Jewel Cave passes 200 mile mark

Over 100 years ago Frank and Albert Michaud first crawled into a hole that was blowing out a wild wind. Recently Jewel Cave National Park is celebrated its 200th mile of surveyed passage.  The last few years have been exciting as explorers have found exciting new leads and large passage that has really made the miles add up.

There is still cave to be explored and surveyed near the elevator shaft and the scenic tour loop that most Black Hills vacationers see, but most of the focus that really seems to add the miles happened during the “deep camp” trips.  Cavers enter for 3 to 4 days at a time.  The first day they spend 8 hours crawling, walking and smushing their bodies through passage in order to reach “camp” where they have stashed sleeping gear and set up the ability to collect water so that they can base out of that area and explore the outermost edges of the cave.

After resting, teams set out for another 4 hour push to reach the current “edge” of current known cave.  Cave exploration is not a very sexy activity, but truth be known, it is going where no one has ever been before in a dark dark place that is quite difficult to reach.  At this level, it is certainly not an adventure to be taken lightly.

Once cavers reach virgin passage they get out their measuring and mapping tools out of their packs.  Each passage is measured in length and angle so that when the survey crew returns to the surface the information collected can be put into a computer and added to the current map.  When Jan and Herb Conn were introduced to caving back in the 50s they were hooked.  They went on to spearhead the mapping of the first 60 or so miles and that is what put Jewel Cave on the map.  They used a steel tape measure, compass, and clinometer to take measurements.  Just in the last few years cavers have started using a DISTO.  A DISTO uses a laser to measure the distance between mapping stations as well as the compass heading and the angle the cave it traveling.  Sometimes the cave passage is level, but most often it is trending up or down and sometimes vertically.  In addition to these measurements, a member of the crew acts a “sketcher” and records the size of the passage at each station and another team member records the cave features found along the way.  It is all a very methodical way of exploring uncharted territory.

The 200 mile mark coincides with a republication of Jan and Herb Conn’s book, The Jewel Cave Adventure  Fifty miles of discovery under South Dakota, that is scheduled for re-release mid 2019. Jan added a few chapters to the book that they did not get done before printing last time and cleaned up a few mistakes that were in the first edition that has been in print since 1976.  Working with the National Speleological Society  the newly printed book will have colored photos as well. The book will be sold and distributed by Black Hills Parks and Forest Association and they were instrumental in bringing all the players to the table for this awesome reprinting of a great book, Jewel Cave Adventure by Jan and Herb Conn.

Jan was on hand to meet the explorers as they came up the elevator for a pot luck celebration for the 200th mile mark.

On the drive home from Jewel Caves 200 mile celebration, Dennis Knuckles and Jan conn were talking about their “wild celebration” for 50 miles way back in the 1960’s they said it was not quite as much fanfare. 

As told by them on the drive home:  While in the passage, Dennis temporarily took the red shoelace out of his caving boot and they held it up in the passage at the 50 mile mark, and they burned through it with a carbide lantern like a ribbon cutting ceremony then he tied it back together and replaced it into his boot for the rest of the survey and the hike out.

Jan said it was out by the ‘mind blower’ area of the cave and must have been around Halloween because they had brought in a balloon for their planned mini celebration and blew it up and it had some sort of witch character on it. She said that the last time she saw her (the Witch on the balloon) that she was not looking so good. Sorta all shriveled and wrinkled up. Since the 50th mile was passed in the 1960’s…the witch must really be wrinkled now but the cave is pretty dark…so it likely doesn’t matter.

Nobody met them at the elevator when they got done for the day…”if they had we’d have prolly let the doors close and gone back into the cave…NO WAY I’d want to have all those people there.” Jan said, and giggled in the magical way that she does and Herb did when he was still with us.

Having had the honor of being in the cave on many mapping trips I must say that it is a unique experience to go where no-one has been before and might ever pass in the future.  The mystery that lured Jan and Herb into the darkness many years ago is still a strong force.  What is down there?  Where will the passage lead?  Is there another room beyond the next squeeze?  Anyone with half an imagination can’t hardly help but get swept up in the desire to explore what’s around the next bend of uncharted territory never seen by human eyes.  

The cave features that are showcased on the tour loop such as the Bacon Strip, are some of the most awesome but only a small fraction of the amazing things to see while in Jewel Cave.  The eons that it took to form these things are mind bending.  Now the exploration is taking place in an area beneath the water table, so lakes are being discovered in the cave.  Studies are being done on how these bodies of water deep underground are formed and recharged.  It is all quite exciting and at the age of 94, Jan is still very much infatuated with what is happening in the cave that her and Herbie put on the map when they explored and mapped the first 60 some miles back in the 1960’s.  When I am down there scrambling around in the dark I think back to these determined explorers with their carbide lamps flickering down there all alone in an era when there were very very few people had any idea what they were doing down under.  Had something gone wrong down there back in the day I think their bodies might still be there because I get the impression that “cave rescue” was not much considered.  These days we at least ponder and somewhat prepare for such things, but deep in the rocks is still a long ways away from a flight for life.  So to Jan and Herb and all the explorers that volunteered their time to map the miles that have been discovered so far in Jewel Cave, I salute your.  And to the National Park Service who manages Jewel Cave National Monument, I wish you many many more years of continuing your mission to preserve and protect.  And to the next generation of explorers I hope your travels are safe and your commitment to the spirit of caving strong.  As Jan mentioned at the celebration, “exploring and adding to Jewel Cave has become part of the place.”  If you have not yet been to Jewel Cave National Monument, put it on your list.

Over the years as the miles have been counted, South Dakota Public Broadcasting has done some fun interviews.  You can hear them and learn more at this link.

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