Voices from the Void: An Oral History of Caving in Alaska (Part 1)
For decades NSS members have been drawn to the adventure and challenge of discovering new caves. Discoveries do more than scratch the itch of curiosity among driven cavers, they ultimately lead to a better understanding of the history of a region. With each discovery we add one more piece to the ongoing puzzle of subterranean history that ultimately influences our approach to conservation and resource management.
These organized caving projects have long lured those few cavers that possess the skills required to safely and responsibly explore these environments. Some of those cavers long noted Alaska’s potential for decades before exploration took off in the late 1980s. The Heceta Limestone of the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska has been mapped at a stunning 10,000’ thick. This formation includes extended sequences of massively-bedded, extremely-pure limestone. The 140” of annual precipitation in the Alaskan rainforest, acidified by the Muskegs (peat-forming ecosystems commonly found in Arctic or boreal climates), creates a perfect combination for the development of large, deep caves.
The following is a history of cave exploration in Southeast Alaska in the last 40 years, told in the words of the participants themselves. This piece was made possible by quotes by Kevin Allred, Mark Fritzke and Jim Baichtal, replies to prompts from current explorers and archived articles from The Alaska Caver and NSS Bulletins.
Kevin Allred: Carlene and I moved to Haines, Alaska in 1980. Other than a bit of local caving and maybe a bit of traveling caving, we had a break from serious cave exploration for maybe 7 years when getting established and starting our family in a semi-remote place near Haines, where we experienced the dream of living in a remote log cabin off the grid.
Our interest in the cave potential of Southeastern Alaska stemmed from bits of information gathered from those before us. In this case, William Halliday, Robert Hackman, Bruce Rogers and others.
The extensive logging roads of Prince of Wales Island led to our decision to take our car on the ferries there. We met some locals who also told us about caves they were familiar with, such as "the cave at El Cap" (which we later named El Capitan Cave). On a side note, Carlene points out that she does not know of any other place where a nursing mother could go cave surveying in virgin cave and be back out in three hours to feed the baby!
Carlene and I made the first 2 week trip as a family vacation beginning on August 25th, 1987. We had our three young children along, so often would have to take turns exploring and surveying some of the first caves we encountered. We camped in a borrowed large tent. That first year, we surveyed 2,189 feet in Starlight Cave, and 1,887 feet in El Capitan Cave. It was obvious this was to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Eventually Kevin and Carlene built a relationship with the Thorne Bay Ranger District (the first visit in 1987 paid off with a few leads). By 1988 the office was able to support a one-month summer caving expedition. Through the Glacier Grotto of the NSS, Kevin initiated a cost-share agreement between Ketchikan Cavers and the USFS (Lewis, 1995). This partnership permitted the continued exploration of the terrain and sparked interest among other project cavers. Jim Baichtal became a primary point of contact.
Jim Baichtal:I moved to Alaska in 1990 to take a geology job as the liaison between the Forest Service and a mine. In the latter part of the year someone told me about the caves on the northern end of Prince of Wales Island and there happened to be a timber sale planned.
I told the mine “You know, there's the Federal Cave Resource Protection Act” and they said, “Well, what's that mean?” And I said, “I don't know, it just says it'll protect caves on federal lands” and they said, "What does that have to do with timber sales?”
I started figuring out what the Federal Cave Act was and learned nobody really had any idea about guidelines for timber management on lands in a temperate rainforest. I looked for resources and very quickly got connected with Kevin Allred and Jay Rockwell of the Glacier Grotto and became involved with the expeditions on the north end of Prince of Wales. Then I learned through my position I could actually fund those things! I started doing that so we could figure out what the heck we had out there.
The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 (FCRPA) is a United States federal law that aims "to secure, protect, and preserve significant caves on Federal lands for the perpetual use, enjoyment, and benefit of all people; and to foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities authorities and those who utilize caves located on Federal lands for scientific, education, or recreational purposes” (Public Law 100-691 100th Congress). Cavers Jim Thorton and Jim Nieland helped advise legislators on the scope of cave management. Eventually, Thornton, alongside the NSS and American Cave Conservation Association (ACCA) stepped up to get the bill passed.
"There are three good reasons why the discovery and exploration of caves in this area is difficult…muskeg, dense underbrush and bears."
Robert J. Hackman
Challenges of Exploration
Mark Fritzke: I was "drawn" to Alaska by reading about Kevin's El Cap adventures. I credit Kevin and Carlene with starting the project and was thrilled to help lead teams as part of Prince of Wales Island Expedition (POWIE) while working as a geological consultant for Jim Baichtal in 1991-1992.
