Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Is that you in front of me?

The other day, when I heard SD Public Broadcasting reporter Charles Michael Ray on location just west of Custer in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota, I got the shivers.

Ray spent the day with cavers who were charting the 150-mile mark of explored passageways in Jewel Cave, the second largest known cave in the world.

I have no desire to sliver my way through underground rock tunnels, but I sure don't mind it when others go caving and live to tell about it.

While listening to reporter Ray as he tagged along with cavers, I wondered what it would be like. I can picture myself looking cool in a pair of Dickies overalls with knee and elbow pads underneath, a bandanna wrapped around my forehead with a fluorescent hard hat on and a halogen lamp in hand.

Nevertheless, I think I would miss too many of my creature comforts on a day trip, let alone an overnight. How do you know when it is nighttime down there, anyway?

And, where does someone sleep when they're 300 feet or more underground? A hard surface for a resting place makes me ache just thinking about it. What about a pillow? I doubt I'd be able to bring my favorite feather pillow. Plus, I can't sleep without my down-filled comforter.

Can you picture me hauling my pillow and blanket through tight crawl ways and down chutes? Maybe I could pack them in my travel tote on wheels. Maybe not. With such cramped quarters, I'd probably have to leave them behind or, scarier yet, be left behind.

What if my co-spelunkers snore? I suppose I could wear earplugs, but then how would I hear the bats swooping down to get me? I don't think I could sleep with the snoring and the bats. After all of that, I can't bear the thought of the bathroom issue.

Worse yet, what if I got lost like I did in Itasca State Park and that was in broad daylight? I must admit, I am afraid of the dark. With no sun, moon or stars to light the way, I'd be hanging onto the pantleg of the person in front of me. Now that would make me really popular among the other spelunkers!

When cave diving, which is like deep-sea diving except in a cave, you’re supposed to have at least three dependable light sources. I don't think a flimsy headlamp or glow sticks would give me solace – not even a laser distance finder or a compass that lights up would calm my nerves.

Maybe the thought of sparkling calcite crystals, delicate strands of gypsum and other spectacular formations would be enough to distract me. Nah, I don't think so.

I heard it's wet down there. Cavers get wet and may stay wet the whole time. I hate having wet feet, wet clothes or wet anything. I don't like getting dirty either and caving is a dirty sport.

When I think of a day of spelunking, let alone an overnight, questions overcome me. How will I know which way is up? How will I find my way back? What if the cave caves? If cavers don't return when expected, is a caver team sent out to rescue them?

The whole idea is too overwhelming for me. Besides, what if my leader gets lost? Then what would I do?

It took a century to chart the first 150 miles of Jewel Cave and some believe there are hundreds more miles to explore. I'll leave that to the next generation of cavers.

2010 © Copyright Paula Damon. A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Damon is a national award-winning columnist. Her columns have won first-place in National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women Communications Contests. In the 2009 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contest, Paula's columns took three first-place awards. To contact Paula, email, follow her blog at and find her on Facebook.

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