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Rural Missouri Magazine
Life Underground
Cavers discover Perry County is hollow

by Jim McCarty

Touring a typical Perry County cave involves alternately crawling through narrow muddy spaces, then emerging into larger caverns where upright walking is possible. It’s not for the claustrophobic. Shown here are (from left) Paul Hauck, Rob “Bobcat” Kavaliaskas, Charlotte Nielsen, Kris Hartman and Rusty Lema.

To the casual observer, the Perry County corn field looks like any other located in eastern Missouri. But in one corner of the field the land dips down to the point that it cannot be farmed. Inside the depression is a locked iron gate. Steam escapes past the bars into a day unwarmed by the far-off winter sun.

One by one, a group of people carefully slips through the gate into another world. Sudden warmth inside — 58 degrees compared to the single digit temperature outside — is almost a shock. Sunlight flows into the hole and highlights limestone rock dripping with moisture.

The occasion is a Sunday morning outing by members of the SEMO Grotto, one of several Missouri caving groups. Their mission is to map a section of this cave, adding to the growing database of Missouri cave maps drawn by volunteer cavers.

They’ve come to the right place. Missouri is often called “The Cave State.” Its 6,200-plus caves, a figure that grows by 100 every year as new ones are discovered, competes with Tennessee for tops in the nation. Perry County leads the state in number of caves, with 667, about 100 more than second place Shannon County.

Not only does the county have the most caves, it also has the state’s longest, Crevice Cave, with 28.2 miles of mapped passages. Four of the five longest caves in Missouri can be found in Perry County.

“Usually when a Missourian thinks of where caves are located they think of the Ozarks,” says Bob Gillespie, natural history biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “And that’s true to some extent but Perry County has by far the highest density anywhere. It’s a very karstic plain, in that it has the limestone and dolomite that are easily erodible and it has the sinkholes that let water get into that system.”

Paul Hauck studies how minerals have colored the walls of this cave section. A legend among Missouri’s cavers, Paul has been exploring and mapping Perry County’s caves for nearly 40 years.

With a basement of limestone and much water trying to find its way into the Mississippi River, the county is a veritable cave factory.

“Perry County is hollow,” says Paul Hauck, a caving legend who has explored Perry County caves for nearly 40 years. He and Kris Hartman, president of the SEMO Grotto, point these facts out to newcomers taking part in this trip, including several Illinois residents who are members of the Little Egypt Grotto.

Inside the cave, helmet lights flash on and soon features of the cave stand out in stark contrast to the shadows. The group starts forward and quickly learns that Perry County caves can be challenging, and why hard hats are required.Just as the light from the opening disappears around a bend, the cavers are on their knees crawling through gooey clay. The passageway disappears into a narrow chasm, requiring a descent of faith into the darkness.

For several hours the trip goes on, past delicate formations of soda straws, massive clumps of cave “bacon” and glistening flowstone. Sometimes the cavers crawl through water. Occasionally they can stand upright, but not for long.

Finally a large opening appears and the cavers take a short break before Kris breaks out a compass and tape measure and the real work begins. Rusty Lema, Rob “Bobcat” Kavaliaskas and Kris take turns measuring, taking compass readings and writing notes on waterproof paper. Their goal is to map a side passage most people would never consider venturing into.

Delicate formations like this cave bacon awe those who make the adventurous trip into one of Perry County’s caves. Cavers from these organized groups use great care to avoid damaging the formations.

It’s a tight squeeze, but they don’t hesitate. This one is comparatively easy. Other passageways the cavers have mapped required wet suits. It’s grueling work and not for the claustrophobic, nor the faint of heart.

“That’s what motivates me, because it’s physically demanding,” Kris says. “It’s not sitting on my butt working on the computer. I’ve always been fascinated with caves, and with exploration. This satisfies all that.”

Meanwhile, Paul leads the rest of the cavers on a tour of the cave’s features. They slide headfirst through a slimy passageway past a formation that looks like a wedding cake. He knows the cave like the back of his hand, and quickly finds a side passage that resembles a creek with broken ice along its walls.

