Underground Treasure

I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Except that Christmas is months in the past and there won’t be any presents.

But this is better than presents.

This is an adventure!

I’m about to venture into the depths of Jewel Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This tour is considered the most strenuous wild cave tour in the National Park system. And I can hardly wait!

We started as strangers

Our group is comprised of 6 people. Our guide is Ranger Ken, a former school teacher who fell in love with caving, especially Jewel Cave. Leo from Washington State, who is in town for an event to support and promote higher education for Native Americans and  an oh-so-brave- teenager that is leaving her parents behind to join four complete strangers in a maze of dark tunnels, hundreds of feet beneath the earth. Two of my co-workers: Dale, who is almost as excited as I am, and Celeste, who is warily eyeing the tiny concrete block that we need to crawl through in order to prove that we can negotiate the tightest section of the cave.

I  have to admit….that concrete block does look small. Especially when I think about the fact that I’ll be crawling through that tiny space with more than 700 feet of solid rock above me and a swarm of butterflies break loose inside me.

The FIT test!

I’m the last to crawl through, then we’re off to the prep room to gear up in elbow and knee pads, gloves, hiking boots and helmets with three separate light sources.

One last task to complete before I descend into the depths of the earth. I must pee. Because the alternative is to pee in a jug while in the cave and then carry, said jug, for the next three to four hours.


Not me.

Down the elevator we go. And as we step into the cavern, a cool and constant 49 degrees, Ken announces that we are now 24 stories beneath the surface.

Celeste whispers, “I don’t think I can do this.” After a brief conversation with Ranger Ken, she is back on the elevator rising to the warmth of the sun.

Ranger Ken runs through safety tips and important information on how to protect the cave and then I climb over a rough boulder and descend into the darkness. The floor beneath me is covered in black manganese. There are two important things to know about manganese. First, when it comes to your feet – it’s slick. Second, when it comes to your clothing – it clings.

Manganese clings

I crouch and crawl through this first tunnel, guarding my fingers from crushage as I cross over the tilting rock known as the “traffic counter”.  The tunnel opens into a small cavern. There are at least five tunnels leading in all directions and I feel a growing admiration for the “true” spelunkers that mapped this cave, always moving forward into the unknown.  Ken points to an outcropping above us.  It’s known as the diving board and he promises that we will see it again, but from a very different perspective.

Now back into the tunnels. I crouch, gorilla walk, baby-crawl, army-crawl and at times wriggle forward on my belly through manganese and rock passageways. The ceiling  is covered in delicate, yet beautiful calcite crystals that I am careful not to touch. Each time we enter another cavern, I’m lost in the magic of swirling colors of golds, reds, browns, purples and black. Patches of frostwork and popcorn cover the ceilings and walls. And on occasion  I glimpse gypsum needles that look like tiny straws stretching in all directions.  In one cavern, there are hydromagnesite balloons. They look like tiny silvery white pearls attached to the wall. They are extremely fragile and can disintegrate with even a light touch. This is the only public cave tour where these can be seen.

Now comes the stirrup–a rope. Under the careful guidance of Ranger Ken, I step up onto the pile of rocks and place one foot into the stirrup. Using my elbows and other knee I work my butt up onto a thin ledge and brace my feet on the opposite wall. Keeping my butt level with my feet I hitch myself sideways for the next twentyish feet, glancing periodically down into the chasm below, each time thinking “If I fall, I won’t die, but I’ll definitely break something.” When I reach the other end, I join my fellow cavers in a tiny room, informally known as the clown car (No further description needed).

Next it’s down and through a narrow tunnel, at the end of which I squeeze through a space that I feel had to be the section represented by the concrete test block and into what is known as Hurricane Corner.  Ken explains that normally you can feel a breeze as you pass into this section of the cave, but today the air in the cave is still. And that little hole I just squeezed through. That’s not the smallest section of the cave. The butterflies swarm again. We rest in this room that would have felt cramped when we started, but now feels spacious. And this is where we perform the obligatory cave tour task of turning all the lights out and sitting in the stillness of absolute darkness.

Lights back on and I am on my way back through the narrow tunnel. across the butt-scootch chasm, and down the stirrup.

The next obstacle is a smooth, steep “hill” which thankfully has a rope assist.  The trip up is easier than it looks, thanks to Ken’s coaching to “Stand up straight so that your legs do the work, not your arms.” At the top of the rope assist is Martha’s Kettle which is the most challenging section for me. Step up on this rock. Brace left knee against this wall, right elbow against this rock. Left elbow wedged. Stretch with the right hand and reach up. Grab that little nub. Pull. Drag. Brace against the wall with a knee and elbow. Slipping! Traction with toes.  Both elbows pull forward. Made it.

Now down the Otter Slide – which is exactly what you might think it is. A narrow tunnel that goes down and the only way to do it is on your belly. At the bottom is the rollercoaster. This is the longest section of belly crawling on the tour. And it really is belly crawling because, there’s just enough space for me to look far enough ahead to see the bottom of Dale’s shoes. Several times I raise my head a little too far and it scrapes against the ceiling. I keep pushing forward using my toes and elbows against the side of the tunnel. Loose rocks roll across my belly. Ahead of me, Dale’s feet stop. I watch them turn side to side a few times and then finally begin moving forward. Once again, I find myself thinking of those that originally discovered this passage and thinking it would not be fun to reach the end and find a solid wall and then have to wriggle backwards.

Dale’s feet have disappeared and I can see Ranger Ken’s boots. He is standing just beyond another small opening. I creep forward to make my way through the hole. Clunk. My helmet bounces off the top of this tiny opening. I realize that it’s smaller than it looks. I turn my head to the right. No. That’ won’t work. I turn left and slide my head through. And now my right shoulder. I push with my toes and twist and feel my left shoulder slide through.

“That’s right,” Ken says, “Be the puzzle piece.”

With both my arms free of the tunnel I can lift my chest up off the ground and pull myself the rest of the way through. I’d just successfully maneuvered the Brain Drain, the tightest section of the wild cave tour. I thought of everything I’d learned since the start of the tour and realized that without those three and a half hours of experience, I wouldn’t have managed that puzzle piece move.

And now, down the rabbit hole, feet first this time, over the toilet bowl. Don’t get flushed, oh hey, there’s the diving board, way down there and I really don’t want to get flushed all the way down.

A map of Jewel Cave and it’s many passageways. The darkened area represents the wild cave tour.

And then we were back in the large cavern known as the Target room. But we weren’t the same strangers that started the tour. We have a bond. The bond of encouraging, learning and squeezing our way through Jewel Cave.

Bonded through the adventure of caving