Many see the age of exploration as part of a romanticized past, something dead and gone. We have maps of the world that are seemingly very complete. Satellite photos of any part of Earth are not uncommon. Long gone are the times when an explorer could set sail in a ship without any idea of what was to be encountered. All the continents have been found, the islands where no one’s yet set foot are small and remote. In fact it’s almost impossible to know if someone has visited a place or not unless like a mountain summit it’s exceedingly hard to reach.
I would argue that as the classical, romanticized era of exploration ends, so begins a new golden age of exploration. Exploring can mean discovering new animals, plants, fossils or intimate geographic features that can’t be seen (yet) from a satellite image. There are fossil remains buried everywhere, even on private ranches in the US, sometimes one comes to light from simple highway construction digging it up. A New ant species was once discovered in an office in Harvard. There are wonders unknown to science all around us. To me even these common place discoveries are a form of real exploration.
The ocean of course is a mystery lapping at every land mass in the world; a dark abyss filled with an alien geology and biology. Exploration of the ocean will still take many years of submarine, SCUBA and boat work. There is little known about the deepest parts of the sea and many nooks and crannies are equally open for exploration.
What I mainly want to talk about is a form of exploration I know even better than the paleontology work I’ve done. I want to talk about a form of exploration that any brave soul with a reasonable fitness level could carry out. Caves lie hidden throughout the US and the world. Caves can be everything from aquifers full of live giving water to pockets full of ancient crystals discovered by mine excavation. There are tiny caves that can barely fit a human to caves hundreds of miles long. What is it like exploring caves?
Cave exploration is often casual. Many cave maps are made by National Speleological Society members creating maps for little more than their own recreation. This doesn’t mean that cave surveying isn’t precise. The same techniques I learned to survey mudstone caves in western Colorado applied to surveying as a volunteer for the National Park Service in South Dakota or for Northern Arizona University near the Grand Canyon. There just isn’t a huge demand for most cave maps and there isn’t a lot of organization put into cataloging cave surveys or maps. Most cave mapping work is unpaid and carried out by dedicated volunteers who find fulfillment in the work itself. Making the first summit of a mountain peak is more glamorous than exploring a virgin cave passage but not necessarily more exciting. Mountains are obvious to those who don’t climb them; sometimes you can see a peak rising through snow and fog, beckoning. Caves look like little more than dark holes from the outside, no one knows how far or how hard they are to explore until they go in.
Cave exploration is dark. Turn off all the lights in your house on the darkest night. Caves are darker. Close your eyes and stand in an empty closet with all the lights off in your house on the darkest night; that’s about as dark as a cave with no flashlight. We are used to needing to bring food and water (or a way to obtain these) with us on outdoor excursions. Often maps, compasses and/or a GPS are essential to safely travelling out of doors. In a cave, a light source is as essential as water, food or a good map. Without a light, you won’t usually find your way out of a cave of any length; things can quickly become confusing to the uninitiated even with a light source. Cave explorers who have been underground for long periods sometimes report vivid hallucinations in the dark. Laying in a small crack hidden in the back of a lava tube cave in Northern Arizona, I turned off my light for thirty minutes, after a while I almost believed I could see dots of light that weren’t there. Reality seems to become porous in dark silence by yourself, separated from the world above by solid, thick, sound-swallowing stone.
Cave exploration is exhausting. Imagine crawling for hours, squeezing through tiny tubes of stone, elbowing your way up, over, down, and around boulders. Imagine pulling yourself up a hundred feet of rope with a small device that slides up but not down. Imagine hunching and walking as quickly as you can down a small passageway, ducking sharp rock formations. Time can be of the essence in cave exploration, especially in the larger caves where you have to travel a long distance to get to the unexplored “frontier” with only the supplies you can carry. In Jewel Cave, when I was practicing/training to make a long exploration expedition, we travelled for over 12 exhausting hours just to map small side passageways that didn’t go much of anywhere. One passage we travelled through in Jewel was called “The Miseries” you can imagine why.
Cave exploration is rewarding. I spent days digging mud from the bottom of a cave passage with my friend Matt. In the end we were rewarded by discovering a small but gorgeous room. Long, delicate soda straws hung from the ceiling, dripping water on a floor where no humans had set foot before.
Cave exploration can also damage caves if one is not careful or adequately trained. I’ve seen my share of graffiti in caves but even touching a wall with a bare hand can leave oils that destroy cave formations. Moving from one cave to another without properly disinfecting equipment can spread White Nose Syndrome, a disease deadly to already imperiled bats.
The best way to learn about cave exploration and participate is to look up a local grotto (cave club) in your area online, as there are more grottos out there than you may imagine.