Paha Sapa Grotto: explorers, protectors of the underground

Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 5:38 PM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - Have you ever come across a cave while out hiking? Have you ever wanted to see what’s inside?

Cavers - people fascinated by what lies below the earth - ask and answer those questions by venturing into pitch-black darkness.

But why? What is so special about some hole in the ground? Armed with these questions, I reached out to Paha Sapa Grotto, a local caving organization, to fill me in.

They told me I would only get my answers by exploring a cavern of my own. With their help, I and KOTA Digital Content Manager Brianna Schreurs geared up for an underground expedition.

The Grotto provided us with free cave exploration gear - kneepads, elbow pads, helmets and headlamps - brought us to a secret cave in the Black Hills. Standing before the mouth of the cavern, the Grotto members ushered us into the cave’s foyer - and into total darkness.

Once inside without headlamps lit, our guides walked us through the cavern. Little over 20 minutes into the excursion, walking turned to crawling, and we eventually found ourselves barely squeezing through tight tunnels.

As a 6-foot tall man, I was not made for caving, and if there was one constant in this experience, it is that my helmet kissed the 5-foot cave ceiling throughout the adventure.

Paha Sapa Grotto Vice-Chair Adam Weaver was my opposite in this regard: “I’m very short, so that helps me a little bit.”

Thankfully, I did not slam my head too hard in the cavern, but the narrowly-avoided headache did lead me to learn a little caving lingo.

"Every once in a while, you’ll get a “compressor,” where [the ceiling] slams your helmet down on top of your head. That happens every once in a while. Those are the ones that stop you for a moment," Weaver said.

After squirming around in the dark for the better part of an hour, our team eventually came across strange, vein-like formations called boxwork as well as underground crystals, some of which were permanently damaged by unwanted visitors.

One sub-cavern near the cave’s entrance once had impressive crystals along its back wall, but Weaver claimed “people broke [them] off and took [them] home in crystal pieces,” damaging the stone forever.

He also pointed some irony in this vandalism: the crystal fragments reflect light better underground and noticeably lose their allure once brought to the surface.

This is the life of a caver: to keep our caves pristine and protected from unwanted visitors; to discover natural treasures and places untouched by man; and to see the Black Hills in a different light - or, the lack thereof.

For Brianna Schreurs, a fellow first-time caver, the social aspect of caving and the encouraging instruction provided by the Grotto underscored the trip’s inquisitive, adventurous qualities.

“Oh, my gosh. Yeah! I love that kind of stuff. It combines being curious about the environment; it combines climbing, activity and being with people. I think that made it so much fun - the fact that we had really great people to go with us, but, also, we just got to explore the beauty of the Black Hills in a different way,” Schreurs finished.

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