I was very fortunate to begin exploring the Marble Mountain CA caves in 1976 when I was 19. I traveled to Wyoming in 1982 for a job and caving. I helped survey in Great Ex and in Columbine Crawl. I had been a geology student, and in 1991 I wrote an excellent proposal that convinced Jim in Alaska to hire me.
Alaska has enormous potential, but access is hard and frost shatter clogs a lot of the alpine karst. I worked myself to exhaustion for 2 months in 1991 and 1992, because there was so much unexplored terrain and nobody could possibly see it all.
In 1992, we investigated 181 prospective timber harvest units for the Central Prince of Wales EIS, but we only found 3 significant caves.
The second growth forest could bury you; often taking an hour to climb/crawl 1/4 mile of extremely dense brush without touching the ground. Due to the slippery and ultra-dense post-clearcut terrain and ubiquitous rotten root holes, I took falls every day and got so good at it that I rarely fall or trip on branches anymore.
Ketchikan gets 140-160 inches/year, and some parts of the island (west coast) get far more. The incessant rain was a deterrent in 1991, but anybody who lives in SE Alaska knows you won't get anywhere by waiting for the rain to stop.
Carlene Allred: One might need to have to drive great distances, fly in a ski plane, cross country ski many miles, winter camp, mountain climb, rock/ice climb, and cave using a dry or wetsuit: all in one trip. Getting in and out of a wetsuit at -20 degrees is an experience!. On the other hand, the dense brush and second growth of clearcuts close to logging roads pose some difficulties.
Then there are always bear and moose to be careful of...the flip side of venomous snakes, scorpions, wild pigs and black widows. We also have Devil's Club, which are tall plants with thorn-packed stalks. The flip side of those are poison ivy and poison oak in more temperate caving zones.
Jim Baichtal: Logistics here is everything and waxes with budget. So a lot of our activities here require boating and, or helicopters and float planes to get people around and, and an expedition is not something to be taken lightly on the cost. It's really difficult to create back-up and contingency plans for getting people around safely for caving in this environment.
Carlene Allred: Forest Service Cost-share agreements allowed us to use helicopters to access some fairly remote areas, and we had the luxury of lodging and food provided as well.
Mark Fritzke: We were based out of El Cap work camp, with a floating dock and housing used by USFS engineers working on laying out roads for timber harvests. For POWIE, we had a group of 10-15 cavers working on exploring and surveying caves, but access to dry housing and a clothes dryer made going caving every day much easier.
Finding locations and navigating without GPS or digital maps was challenging. Cavers relied on traditional methods of navigation through maps, compasses and landmarks.
Carlene Allred: The terrain can be very untouched. I've found true wilderness, with absolutely no sign of humans ever having been there for at least 20 miles in one direction. Some places in Alaska have less geologic data than Mars does!
Mark Fritzke: Caves were located by using triangulation with a compass and then positioning the best you could with an air photograph. I would take three or four mountain tops, and draw lines on an air photograph back to where you think you were. Then you would look for a tree or feature on the surface that you could find by walking around and put a pin prick in reference to where that cave was.
I had an HP-25 program where you could measure compass direction and distance on 2 maps at different scales, then close the loop on with a surface survey by entering the data in the calculator. To locate a bear hibernaculum (previously at the terminus of an awkward passage in the cave) I measured compass direction and distance on 2 maps at different scales and used an HP-25 program to close the loop with a surface survey. This led cavers to locate a short dig entrance into the bear hibernaculum. I've used this calculator program 3 times to "close the loop" and find entrances; fun!
In 1994 we got GPS, but our early units were not very good and we would have a very difficult time hitting satellites through the forest, particularly when it was rainy or snowy. I’m not sure how much better the newer ones are. The altitude measurements were never very accurate or dependable. Our first GPS we got, we used up 4 hours worth of batteries up in Haines, Alaska (where we lived), and the closest we could get our location was 200 miles away over in Atlin, BC!
Jim Baichtal: With stereo pair photos you can see every freaking hole out there and it's wonderful. The problem was once we went to a GIS based inventory we had to move those points from air photographs into a digital base map so there were inaccuracies when we started using GPS. The military was scrambling the GPS and each day we would have to go do a correction factor. And GPSs were so inherently inaccurate when there were only a few satellites and most of the satellites were equatorial so they didn't work with a shit in Southeast Alaska except for a little teeny window of time. Then the Forest Service also in the early years only mapped with NAD27. And then they converted all of their data to NAD83. Well, that's a 387 foot shift in the data.
