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