Sixty lava flows have created a surreal, barren landscape that gives the park its name. Bonus points for those venturing into the rugged lava tunnels.

Cultus Lake State Park in Oregon. A remote, scenic lake with wild huckleberries around the campground!

Ecola State Park in Oregon. This park’s epic coastline has beaches and sea stacks featured in movies like The Goonies, Twilight, Kindergarten Cop, and Point Break.

Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon. This is a great base camp to visit two museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark’s historic journey (Fort Clatsop and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center). Goonies fans can geek-out in scenic Astoria, the movie’s setting, and explore the Oregon Film Museum (where the Goonie’s opening scene took place). Astoria also has a cool observation tower overlooking the Columbia River’s mouth. This river mouth is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Pacific” after sinking over 2,000 ships with its treacherous sandbars, tides, and currents.

Glacier National Park. This “hiker’s paradise” is filled with stunning views. Its Going-To-The-Sun Road is an engineering and scenic wonder, but not for faint-hearted drivers or bicyclists.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana. Abundant cave formations are this park’s highlight. Incredible staircases and a literal slide descend to a blasted out tunnel that leads you back to daylight. Its visitor center also has an outstanding park ranger talk about bats. I highly recommend this cave for children.

Mount Rainier National Park. This photogenic park is far more than its namesake mountain.

Olympic National Park. Park rangers describe this famous park as three amazing parks/ecosystems in one (coastline, temperate rainforest, and mountains). They’re right. Of note, if you rely on solar panels while camping, they’re useless in most of this park’s campgrounds because of the towering trees.

My favorite experience here was portaging my bike around a washed away bridge. This Elwha River washout has isolated a part of the park for three years, making it like a ghost town. I biked two hours, rising 1,500 feet to Appleton Pass. There, I turned around and coasted downhill for thirty minutes. For fun, I shot a rough video during my descent to make a hyperlapse video. This experimental video condenses my descent to less than three minutes. That’s like going 150 miles per hour. If you’re curious about hyperlapse video, click on the Youtube link below.

Wind Cave National Park. The boxwork cave formations here are extremely rare. Even more fascinating is whether Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are actually connected? Air-flow studies suggest they are. As cave mapping technology advances, time will tell if this becomes the longest cave complex on Earth.