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At the entrance to Wye Cave (circa 2001) demonstrating the first rule of cave exploration: Dress like you are going to have a vat of mud dumped on you. ((c) J.S.Reinitz)

In junior high, one of the works we read was an account of Floyd Collins’ journey into Sand Cave. For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Collins was a spelunking pioneer in Kentucky and is credited with discovering holes around the Mammoth Cave area. In 1925, he followed some mist coming from the ground and apparently stumbled across a large cavern, but in the way out, his leg became pinned.

He was the subject of a large rescue effort that involved tunneling down parallel to the cave over a number of days.

In English class, we took turns reading pages aloud, stumbling over the big words while learning about cave exploration. This was where I first heard about the wedging needed to work through the narrow passages, sliding into tight holes headfirst with arms at the side, not really crawling so much as inching along propelled only by toes, mostly in complete darkness and not really knowing what’s ahead. And if the tunnel is a dead end, having to back out the same way because there is no room to turn around.

It was a feeling I soon became familiar with while squeezing into caves around the Midwest.

So it was with interest and a great deal of sympathy that I read about an Illinois man who became trapped in one of the caves at the recently re-opened Maquoketa Caves State Park this weekend. He was exploring the Wye Cave, which is one of the more elaborate tunnels in the park. Sure, the park has a few lighted caves, complete with steps and paved walkways and handrails. But for a genuine get-muddy, scrape-across-rock, bump-your-head, feel-the-earth-closing-in-around-you experience, the Wye Cave is the place to go.

On our last trip there, years ago, Wye wasn’t listed on the photocopied map handed out at the park. It’s located away from the main valley that houses the majority of caverns, and it starts with a short climb straight down that empties into a large cavern. Poking around turns up a tunnel at the back that goes deeper into the ground. There are a few good squeezes, and a few smaller rooms before it forks. Both the left and right branches didn’t seem to go too far, but by that point, I wasn’t too eager to go much further.

Getting back to this weekend, rescue crews pulled the Illinois man out after about a day underground. Floyd Collins wasn’t so fortunate back in 1925. Tunnelers reached him a few days to late.

Below is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources release on this weekend’s rescue.

Illinois Man Freed at Maquoketa State ParkPosted: 05/19/2012

MAQUOKETA – An Illinois man was rescued from a cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park after being stuck for more than 20 hours.The 20-year-old man, of Port Byron, Ill., was freed from the cave at approximately 3:30 p.m. Saturday after being stuck in a narrow passage of the cave since approximately 6:45 p.m. Friday night.

A companion, a 20-year-old woman, also of Port Byron, Ill., had also been stuck, but she was freed at approximately 11:40 p.m. Friday. She was treated at the scene and released.

Rescue workers from a number of different agencies throughout northeast Iowa worked continuously to free the man, including chiseling rock to widen the passage. He was given oxygen and IV’s while in the cave to prevent dehydration.

He was taken by ambulance to Jackson County Regional Health Center.

Other park visitors discovered two people lodged in Wye Cave Friday night around 8 p.m. They became stuck while crawling through a narrow part of the cave.

The state park, four miles northwest of Maquoketa in Jackson County, features a variety of caves on its premises. Park goers are allowed to explore them, based on their ability and comfort level. Wye (pronounced Y) cave is about mid-distance between the popular Dance Hall Cave and the park campground.


Fungus found at Maquoketa

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(NOTE: Originally published June 12, 2012. Reprinted here for archival purposes.)

MAQUOKETA, Iowa – Wildlife officials have detected the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome for the first time in a cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park.

The caves recently reopened this spring after being closed for years because of concerns over the syndrome, which can be fatal in bats.

But the recent discovery apparently isn’t linked to the reopening.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said efforts to prevent the spread of a fungus will be stepped up after a low level was detected on a hibernating big brown bat.

The detection of the fungus came from a swab taken during sampling on the hibernating bats in March, DNR officials said. This was about one month before the caves were reopened in April.

The testing is used to detect DNA that would indicate the presence of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, which has been deadly for bats particularly in the northeastern portions of the United States and Canada. The testing was done as part of a national study being conducted in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.

A total of 15 bats were swabbed at Dancehall Cave, which is one of the largest caves in the park and features a paved walkway, with the very low level of the fungus detected on only one bat.

“The level is so low it’s difficult to say what this detection means,” Daryl Howell with DNR was quoted in a news release. “It may be at a level low enough that it may not infect the bats at all or it could be just the beginning of an outbreak that we will see in the future.”

But Howell said even the small detection of the fungus changes the dynamics at Maquoketa Caves State Park.

“We now go from trying to prevent the fungus from getting into the cave to trying to prevent it from getting out,” Howell said.

To that end, the DNR will add mats with disinfection solution that people will walk across after leaving the caves to decrease the potential of spreading the fungus to other caves and bat populations. People who have recently visited other caves will also walk across the disinfection mats prior to going into Maquoketa Caves.

The DNR also will have staff available at the caves to provide information to visitors on how to prevent the spread of the fungus. After participating in the educational program, cave visitors are provided a wristband. So far this year, more than 10,000 wristbands have been given out.

“Education is probably the most effective tool we have to prevent the spread of the disease,” said Kevin Szcodronski, chief of the state parks bureau.

The park’s caves were closed for two years because of concerns about white-nose syndrome and the approximately 400 bats that hibernate there in the winter. The caves were reopened this spring because the DNR was able to have staff available to educate the public about precautions needed to prevent spreading of the disease.

Szcodronski said one of the primary messages to visitors at Maquoketa Caves is to not visit other caves with any clothing or gear that was used there. (6.14.12)

Caves opening with pancakes

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After being closed for two years because of fears of white nose syndrome, Maquoketa Caves will be hosting the grand opening for cave tours and exploration on April 14, 2012.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the theme is “Pancakes in the Park,” and breakfast will be served from 9 a.m. to  noon by the Friends of Maquoketa Caves. Proceeds will be put toward improvements in the park.

Programs and activities will start at 9 a.m. and will run until 2 p.m. Naturalists will be on hand to provide the White Nose Syndrome Education Awareness Program that park visitors will be required to attend before exploring the caves in the park.

There will be demonstrations on the process of making maple syrup, also Dutch Oven programs, geocaching, Tours of Old Ranger Stone House. Park staff will be handing out a 150 trees for children to plant at home to jump start Earth Day.