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Three months in Mystery Cave

Fri, May 18th, 2001
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Monday, May 21, 2001

It's hard to remember specific events from twenty-some odd years ago except when it comes to my favorite summer job. The vivid memories began to pour back recently as I took a drive, eight miles south of Spring Valley, to Mystery Cave, now part of Forestville State Park. As I drove down that crooked lane that was part of my daily commute so many years ago, I couldn't help notice the thick blanket of bluebells that lined the lush, green riverbanks. Nature beckoned and I felt compelled to leave my van. It was a Kodak moment. Entering the cave I felt the familiar rush of 47-degree air. Thanks to DNR Cave Specialist, Warren Netherton, I was back in the cave that had provided me so many fond memories. I started to remember things.

The adventure begins

Having a proclivity toward public speaking and a zest for nature, a job as a tour guide at one of Fillmore County's most famous natural wonders seemed just the ticket. I was just 17, mind you, and the chance to work outdoors, not far from home and for a wage of two bucks an hour was very appealing back then. I passed the interview process, (former jobs as a babysitter and corn detassler must have made me a shoe-in) purchased a good pair of walking boots and began the educational phase of my new summer job.

Operated by Clarence Prohaska and his family for many years, Mystery Cave had just been sold to a young man by the name of Neil Saylor. Neil would become my boss for that summer in 1975 and the force behind what I would learn about caves, and in particular, the one called Mystery. Learning about the history of this wonder was the easy part. Basically, it was discovered by a local man, Joe Pettey, in February of 1937 when he noticed an area on a steep riverbank where the snow had melted away. After some initial investigation, Joe knew he was on to something. Ending up at the bottom of a 28-foot wide crevice was a good clue. He later returned with two helpers along with his mule, Jenney. According to oral history interviews conducted by Warren Netherton, the foursome worked for several months to haul and clear away enough material to make the cave passable for those curious enough to enter. Mystery Cave was officially opened on July 4, 1937.

To learn the role of a tour guide, the half-dozen teens hired as guides that summer would recite the historical significance of the cave over and over until it became etched in memory. But that was just the start of our cave education. Phase two was a bit tougher. Insistent that all guides learn the actual geological names for all cave formations, Neil bestowed upon each of us a book that would become our Bible. It was a primer of sorts from the Minnesota Speological Survey that would teach us everything we ever wanted to know about caves and rock formations.

In the field of cave guides, it was a tool that would separate the men from the boys. For instance, a less educated guide might explain to an unsuspecting group of tourists that Paul Bunyun's foot made the large depression in the ceiling of the cave. That explanation didn't bode well for those of us who had seen the light. We were coached in a more scientific approach, explaining that millions of years ago glacial movement had caused certain depressions in the Dubuque limestone layer. I think the tourists may have missed the Paul Bunyon story, but nobody ever complained. After all, they still got to hear the piped in music of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing Rock of Ages as they experienced total darkness in the room called the Cathedral.

Another highlight of the Cathedral, before descending the steep steps back to the main passageway, was pointing out the unique rock formation high on the wall that outlined the face of Christ. It was a spiritual experience to say the least. That is except for the time the 8-track (remember, it was the 70s) was inadvertently switched and one of my tours heard the heavy base tones of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water. Under the circumstances I decided to skip highlighting the rock that looked liked Christ with my flashlight and quickly led them down that winding staircase and on to the next point of interest.

For many on my tours Turquoise Lake was the favorite stop. By far, the most spectacular sight in Mystery Cave, the beautifully clear blue, natural lake looked more like a shallow aqua pool. The lake gets its namesake color from the large deposits of calcite deposited beneath the surface. I recall being trained to tell groups that the lake was 17-feet deep. But, according to Netherton, who said the lake's depth was recently measured, tourists today learn that the pool is actually only 10-feet deep. It's still a pretty miraculous illusion and a stop on the tour that's just as popular now as it was twenty-five years ago.

With the education phase down pat, the next step was getting the route and timing down. We had a plan to follow because with extremely narrow passageways, it was difficult to encounter another tour group in the same area. We had to strategically time it so that if more than one tour was in progress, we wouldn't pass each other in such tight quarters. Our plan was successful thanks to old military field phones. It worked like this.

When the first tour guide was well into the tour a phone call to the ticket office was placed from a strategic location along the route. That was a signal to send in the next tour. By the time the second tour was assembled and into the cave, the first group was well on their way to other parts and the two rarely ever met up.

The DNR purchased the cave in the '80s and spent several years upgrading the inside. Today the ADA-required walkways are much wider, safer and aesthetically pleasing. Being blessed with a fairly good sense of direction, I used landmarks, like the huge formation called the Pipe Organ or the Rock Garden to keep me on track. Learning the route in the adjoining and much larger Minnesota Caverns was more problematic. After leading a large group down the wrong, dead-end passageway three times during the same tour, I was asked by one of the tour goers if I knew where I was going. Embarrassed, I had to admit it was my first solo tour and a more seasoned guide, who was bringing up the rear of my tour, stepped in to offer his much-needed assistance.

A harrowing experience

Aside from a few after hours, off-route cave crawling experiences (most of which I never told my parents about) nothing about working in a dark, damp cave ever bothered me. I didn't even mind the little Brown Bats that clung in dark masses on the cave walls and occasionally flew over head. I actually grew fond of the tiny creatures when I found out how many mosquitoes they could consume in an evening. Somehow during the course of the summer I was awarded bat duty, which entailed sweeping up the guano from the ticket office porch each morning. Boy could those critters produce!

Aside from the natural splendor and beauty of the cave, one memory stands out among all the rest. It was 15 minutes before closing. The assembly of guides hovered over the time clock eager to punch out and head home after a long day of guiding tours. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came a family nonchalantly strolling in. I heard them mention something about a tour. Damn! I was up to give this tour. Oh how I hoped they were just curious about the price and would buy a souvenir and meander out as casually as they had walked in. No such luck. They wanted a tour and they were paying customers. I had no choice.

As my fellow guides snickered at me for being called to last minute duty, I grabbed a Mystery Cave-issued flashlight and headed down the long staircase with my three late comers. By the time I reached the bottom step, I had put my attitude in

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