Cavers discover Perry County is hollow
|Touring a typical Perry
County cave involves alternately crawling through narrow muddy
spaces, then emerging into larger caverns where upright walking
is possible. It’s not for the claustrophobic.
Shown here are (from left) Paul Hauck, Rob “Bobcat” Kavaliaskas,
Charlotte Nielsen, Kris Hartman and Rusty Lema.
To the casual observer,
the Perry County corn field looks like any other located in eastern
Missouri. But in one corner of the field the land dips down to the
point that it cannot be farmed. Inside the depression is a locked iron
gate. Steam escapes past the bars into a day unwarmed by the far-off
One by one, a group
of people carefully slips through the gate into another world. Sudden
warmth inside — 58 degrees compared
to the single digit temperature outside — is almost a shock.
Sunlight flows into the hole and highlights limestone rock dripping
The occasion is a
Sunday morning outing by members of the SEMO Grotto, one of several
Missouri caving groups. Their mission is to map a section of this cave,
adding to the growing database of Missouri cave maps drawn by volunteer
to the right place. Missouri is often called “The
Cave State.” Its 6,200-plus caves, a figure that grows by 100
every year as new ones are discovered, competes with Tennessee for
tops in the nation. Perry County leads the state in number of caves,
with 667, about 100 more than second place Shannon County.
does the county have the most caves, it also has the state’s
longest, Crevice Cave, with 28.2 miles of mapped passages. Four
of the five longest caves in Missouri can be found in Perry County.
when a Missourian thinks of where caves are located they think
of the Ozarks,” says Bob Gillespie, natural history biologist
for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “And that’s
true to some extent but Perry County has by far the highest density
anywhere. It’s a very karstic plain,
in that it has the limestone and dolomite that are easily erodible
and it has the sinkholes that let water get into that system.”
Hauck studies how minerals have colored the walls of this cave
section. A legend among Missouri’s cavers, Paul has been
exploring and mapping Perry County’s caves for nearly 40
a basement of limestone and much water trying to find its way
into the Mississippi River, the county is a veritable cave
is hollow,” says Paul Hauck, a caving
legend who has explored Perry County caves for nearly 40 years. He
and Kris Hartman, president of the SEMO Grotto, point these facts
out to newcomers taking part in this trip, including several Illinois
residents who are members of the Little Egypt Grotto.
Inside the cave,
helmet lights flash on and soon features of the cave stand out in
stark contrast to the shadows. The group starts forward and quickly
learns that Perry County caves can be challenging, and why hard hats
are required.Just as the light from the opening disappears around a
bend, the cavers are on their knees crawling through gooey clay. The
passageway disappears into a narrow chasm, requiring a descent of faith
into the darkness.
For several hours
the trip goes on, past delicate formations of soda straws, massive
clumps of cave “bacon” and
glistening flowstone. Sometimes the cavers crawl through water. Occasionally
they can stand upright, but not for long.
Finally a large opening
appears and the cavers take a short break before Kris breaks out
a compass and tape measure and the real work begins. Rusty Lema, Rob “Bobcat” Kavaliaskas
and Kris take turns measuring, taking compass readings and
writing notes on waterproof paper. Their goal is to map a side passage
most people would never consider venturing into.
formations like this cave bacon awe those who make the adventurous
trip into one of Perry County’s caves. Cavers from these
organized groups use great care to avoid damaging the formations.
It’s a tight
squeeze, but they don’t hesitate. This one is comparatively
easy. Other passageways the cavers have mapped required
wet suits. It’s
grueling work and not for the claustrophobic, nor the faint
what motivates me, because it’s
physically demanding,” Kris
says. “It’s not sitting on my butt working
on the computer. I’ve
always been fascinated with caves, and with exploration.
This satisfies all that.”
Meanwhile, Paul leads
the rest of the cavers on a tour of the cave’s
features. They slide headfirst through a slimy passageway
past a formation that looks like a wedding cake. He
knows the cave like the back of his hand, and quickly
finds a side passage that resembles a creek with broken
ice along its walls.
