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Photo Courtesy of James Hunter Garrett Jorgensen standing by a large pagoda stalagmite near Station HB92.

Fort Stanton Cave Study Project’s October expedition

By Lynda A. Sánchez

Public outreach liaison

Fort Stanton Cave Study Project

The main goal for the last four years has been to get back into the Snowy River section of Fort Stanton Cave. However, because of heavier than normal rains, Snowy River had water flowing over its very delicate calcite surface and the Strong and Light teams were unable to continue their exploration beyond where they stopped in 2014. No walking on the surface is allowed unless it has dried well enough to prevent breakage, thus the fragile nature of Snowy River is always a major consideration during exploration trips.

With the water flow drying up on Snowy River earlier this year, a short window of opportunity opened up — and with all hands on deck, exploration began once again with eager anticipation.

Shortly after the end of the 10 day expedition on Oct. 21, the rains came and Snowy River began its flow once more, thus preventing further investigation at this time. Mother Nature always has her way. The new flow of water over the surface of Snowy River will lay down another layer of white calcite allowing the water to cleanse the beautiful, pristine whiteness of the Snowy River deposit. Hopefully, next year, teams will be able to travel and survey more side passages — much as they have done this fall.

With more than 60 volunteers working on numerous projects during the 10-day expedition, this fall’s Fort Stanton Cave Study Project’s accomplishments were exciting and inspiring. States represented were New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Utah, Massachusetts and Maine. The National Speleological Society president, Geary Schindel, was present as well. This was a first-time visit for him to Fort Stanton Cave.

More than three miles of new passages were explored, surveyed and mapped. “This puts the cave at 34.60 miles in length and a few notches up on the long-cave lists and ahead of Carlsbad Cavern,” Lee Skinner said. Skinner is one of the board members, who has been exploring the region for more than 50 years.

Some stunning formations and colorful velvet cave pearls added to the dramatic backdrop and importance of these new discoveries. Several teams were fielded throughout the week for rugged cave exploration, continuing the search for additional entrances or blow-holes or battling the ugly bull thistle growing along Rio Bonito. Carpentry and maintenance projects that will improve the cavers’ field house for 2019 were also on the agenda. So was ridge walking, cave entrance fence repair, data logger installation in several areas, LiDAR surveying (a detection system that works on the principle of radar, but uses light from a laser), microbe collection and cleaning/restoration of some formations in the older part of the cave. It was a mind boggling operation.

In fact, one might call it overwhelming in terms of what these dedicated volunteers and Bureau of Land Management cave specialist Knutt Peterson accomplished in only 10 days. Additionally, special Caving Legend Awards and appreciation certificates were presented to several longtime cavers for their dedication and research over many decades.

One team even helped repair a rotting hand rail at the BLM National Conservation Area Headquarters building on the historic Fort Stanton quadrangle. For the second time our cavers-to-carpenters teams worked on railing and balustrades of historic structures and did a wonderful job.

Project director Steve Peerman said, “While the focus of the volunteers in our project is on caving-related activities, we are happy to work in partnership with the BLM to carry out other activities, like fixing the porch railing, helping to maintain the field house and trying to eliminate noxious weeds, when we have the personnel to get these things done.”

Lastly, during all of these operations and discussions one theme was frequently mentioned, and that was trying to get public access into this world class cave. The White Nose Syndrome problem with bats and the rugged aspects of the cave present difficulties but both the BLM and FSCSP are working on arranging some public trips in the near future. Everyone is cognizant of the public’s legitimate desire to see what a wonderful and unique resource the cave presents for not only Lincoln County, but the state of New Mexico as well.