An Underground Adventure
I was standing in front of Smittle Cave on the Fuson Conservation Area in Wright County with more than 30 Boy Scouts. Smittle Cave is one of Missouri’s larger caves with about 2 miles of mapped passages. It provides important habitat for the Indiana bat and gray bat, both on the Federal Endangered Species List.
I had just unlocked a small entrance through a massive steel gate that blocked the opening to the cave. This cave gate was designed to keep people from unintentionally disturbing the bats at critical times of the year while still allowing visitors good access to the cave. Reservations were required for entering this cave in order to protect its resources from excessive disturbance.
We were visiting in March, which is about the only time of the year when the endangered bats are not using the cave for hibernation or raising young.
The scouts were lined up and I was doing one last check of their safety equipment. Each scout had a helmet with a chin strap because it’s very easy to hit your head on low hanging rocks in a dark cave. They each had three flashlights, and I had a backpack full of spares, which would be needed as the scouts dropped and banged theirs on the rocks.
Before we entered the cave, I talked about caving procedure and the proper way to visit a cave without causing damage to geologic features.
None of the scouts had explored a Missouri cave before. When I asked them what animals we would see inside, they all said the same thing: snakes and bats. They were right about bats, but they were going to see a variety of other unusual animal life that most Missourians would never see. Snakes generally are only found at the cave entrance, if at all.
We waded through some nearly knee-deep mud for the first quarter-mile of the cave. I learned over the years that scouts are comfortable with mud, and are not concerned with getting filthy.
Soon we came to a system of small, shallow cave pools with very clear water. I asked the scouts to turn out their lights. As we stood in complete darkness, I asked if anyone knew how caves were formed. Out of the darkness came many theories, mostly centering around earthquakes or other catastrophic events—all wrong, of course.
I turned on my flashlight and guided the beam down through the descending series of pools and explained that water moving through the limestone dissolved the rock and created Missouri’s caves. I shined my light into the nearest pool so the scouts could see the grotto salamanders. These nearly white, 3-inch long, blind salamanders only live in shallow pools with clear, flowing water in the darkest parts of Missouri caves.
I raised my flashlight up to the cave wall to show the scouts the flowstone, where oozing water left smooth, almost translucent mineral deposits that looked like clear marble. A spot on the flowstone was darker than the rest, and I explained that years ago someone had stepped on this area with muddy boots. The mud was encased in new flowstone and will be a part of the cave forever.
The scouts seemed to understand how their visit to this cave could cause lasting damage if they were not careful.
Next we moved to the area where Indiana and gray bats roosted on the cave ceiling. Almost all of the bats were gone, but I pointed out the large dark spots where they had hung upside-down by their feet. Their urine stained the rock on the cave ceiling a very dark brown.
I then moved my flashlight beam to the ground and pointed out a pile of bat droppings, called guano, and we talked about how the size of the guano pile could be measured in order to estimate the number of bats.
There were web worms on the guano and other unusual, nearly white insects feeding on the remains of a few bats. There were no takers when I asked for a volunteer to touch the guano and report back to the others on what it felt like.
Deeper in the cave, the scouts learned how stalactites and stalagmites were mineral deposits left behind by dripping water. I explained how it took thousands of years for these formations to grow, and that they are very delicate and should not be touched.
We started exploring other arms of the cave and saw several more pools with grotto salamanders. We found white millipedes feeding on tree leaves that had been washed into the cave. The cave arthropods, or insects, were mostly white, because they did not need pigment to protect them from the sun or conceal them from predators.
I eventually noticed that the water was getting much deeper in the cave and seemed to be flowing at a more rapid pace. This was strange, so we decided that it was prudent to make our way out of the cave. In some areas the water was almost waist-deep on these 13-year-old scouts.
When we emerged from the cave, I realized why the water was rising so rapidly inside. It was raining hard and had been doing so for hours. The cave watershed was funneling water into the cracks leading to the underground system, just as it has for thousands of years.
The small creek that we crossed as we approached the cave entrance earlier that morning was a raging torrent, unsafe to cross. Several of the other adult leaders were waiting on the other side of the creek wondering if we were ever coming out of the cave. We weren’t walking back to the campground the way we came.
The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” I had maps and compass. We would have to walk 2 miles due east to the paved county road on the east side of the conservation area. I shouted driving directions across the bulging stream to the other leaders and asked them to pick us up on the county road.
The caving trip evolved into an orienteering exercise. We had practiced this many times at scout meetings, but this was the real thing.
The scouts gathered around. We positioned the compass on the map and determined the direction to walk. I asked the scouts to use the buddy system to avoid getting too spread out. This was a waste of breath. Soon scouts were strung out over a half-mile of forest, but at least everyone was heading in the right direction.
Occasionally, one of the scouts would come up to ask, “Are we lost Mr. Urich?” I always responded with the same answer, “No, check the compass and head east, young man, head east,” a quote borrowed and altered from the 19th-century newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who encouraged Americans to go west.
It took more than an hour to negotiate 2 miles through the woods with 30-plus Boy Scouts. It was kind of like herding cats.
When we reached our destination, we saw an array of cars parked on the roadside, plus five fire trucks—and more over the hill. People were milling around everywhere. Finally, I was escorted to the command center, where official looking and serious people had tables, maps and radios.
I learned that an extraordinary chain of events occurred as we were walking across the Fuson Conservation Area.
The adult leaders who were driving around the area to meet us on the east side stopped at a local café to ask for directions. Somehow, this inquiry was interpreted as an emergency search-and-rescue for Boy Scouts lost on the Fuson Conservation Area
First responders and county-level authorities were dispatched to the area to begin the search. Others who monitor law enforcement radio traffic arrived just to see what was going on. It was a cold, rainy day and apparently people didn’t have much to do. I got to the command center just in time to stop the call for additional search-and-rescue people and equipment, including ambulances.
Search teams had been dispatched to various grids on the 1,200-acre conservation area to look for the scouts. It was amazing that more than 30 Boy Scouts making a huge amount of noise and strung out for hundreds of yards were not spotted by any of the search teams.
Needless to say, I had some explaining to do, and I’m sure there were numerous lengthy reports written by search-and-rescue authorities on the incident. We assembled the scouts around one of the fire trucks for pictures, and most of the boys had the opportunity to ride it back to the campground. The caving trip was concluded.
My tenure as a Boy Scout leader is over now. The scouts from that trip are grown and working in various fields, and I occasionally see a few of them at community events. We always chat about the caving trip, the fire trucks and the search-and-rescue teams.
I can tell from our conversations that this particular trip had an impact on their awareness of Missouri’s unique cave resources and how important our management of the land above caves is to those creatures whose entire lives are spend underground.
That sudden, intense rain storm drove home the point that caves and cave animals are dependent on the quality of water that comes off the land. These former scouts became the next generation of Missouri conservationists
Missouri Cave Facts
Missouri has more than 6,200 caves—second only to Tennessee—and is known as the Cave State. More caves are discovered every year.
Karst is the geologic term referring to locations with underground caves, sinkholes and losing streams, where water disappears underground and exits as springs.
Missouri caves were used by Native Americans for shelter and burial ceremonies
Missouri caves are habitat for species of snails, crayfish and insects found nowhere else in the world and which cannot survive outside of caves.
Missouri’s limestone bedrock formed 300 to 500 million years ago as ancient sea beds that were then uplifted to form the Ozarks. This created ideal conditions for cave formation as water seeped underground dissolving the limestone.
The Conservation Department protects hundreds of caves on public land and assists other agencies with cave inventory, management and protection.