Cavers traverse state’s hidden depths

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Jake Alden

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Senior Drew Floyd crawls underneath the Rock Bridge, Sunday April 14th, at Rock Bridge State Park
Photo by Aniqa Rahman
It’s been nearly six months since last summer, and sophomore Michael Vu still can’t get the mud from Connor’s Cave off of his shoes.
Vu was a member of last summer’s Outdoor Science Exploration team, a summer school science class sponsored by RBHS’ Biology and Geoscience teacher Rex Beltz.
The science department designed OSE several years ago to let students learn what it’s like to be a field biologist in the real world through activities like hiking, wilderness camping, wildlife identification and underground cave exploration.
“The cave exploration portion of the program cannot be simply answered with just [one] adjective,” Vu said. “It was messy, dirty and wet. After a few hours of wading through water and army crawling through tight spaces we emerged from the cave dirtied, banged up and satisfied.”
Beltz and the students visited two caves over the course of last summer’s program: Connor’s Cave in Rock Bridge State Park and a privately owned cave near Boonville, Mo., a more secluded location students hiked to while picking wild blackberries and observing the landscape and environment around them.
Prior to the actual underground excursions, the students learn about cave biology, ecosystem interactions and the geological history and structure of the limestone caves classified as karst topography.
Later, during the caving, OSE’s members have the special opportunity to follow professional guides into nooks and crannies that, to the untrained eye, are completely hidden from view. These hidden areas are behind a gap in the rock, only a handspan wide, and lead to a wall where guides encourage visitors to carve their name and the date they visited.
In addition to visiting the wall, climbing out of a sinkhole and experiencing what complete darkness is firsthand, the participants also get a special chance to meet some of the cave’s permanent inhabitants face-to-face in their natural environment 150 feet underground.
“We got the chance to hold a bat that the guide was able to get a hold of, and she taught us a little bit about them and we were able to hold it and got to look at its wings and skin up close,” sophomore and OSE member Codey Brazeau said. “It was really cool, and I don’t think there are many other places where you are able to hold a wild bat in its natural habitat.”
Former RBHS General Biology and Environmental Science teacher Nathan Harness created the OSE program. The class is worth a semester’s worth of general science credit and lasts 10 days. Vu first learned about the program while attending Jefferson Junior High School.
During enrollment for summer classes, he was busy looking to schedule a seat for himself in the 10-day personal finance program when he stumbled across the course offering for OSE.
“I knew I was going to take the 10-day personal finance class,” Vu said. “Since I wanted to have a wee bit more freedom in my class decisions later in the year, I decided to take another class to follow it up.”
Very little of the time OSE encompasses is spent in the classroom. However, not all of it is spent in caves, either.
“We will have expert guest lecturers come talk to the class and then we go into the field and incorporate what we learned,” Beltz said. “We hike a lot, identify plants and animals … test water quality, all the things a field biologist would do.”
The class concluded with a camping trip to Rock Bridge State Park. During the campout, the students attended on-location lectures instructing them on wildlife safety, how to build campfires, make shelters, conserve water and roast the perfect marshmallows for s’more purposes.
However, among all of the diverse activities offered, the caving segment stands out from the rest as one of the most memorable activities for participants like Brazeau.
“The whole cave excursion is something that everyone needs to experience,” Brazeau said. “It is loads of fun and you do learn a little bit on the way.”
Beltz said the intended purpose of OSE is to assist students in building long lasting memories of exploring the outdoors. Its job is not just to prepare the participants for a week of adventures or provide knowledge needed for pursuing a career in field biology. Its goal is guiding students toward living a life of interacting with nature, regardless of career choice, in a safe, healthy and enjoyable manner.
“It is a great way to get students to not only learn about their environment but to do it in an interactive manner,” Beltz said. “Without an understanding of our world and our place in it we can do nothing but destroy that which gives us life.”
By Jake Alden