Walking through knee-deep water, he shows where minerals have colored the walls orange and black. The next section is the toughest. With the ceiling 30 to 40 feet high, the passage between the walls is almost too tight to get through. Yet the reward of squeezing past is a 15-foot-high waterfall cascading down from yet another passageway.

Paul, who lives in Jeffriesburg, caught the caving bug in 1968 while attending Southeast Missouri State University. By his second semester in college, he was president of the SEMO Grotto. “I went in every Saturday and did surveying,” he says.

He’s been known to camp out in caves, a necessity when surveying a really long one.

“You wake up in total darkness,” Paul says of the experience. “You can listen to the stream gurgle and the little people talk. That’s what we call them. It sounds like people talking.”

Paul and the small army of other cavers search for, photograph, map, explore, study and conserve caves for the Missouri Speleological Survey and other cave organizations. “Probably 80 percent of our caves are on private land, and the MSS protects landowners’ privacy by safeguarding the information well,” says Bill Elliot, a cave biologist with the Department of Conservation who also adds to the growing database.

“Exact cave locations are not published, but they do track scientific information so that qualified cavers, researchers and conservationists can contribute to the body of knowledge.”

Charlotte Nielsen lights her helmet lamp after leaving the daylight world behind for a tour of a Perry County cave. She is a member of the Little Egypt Grotto based in Illinois.

Much work remains to be done. Less than half of the state’s caves have been mapped. And since more are being discovered almost daily, the work never ends. “I’ve got eight or 10 that we need to map that were just found,” Kris says. “That’s going to take awhile.”

One source of this discovery is the “ridge walking” that Kris does. “When the weather is below zero, steam will come out of a hole, just about any hole. You stick your Maglite into it, and look for a passage. If you have air flow, you’ve got one definitely.”

In the winter Kris does a lot of searching, adding potential sites to a database he keeps on his computer. In the summer he will schedule trips to check on his findings. “The MSS catalogs caves. But SEMO Grotto will catalog every little hole that looks like it could be dug out later.”

He has experienced the thrill of being the first person to enter a cave. “That’s awesome, when you go in and everything is pristine, no footprints.”

A good hint that a passageway hasn’t been explored is finding a 5- or 6-inch mud opening that looks like it has passageways behind it. “Any caver would have dug that out to make it passable,” Kris says. “So that would tell you there hasn’t been anyone there.”

While Kris and other Missouri cavers aren’t shy about sticking their heads into a water filled hole hoping to find a passageway beyond, they acknowledge that cave exploration can be dangerous. “We have been trained by people who know what to do. Someone who just gets some buddies and goes in, that is very dangerous. That’s the whole point right there. You shouldn’t be going in caves without being part of an organized cave group. We look out for each other and follow the safety rules.”

He adds that state law protects landowners from liability when they allow cave exploration.

They also take care of the cave and its inhabitants. “They are very careful with the formations in the cave,” MDC’s Bob Gillespie says of the grotto members. “There are certain ways you conduct yourself in the cave. You have to know not to touch certain formations with your bare hands. You have to know where to put your feet and how to knuckle crawl.”

Kris Hartman, president of the SEMO Grotto, crawls into a tight space to map a new section of this cave. Members of the SEMO Grotto are fearlessly doing their part to add to the growing database of cave maps. In addition, they are also searching for new caves.

He says caves are important barometers of water quality. Part of his job is to document what species occupy caves in Perry County, and members of the SEMO Grotto help with these surveys too.

“The organisms that use caves require pretty good water quality. And that’s important to people too. Because the surface water that enters cave systems eventually comes into contact with ground water. Making sure our caves are healthy, we are ensuring people are healthy also.”

Perry County’s many caves are perfect laboratories for biologists. There are organisms found here that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. One example is the grotto sculpin. There are also many endangered species, though bats are less common than in Ozark caves.

“I’m in awe all the time,” Kris says of the caves he’s been through. “Even if I’ve been somewhere 10 or 15 times, I notice something different.”

You can contact Kris Hartman at (573) 513-0243 or at the SEMO Grotto Web site, www.semogrotto.org. Anyone interested in cave exploring is encouraged to join one of the many grottos located in the state. More Missouri cave information can be found at www.mospeleo.org.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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