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Exploring Hoosier Caves with Indiana Karst Conservancy

Carla and Gabby look at the camera with caving helmets and flashlights from inside a cave.
Andrea stands in front of a rocky wall in a forest with small shrubs in the foreground.
by Andrea Huntington, Executive Director

Exploring Wayne Cave Preserve

In July, Gabby Robles, ILPA’s McKinney Climate Fellow, and I explored Indiana Karst Conservancy‘s (IKC) Wayne Cave Preserve in Bloomington with IKC Board Members, Carla Striegel-Winner, Keith Dunlap, and Danyele Greene (also the Property Manager).
We also got a sneak peek at IKC’s newest acquisition, “The Connection,” which connects Wayne Cave Preserve with the Buckner Cave Preserve owned by the National Speleological Society. 

Preserving Habitat Above and Below

We photographed mushrooms and native plants, learned about Indiana bats, discussed the ILPA/IAS-funded bioinventory work being done at the property, visited a rare sinkhole swamp, and peered into numerous sinkholes, which dot the preserve landscape. According to IKC’s website:
Solution caves are huge plumbing systems. Rainwater contains small amounts of nitric and carbonic acids. As these dilute acids seep through the cracks and bedding planes in the vadose zone of the bedrock, they slowly dissolve some of the limestone. Over time, the vertical crevices enlarge and literally funnel rainwater into the drainage system below, creating sinkholes. 
Carla and Gabby look at the camera with caving helmets and flashlights from inside a cave.
Carla and Gabby take a break from exploring the cave.


Discovering a New World in the Cave

Another highlight from the day was our first (for both me and Gabby) real caving experience. IKC equipped us with helmets, headlamps, gloves, and a map for our descent. Together, we disappeared with Carla, an experienced caver, into the darkness. Being underground surrounded by cool, smooth rocks was surreal — like discovering a new world. While caving, you use every single muscle in your body to contort this way and that to squeeze lower and lower, until finally, you can squat into an upright position. We admired a small, orange cave salamander, who fortunately, didn’t seem to mind us or our lights. Before making our way above ground, we held our breath in order to hear the water flowing beneath us. 
Cave salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) are often found in caves, but also make their homes above ground.
Indiana’s caves (but not all caves) were formed by water flowing through the joints and bedding planes of Mississippian and Devonian (and Silurian and Ordovician rocks, for that matter) period limestones. 
(IKC Facebook post January 14, 2022).

Protecting Resources, Even Those Hidden Underground

I learned so much from our friends at IKC during our visit. Descending into the cave was an important reminder that the way we protect, care for, and manage our land above ground directly impacts our land, water and wildlife below. We are all connected.

Indiana Karst Conservancy, similar to their land trust peers throughout the state, is a lean but powerful non-profit organization. The work they do has a profound impact on the communities they serve and this unique resource, and their work is accomplished entirely by volunteers!

Since going underground, I’ve shared a few photos with friends and family. Many had the reaction, “I could never do that.” In reality, I don’t think anyone really knows unless they try — but only while outfitted with the proper equipment and an expert guide (of course).