Walking through knee-deep
water, he shows where minerals have colored the walls orange
and black. The next section is the toughest. With
the ceiling 30 to 40 feet high, the passage between the
walls is almost too tight to get through. Yet the
reward of squeezing past is a 15-foot-high waterfall cascading
down from yet another passageway.
Paul, who lives
in Jeffriesburg, caught the caving bug in 1968 while attending Southeast
Missouri State University. By his second semester in college, he
was president of the SEMO Grotto. “I went in every Saturday and
did surveying,” he
He’s been known
to camp out in caves, a necessity when surveying a really long one.
wake up in total darkness,” Paul says of
the experience. “You
can listen to the stream gurgle and the little
people talk. That’s what
we call them. It sounds like people talking.”
and the small army of other cavers search for,
photograph, map, explore, study and conserve
caves for the Missouri Speleological Survey
and other cave organizations. “Probably 80 percent of our caves are on private
land, and the MSS protects landowners’ privacy by safeguarding the information
Bill Elliot, a cave biologist with the Department
of Conservation who also adds to the growing database.
locations are not published, but they do track scientific information
so that qualified cavers, researchers and conservationists can contribute
to the body of knowledge.”
Nielsen lights her helmet lamp after leaving the daylight world
behind for a tour of a Perry County cave. She is a member of
the Little Egypt Grotto based in Illinois.
Much work remains
to be done. Less than half of the state’s caves have
been mapped. And since more are being discovered
almost daily, the work never ends. “I’ve got eight or
10 that we need to map that were just found,” Kris
says. “That’s going to take
One source of this
discovery is the “ridge walking” that
Kris does. “When
the weather is below zero, steam will
come out of a hole, just about any hole.
You stick your Maglite into it, and look
for a passage. If you have air flow,
got one definitely.”
In the winter
Kris does a lot of searching, adding
potential sites to a database he keeps
on his computer. In the summer he will schedule
trips to check on his findings. “The MSS catalogs caves. But SEMO Grotto
will catalog every little hole that looks like it could be dug out later.”
has experienced the thrill of being the first person to enter a cave. “That’s
awesome, when you go in and everything
is pristine, no footprints.”
A good hint that
a passageway hasn’t
been explored is finding a 5- or 6-inch mud opening that looks like it
has passageways behind it. “Any caver would
have dug that out to make it passable,” Kris
says. “So that would
tell you there hasn’t been
and other Missouri cavers aren’t
shy about sticking their heads
into a water filled hole hoping
to find a passageway beyond,
they acknowledge that cave exploration
can be dangerous. “We have
been trained by people who know
what to do. Someone who just
gets some buddies and goes in,
that is very dangerous. That’s
the whole point right there.
be going in caves without being
part of an organized cave group.
We look out for each other and
follow the safety rules.”
adds that state law protects
landowners from liability when
they allow cave exploration.
They also take care
of the cave and its inhabitants. “They
are very careful with the formations in the cave,” MDC’s Bob
Gillespie says of the grotto members. “There are certain ways you conduct
yourself in the cave. You have to know not to touch certain formations with
your bare hands. You have to know where to put your feet and how to knuckle
president of the SEMO Grotto, crawls into a tight space to map
a new section of this cave. Members of the SEMO Grotto are fearlessly
doing their part to add to the growing database of cave maps. In
addition, they are also searching for new caves.
He says caves are
important barometers of water quality.
Part of his job is to document
what species occupy caves in
Perry County, and members of
the SEMO Grotto help with these
that use caves require pretty good water quality. And that’s
important to people too.
Because the surface water that enters cave systems eventually comes
into contact with ground water. Making sure our caves are healthy,
we are ensuring people are healthy also.”
many caves are perfect laboratories for biologists. There are
organisms found here that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.
One example is the grotto
sculpin. There are also many
endangered species, though bats are less common
than in Ozark caves.
“I’m in awe all the time,” Kris says
of the caves he’s
been through. “Even
if I’ve been
somewhere 10 or 15
times, I notice something
You can contact Kris Hartman at (573) 513-0243 or at the SEMO Grotto
Web site, www.semogrotto.org. Anyone interested in cave exploring is
encouraged to join one of the many grottos located in the state. More
Missouri cave information can be found at