Conservation Goes Underground
Standing at the river's edge in 95-degree heat, we could feel a cool breeze emerging from the base of the bluff. The temperature continued to drop as we walked up the slope.
Under an overhanging rock ledge, we checked our equipment one last time: three sources of light, sturdy plastic helmet, much mended coveralls, rubber boots and gloves. Everything was in order.
A pigeon, startled by our presence, flew out of the entrance and over our heads. We wondered what other surprises would be waiting for us in the cave.
Switching on our headlamps we moved forward into the twilight zone. Cave crickets shifted their grip on the cave wall, and the eyes of large spiders glowed with the light from our lamps. Frogs splashed back into the stream as we passed. Icy water dripped from the ceiling, finding its way inside a collar now and then.
We slipped down the muddy bank, cold water filling our boots, and stopped to listen to the stillness of the cave.
Our lights reflected off stream ripples, making the mineral formations sparkle like precious stones. Shadows in the cave seemed to move away from us like live things as we made our way forward, stopping sometimes to admire the stalagmites and flowstone.
Cave life occasionally made itself known - an orange salamander on a mud bank, and fluffy white tufts of fungus growing on animal droppings. Small condensation covered bats clung to the ceiling, while cave crayfish fed on dead stuff in the water. Shallow pits marked where bears had spent the winter, clawed tracks showed the hunting trail of a raccoon and seeds cracked by a visiting pack rat could also be found, if you knew where to look.
But not all of the signs of life were natural. Broken formations marked with muddy handprints, scattered cans, spray-painted names, burnt wooden torches, old batteries and bottles were signs that some larger, more careless animals had visited the cave.
The natural beauty of the cave was marred by litter and thoughtless use. Responsible cavers would leave only their footprints and take only pictures, but the people who had used this cave did not seem to care.
Missouri is sometimes called "The Cave State," and the Conservation Department recognizes caves as distinct components of the state's landscape. Over 100 caves are known to punctuate Conservation Department lands, but more than 5,000 occur across the state.
Caves have unique rock formations, fragile species of wildlife and