Doing that transfer of data was problematic.I tried to work with Christian and other people while I still knew where exactly things were at and I could see them in my brain. I moved stuff over to where it actually is based off of the incredible high resolution. So we started out with a pin prick and an air photograph.
Cavers quickly realized the connection between the timber harvest and caves during expeditions.
Carlene Allred: Prince of Wales and some of the other places were having significant timber harvest and at times the road system provides easy access to caving areas. Even though some of these areas have had thick second growth obscuring many cave entrances, still, we were able to discover many caves through aerial photographs and drive relatively close to them.
Jim Baichtal: The biggest trees are in areas where you have well-oxygenated water that moves up gravels and nutrients coming out of the decaying salmon that spawn every year and get into the forest. The drainage yields the biggest red cedar and hemlock trees. So forever people were first logging started in Southeast, they focused on the limestone areas. and uh for the obvious reasons, the trees were gigantic.
I’d been talking with Kevin on the phone and Jay Rockwell, who was the head of The Glacier Grotto at that time. I randomly picked two air photos on Northern Prince of Wales Island and looked at stereo pairs because that's the way we mapped in the past. I happened to pick right in the middle of the karst plateau and said “Holy God. There is so much karst here.”
It was clear the geology was poorly mapped and I realized some of the challenges we would face. I also then realized the intimate relationship between past harvest and proposed timber harvest and where the limestone was. That's what drove us needing to figure out management as soon as possible.
In the 1990s when there was so much timber harvest associated, we were sometimes a couple days in front of timber harvest finding out where the caves were and mapping. It was a function of staying ahead of the chainsaw basically, so all of our efforts were focused in those areas.
With all the effort, the project started to rack up significant discoveries. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the discovery of El Capitan Pit, which is still the deepest pit in the United States. Discovered in 1988, the Pit was dropped to -340' the following year with rope the Forest Service hauled in with a helicopter.
Kevin Allred: I don’t even remember how many of us were on the discovery trip, but I do remember Harvey Bowers and I found the pit at the same moment from different directions.
The Forest Service was excited about the pit, thus the helicopter support. The rope used got damaged by a rock just below where I stopped at the initial partial descent. We had to wait a year to return. By then word got out that the pit was very deep. There were a lot of folks who came to cave and check out things the next season. Many of them were from the Lechuguilla Project.
Discoveries were not limited to big pits though. In the Early 90's the project made significant archeological and palentological discoveries.
Kevin Allred: This was an exciting time. We had surveyed up into the ceiling of El Capitan Cave and got to a constriction that was too tight to get through. I found a petite Forest Service young lady who was kind of interested in caving, and it looked to me that she would be able to fit through the hole, and thus be able to help enlarge it from the other side. She was successful, and was able to get me through.
After a bridging maneuver above a deep pool of water, she had had enough and we retreated. I think I may have gone back alone to continue the surveying/exploring, and on the other side of the pool were the extinct animal bones. Further on was the collapsed former entrance to the ancient hibernaculum. Mark Fritzke’s overland survey made it possible to dig out some debris so the paleontologists Tim Heaton and Fred Grady could more easily access the site. This was a good lesson to me that it sometimes pays to be thorough in cave exploration. More rewards were to come from the same determination with On Your Knees Cave.
Mark Fritzke: Kevin and I explored it briefly, and commented it was mostly hands and knees crawl which we named On Your Knees Cave. To me, it was one of the less enticing caves we explored, but the next year Kevin found bones in the cave and eventually it became a major excavation project sponsored by National Geographic and Smithsonian Institution.
They found natives had hunted short-faced bears hibernating in the cave, with half a broken spear point found in the cave and the other half at the entrance. Then a human jawbone was found at the entrance (ripped off somebody's face by a bear?) dating to 10,500 years old!
Mark Fritzke, a veteran alpine caver, quickly learned which gear was necessary to explore the rough Alaskan karst. The following items were staples in his gear cache and give a rare glimpse into preparation:
- French "banana" PVC suits. I had 2 in 1992, so I could patch one and wear one. I wore my MSR helmet with a rim.
- Wheat headlamp with an adapter for a standard bulb, and a USFS firefighter battery pack with 4-D-cells. Many folks arrived using a "new" Petzl Mega headlamp that was nice and bright...until everybody's contacts on the 3-C-cells corroded in 2-3 weeks and got blinky; all of them were trash by the end.
