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Going underground

Monday, August 13, 2007

Rob "Bobcat" Kavaliauskas squeezed through an 18-inch crawl space in Kueker Spring, a cave in Perry County.
(Submitted photo)
The water is muddy and frigid. The only light comes from flashlights or headgear. And sometimes you have to empty all the air from your lungs in order to squeeze through the tighter spots of a cramped underground passage. These hardships just make the discovery of another rock formation or a 50-foot tall subsurface cavern all the more gratifying to the men and women who belong to the Southeast Missouri Grotto.

The group, now based out of Perryville, Mo., spends every weekend exploring or mapping caves in Southeast Missouri. Most of the caves they explore are in Perry County, where roughly 700 caves dwell under the farmlands and rolling hills.

The Missouri Speleological Survey Inc. estimates there are more than 5,000 caves in Missouri, and some put the number closer to 6,000. Missouri is second only to Tennessee in number of underground exploration experiences.

"Less than one percent of people gets to see what we get to see," said Kris Hartman, SEMO Grotto's president. "It's beautiful."

Cavers often find underground streams, giant rooms and large passageways. Sometimes they crawl in water with less than two feet of room to squeeze through; other times they could be walking upright in a passageway where the ceiling is completely out of reach.

A member of the Middle Mississippi Valley Grotto out of St. Louis, sat surrounded by stalactites above and stalagmites below him in part of Berome Caves in Perry County.
(Submitted photo)
"When you find stuff like that, you know you're going to find some amazing stuff," said Rob "Bobcat" Kavaliauskas, a member of SEMO Grotto.

He joined the group to meet people when he first moved to Cape Girardeau two years ago. He stayed because of the "excitement of exploration."

He'll gladly slug through five feet of water with about eight inches of breathing room "just to see what lies beyond," Kavaliauskas said.

SEMO Grotto members have explored caves hundreds of times, but have now delved into the practice of mapping unknown passages. This weekend, a group will travel to Ste. Genevieve County to map out a new cave.

"Cavers have never been in there before," Hartman said. "You never know what to expect, that's why we do it."

Richard Young looked at a rock formation in a 28-mile cave in Perry County, the longest in the state.
The group cut their teeth on a cave in Perry County, now called Kueker Spring after the landowners. After a 100-foot belly crawl through mud and gravel, the cave opened up and they were able to map out 4,122 feet of cave.

Though the group usually only meets and caves on the weekends for fun, their experience in navigating underground passageways was called out last week when a group of Boy Scouts went missing in Petosi, Mo.

Three boys had gone exploring in a cave at the Lake Sunnen Boy Scout camp in Potosi, Mo., around 1 Wednesday afternoon, and by 8 p.m. they still hadn't returned.

The boys had gone into part of the cave that isn't normally on the tour, and "when they thought they were headed out, they actually went deeper into the cave," Kavaliauskas said.

SEMO Grotto was the second caving team to arrive and was poised to go in about 3:30 a.m. Thursday when the first team found the boys.

Kavaliauskas said he has never been lost in a cave and that a map, flashlights and at least four people should always go into a cave together. If the group is exploring a complex cave or a new passage, they have small red flags they stick to the walls and remove on their trek back to the surface.

Caving is generally considered safe if people take precautionary measures. The National Speleological Society lists light failure as the most common caving mistake.

SEMO Grotto members carry three light sources and extra batteries for them.

"You have a back up for the back up," Kavaliauskas said. "Without light in the cave, you're dead."

Cavers also have hard hats, knee pads, shin pads, wet suits, gloves, boots, coveralls and other items that keep them safe, dry or warm while underground.

The National Speleological Society, which records all caving, cave-diving and cave-related accidents and incidents, reported no caving fatalities in 2005. Numbers for 2006 and 2007 were unavailable.

Only one caving incident was reported in Missouri in 2005 where a man fell 20 feet down a slope, hit the rim of an opening, dropped through it another 16 feet into a stream. He was able to continue the trip and only complained of minor discomfort, according to the NSS.

"It's more dangerous to drive down the road than go caving," Hartman said. "However, unorganized caving like people going in without flashlights or without a map," that's when people get hurt, he said.

"Spelunkers" are usually people with flashlights who are typically unprepared, Hartman said. He added that caving needed to be done in an organized manner as part of a trained group.

"If you're going to be doing any caving you're going to have to join an NSS grotto," he said.

The location of caves is kept by the Missouri Speleological Survey, a private entity that doesn't have to follow open records laws. They can keep the caves secret to prevent trespassing and excessive traffic.

"Every cave trip has to have a real purpose," Hartman said, whether that purpose is exploration, photography, documentation or scientific research.

He said the best way to break into the caving world is to contact a grotto member or show up to a meeting to learn more about it. Their meetings are posted on their Web site, www.semogrotto.org.


335-6611, extension 246

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Gawd, just the picture makes my claustrophobic!!! Ya' gotta respect someone who is this dedicated to their profession/hobby.

Me, I think I'll stick to the old, boring, above-ground routine for fulfillment...!

-- Posted by donknome on Mon, Aug 13, 2007, at 10:14 AM

Not all of the caves that we (I'm also a member of the SEMO Grotto) go to are that small, but a decent portion of them are.

-- Posted by AtheneBelle on Mon, Aug 13, 2007, at 3:14 PM

I don't think Hugh Hefners grotto looks quite like that.

-- Posted by Mosely on Mon, Aug 13, 2007, at 10:17 PM

This photo on the front page of the paper and on the website creeped me out this morning. I believe on any normal day it would have not, but I had been following the stressful story of the Utah Miners that are still missing and this photo didn't sit well with my claustrophoic self.

-- Posted by QT-PIE on Mon, Aug 13, 2007, at 11:28 PM

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