By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
SULLIVAN, Mo. – Jonathan Beard walked gingerly between the stalagmites on the floor of Fisher Cave in Meramec State Park, highlighting his handiwork with his headlamp.
“This is a repair, this is a repair, this is a repair,” Beard said. “We made 21 repairs in this little section alone in one day. We now have a forest of stalagmites where none were there 20 years ago.”
Beard’s light was followed by about a dozen others as he led the way through the dark to where he and a group of volunteers would spend the day seeking to make matches of broken off pieces of stalactites and stalagmites to the stumps left on the ceiling and floor of the cave.
In a bit of serendipity, Beard works for 3M in his hometown of Springfield. It’s fortuitous because his passion is cave repair, and he uses the adhesives made by the company to glue back pieces of cave deposits broken off by decades of mindless vandalism.
“Since I work at 3M, we can experiment with lots of different adhesives for repairs,” Beard said. “It also kind of gives me a free supply because they’re not cheap.”
The group removes graffiti, cleans out gravel spread haphazardly to make trails through the cave and repairs speleothems -- the term for the stalactites hanging from the ceiling and the stalagmites rising from the floor.
Beard, who is 61, joined his first caving group in 1980. Two years later, he entered Breakdown Cave in Christian County and found it “horribly vandalized.” He secured permission from the landowner to begin repairing the damage, and sought advice from a small but ardent number of cave restoration specialists throughout the world.
Breakdown Cave became a cave restoration classroom where techniques were developed that Beard and the volunteers have used in caves throughout the Midwest.
“That began a 30-year love affair with cave repair experimentation,” said Beard.
World’s longest jigsaw puzzle
The project at Meramec State Park began in 1999 after Michael Carter, a young seasonal naturalist at the park, suggested a program to undo the human damage done to Fisher Cave. The restoration project currently is being directed by Kathy Kriska of the Ozark Conservation Task Force.
Brian Wilcox, the park interpretive resource specialist III who oversees the cave work, said deposits do break off naturally, but estimated that 60 percent of the damage in Fisher Cave was from vandalism. The two are easily differentiated – pieces from natural breaks have the patina of age, while breaks due to vandalism are bright white on the ends.
“Sometimes pieces were in the way and they’d break them off,” Wilcox said. “Other times, it was just for the fun of it. There’s evidence that guns were used for target practice. Because of their unique natural beauty, people also would break them off and use them as decorative items around the house.”
Beard said many of the broken deposits are high up in the cave, and could only have been caused by a thrown object. “When access to a cave is not controlled, when anybody can go in there, there’s a segment of the population that gets a joy out of destroying,” he said.
Whatever the cause, Beard said he and up to 100 volunteers have worked to return the cave to as close as possible to its natural beauty. He said 218 pieces have been re-attached so far in Fisher Cave, with more than 300 others catalogued according to where they were found and waiting to find a match.
“If there are 1,000 speleothems to repair, and we only get to 300, that’s better than none,” he said. “We know we’ll never finish the project, but we do the best we can to return the cave to a more normal appearance.
“Through the years, we’re finding more and more matches. It’s the world’s longest jigsaw puzzle.”
An inch every 100 years
Missouri is known as the Cave State with more than 6,600 recorded, and more being documented every year. Meramec State Park has some 47 caves on its 6,896 acres. At 2.75 miles long, Fisher Cave is the park’s largest and most spectacular, and is one of four caves open to tours in the Missouri State Parks system.
The four caves are open to the public from mid-May to mid-September, closing during the winter to give their residents a rest. Six species of bats, including endangered Indiana and gray bats, hibernate in Fisher Cave.
Most of Missouri’s caves are in the Ozarks of the southern half of the state, where acidic rainwater seeped through cracks and dissolved the limestone and dolomite bedrock. The growing fractures eventually became underground streams, which drained of water when erosion cut through the hills and exposed their flow. The air-filled passages became caves.
Stalactites begin when mineral-bearing water drips off the cave ceiling, leaving behind minute calcite deposits. Hollow “soda straws” form and eventually become a carrot-shaped stalactite. Stalagmites are created where the drips hit the floor and the calcite builds up into a rounded mound. Eventually, the two may join and become a column.
“It usually averages about a cubic inch roughly every 100 years,” Wilcox said. “But a deposit may start and stop. It could be 1,000 years old, or 100,000 years.”
A calcite clinic
Native Americans camped at the mouth of Fisher Cave, especially in the summer. Early French explorers entered the cave looking for lead and other minerals. Settlers arrived in the mid-1800s to farm the bottomlands along the Meramec River.
During the Victorian period, it was common for people from the big cities of St. Louis and Kansas City to visit the cave, Wilcox said.
“They’d often have picnics in front of the cave, then go inside to recreate,” he said. “The Ballroom, which is 50 feet high and 100 feet long, was very popular in the summertime because it was cool. During the 1880s and 1890s, they would with candles and oil lamps and play music and do a little bit of exploring in the comfortable passages.”
Unfortunately, those early visitors often scribbled messages on the stalactites and stalagmites, or broke them into pieces.
Using clear, non-corrosive adhesives, Beard can put those pieces back together. With heavier stalactites, he may drill holes to glue in stainless steel rods, and then use the drilling dust to plug the hole. In a few special cases, he has taken a broken piece back to his home to repair at the “calcite clinic” in his garage.
Over time, water dripping on a repaired stalactite or stalagmite may deposit a new layer of minerals that obscures the work.
“There’s a good possibility it will grow back,” Beard said. “Five hundred years from now, someone doing a core sample of that stalactite might find a little bit of adhesive.”
Missouri State Parks is a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. For more information on Meramec State Parks and cave tours, visit mostateparks.com.
cott Meyers/Missouri Department of Natural Resources http://www.flickr.com/photos/missouridnrphotos/5817853567/sizes/o/