Columbia 'Lady Caver' discovers Missouri's hidden passages

Monday, August 18, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- It's 9:30 a.m. on a sunny and warm Sunday, and eight men and women are gathered for a long day of caving at the Devil's Ice Box in Rock Bridge State Park.

The members of Chouteau Grotto, a Columbia organization that plans regular caving outings, put on their helmets and strap on their gear.

They lift canoes onto their shoulders -- with their heads inside -- and walk carefully along the trail. After a few minutes, they reach their destination, set down the canoes and carefully slide the vessels through the cave entrance and into the small stream inside that flows steadily past.

Standing in the cool moist air emerging from the cave, they place their gear inside the canoes and finally climb inside. The entrance is small, but once inside, the cave opens up.

They are ready. Today, their main mission is to collect biological data, but on other trips the group often explores new caves.

Kirsten Alvey, often called the "Lady Caver" by landowners and other grotto members, has found about 35 new caves in Missouri within the past five to six years.

The process of finding new caves takes patience and good communication skills, both of which Alvey, 40, has in abundance.

Love of caving

The Hannibal, Mo., native has been caving for about 30 to 35 years. A tomboy at a young age, she was always doing things like hiking, caving and rafting.

From the day she set foot into her first cave in her hometown, to the moment she stepped out of the Devil's Ice Box that early August day, her love for caving has never ceased.

Inside, she counts bats and amphibians, or makes note of geological formations.

"For me, counting biology while caving is recreational," Alvey said.

Alvey, a chef at Summit Lake Winery and the Jefferson City Country Club, takes whatever she learns and passes it on to the Missouri Speleological Survey, including new cave discoveries.

One of the best ways of finding new caves is simply getting out and talking to people, Alvey said.

"A lot of cases the locals know about the caves that the [caving society] doesn't know about, so they're not counted on the registry," she said.

Her cave research has also led to some unexpected and unintended genealogy lessons.

Landowners with caves on their property often pull out pictures and show her photos of their ancestors inside the caves. Some share their earliest memories of the cave, and how they explored the dark passages as children.

"Out of it, they tell you the story of the caves too," she said.

By example, Alvey described the story behind the name of Diamond Cave in Pulaski County.

According to the landowner, a St. Louis jewelry store was robbed in the 1930s or '40s. Supposedly, the robbers used the cave to hide their stolen loot while running from the police.

Polling senior citizens

Coffee shops are also an abundant source of tips where Alvey can identify undocumented caves.

"They joke that I can walk into the coffee shop in the middle of nowhere and introduce myself to three old men and walk out with 20 new caves," she said.

Such is the nature of many cavers, said Jef Crews, Missouri Speleological Survey president. He calls cavers "eternal optimists."

"We're totally convinced that we'll find the largest cave around," Crews said.

Alvey agrees with Crews' explanation of a caver's mind-set when searching for a new discovery.

"I'd love for every cave to be the big one,"' she said. "Usually though, I am just happy to find a hole that I can get into that is more than 25 feet and doesn't make me wander around to find it."

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