- Ketchikan Sneakers aka Extra-Tuf Neoprene boots were the best available, with reasonably good traction on slimy logs. With no ankle support, I ended up with sprained ankles, so I often switched between 2 pair of boots to keep my feet from rotting.
- Eye protection as white-sox flies were so intent on eyeball suicide we wore eye protection (also for eye-poking brush), and no-see-ums were a bother at twilight. In the alpine karst, we were swarmed by big mosquitoes, and one evening Kevin and I enjoyed dragonflies snacking on mosquitoes in the wind-shadow of our heads.
- Additional white gas fuel was placed by the helicopter team in a tiny compartment below the pilot, who then forgot about it and flew away, while the weather had us pinned down for 3 days. We burned and blew on dozens of paper towels to burn wet rotting wood for dinner, inhaling smoke and barely getting coffee from an hour of effort.
- PMI 11mm pit rope provide by USFS and POWIE, almost all of it white
Kevin Allred: As I mentioned, persistence paid off on these discoveries. After Mark Fritzke and I identified the cave as significant and worth saving, I added the cave to the hit list to be fully explored and surveyed on the next year’s expedition. The team that went in to do this was led by David Klinger. They got to a point where they could look across a forested, steep-walled, deep ravine across from where the entrance should be, and had to turn back. So, three more of us (Paul Dwonowski, Susan West, and I) tried again. On the hike in, Susan felt bad that she was holding us up and broke down in tears, but we all kept going and were able to survey this short cave. More bones were seen, and it looked like another treasure trove for the paleontolgogists. The cavers helped them on the initial excavations the first year they started, and we got to help the archaeologists a bit as well, after the first spear point and 9200 year-old human bones were found. It was a very exciting time. This work helped solidify the theory of early coastal human migration
Making Projects Last
Veteran cavers will attest to the structure required to maintain long-term caving projects and Alaska is far from an exception.
Kevin Allred: One thing that helps with the stability of such endeavors is to have champions to help hold the reins. We are very appreciative of so many contributors, but especially locals Steve Lewis and Pete Smith. The NSS Glacier Grotto and Tongass Cave Project helped immensely to add stability and professionalism to the caving efforts. Add to this the enthusiasm and support of Forest Service Geologist, Jim Baichtal.
Jim Baichtal: It’s a mutual thing: There's no way that a lone land manager can really evaluate the caves in Alaska without the caving community helping them.
I've been lucky to work in Colorado and a few other places. There’s a distrust that different caving organizations have for the agencies and they do not want to share information. As a land manager that just kills us because we want to do a really good job and we want to help protect the resources out there. But without the help of the cavers letting us know where these things are, we can't protect it unless we find it ourselves. And that's a long lengthy project. There's a lot of dedicated people out there trying to do really good things, but it's got to be an absolute partnership between the caving community and local researchers.
Jim Nieland and Jim Thornton put together the language that became the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act. Without these guys’ insight early on within the agency and the USGA I would not have been able to do what I did. So those people were paramount in the development of where we're at and how we got there. It’s very, very important to remember the people that were breaking ground. I was lucky when they passed the Federal register that said how we were going to implement the Federal Act. It's amazing that I was lucky enough to be part of that.
End of an Era
Kevin Allred: Here in Tenakee Springs there have been very fulfilling distractions designing and building geothermal heating systems in town using some local warm springs.Our caving has lessened into more sporatic flings, but last summer I got underground a lot (sometimes alone, and sometimes with Steve Lewis, who also lives here), and intend to this next year even more.
Around 2001, was the time we began to be more aggressive in trying to get the Forest Service to protect the karst from clearcut logging activities. It was the beginning of the end for Tongass Cave Project expeditions, and many of us started to get burned out on only partially successful protection efforts.
Jim Baichtal: By the late 90s - 2000 that point the area had been harvested and timber harvest moved away from there. I branched off into geo archaeology and paleontology and kind of took the geology program into other realms. That probably played a role where we weren't doing the expeditions until Johanna Kovarik showed up.
Cavers would not return to Alaska to continue exploration in 2010 when Johanna Kovarik organized a team to return to the El Cap karst, where Mark Fritzke, Kevin Allred and Pete Smith pushed two caves. One was pushed to a new bottom but the team ran out of time to push the "last lead" with strong airflow down a 70-ft pit.
Stay tuned for Part II of the PoW Oral History to learn more about the 2010 return trip as well as the recent exploration efforts of the alpine Alaskan karst on caves.org.