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.”