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A day at Kartchner Caverns

Beneath the rolling limestone hills at the base of the Whetstone Mountains near Tucson, Ariz., is Kartchner Caverns. The series of caves house amazing rock formations.Until their discovery in 1974 by amateur cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, no man had set foot in the caverns.In 1967, at age 18, Tufts explored a sinkhole that was littered with trash and defamed by graffiti. Nothing indicated an entrance to a cave.In 1974, Tufts returned to the sinkhole on a cool, cloudy day; bringing fellow caver Tenen with him. This time, he felt the flow of warm, moist air that smelled like bats; the air was coming from a hole the size of a grapefruit.The cool weather had apparently brought a change in barometric pressure that caused the cave to “breathe” – or produce an outflow of air.The two men chipped the rock away to form a tunnel and entered what is today known as the Rotunda Room, a colossal cavern carved by cave-ins and water.Scientists say the caverns began to form about 330 million years ago when a shallow inland sea covered the area. Organisms in the sea deposited layers of sediment that eventually hardened into limestone.Rainwater, made acidic by carbon dioxide absorbed from the air and soil, penetrated cracks in the limestone and slowly dissolved passages into it. Later, falling groundwater levels left behind vast, air-filled rooms.Acidic rainwater continues to seep from the surface, dissolving minerals as it passes through the limestone. When a drop of water reaches the air inside the cave, its carbon dioxide escapes, forcing the drop to deposit its tiny mineral load.Over the past 200,000 years, the constant slow drip of water formed cave decorations, called speleothems – stalagmites (from the ground up), stalactites (from the ceiling down), soda straws (hollow stalactites) and curtains.The story of how the caves became Kartchner Caverns State Park reads like a Hollywood script.Tenen and Tufts explored the caves in secret for four years, eventually finding two other major caves, known today as the Throne Room and the Big Room, spread over 2 and a half miles of passageways.In 1978, Tenen and Tufts told the owners of the land, James and Lois Kartchner, about their discovery and learned that the Kartchners’ son, Mark, had explored the sinkhole in the 1940s but had not found the caves.The Kartchners, Tenen and Tufts kept the caves secret while trying to come up with a plan to protect them.Using the assumed names of Mike Lewis and Bob Clark (a coincidence, the two men claimed), Tenen and Tufts met with cave experts around the country to learn how the caves could best be protected. To have used their real names, which were closely associated with the Whetstone Mountains, would have given away the secret.After concluding that private development would be too costly, the Kartchners decided the best plan would be to develop the caves as a state park. The dilemma was how to interest park officials without disclosing the caves’ location.Tufts approached Arizona State Park officials in 1984 but did not disclose the caves’ location when the officials refused to sign an oath of secrecy.The stalemate was resolved when a park official agreed to be blindfolded and taken to the site for a tour of the caves.In 1985, Gov. Bruce Babbitt secretly left the state capitol in Phoenix with two bodyguards and spent three hours crawling through the caves’ tight passages.The discovery of the caves was finally made public in 1988, when the Kartchners sold the land to the state for development as a park and show cavern. Eleven years later, the caverns opened to the public.Unlike most caves, the Kartchner Caverns speleothems are still growing, because special construction techniques were used to excavate the public entrance and an air-lock system was installed to prevent dry air from entering.As tour groups pass through the air lock, they’re misted with water to encourage lint to stick to clothing.The result is a constant humidity level of 99 percent and a constant temperature of 68 degrees that keep the caves “alive.”When I visited the caverns in February, I took the Rotunda/Throne Room tour, which was rather pricey – at $18.95 per person – for a half-mile walk.In the Rotunda Room, which floods regularly, I saw tracks in the clay mud made by Tufts and Tenen when they explored the room more than 30 years ago.In the Throne Room, the Kubla Khan formation stood in silent majesty.If speleothems could talk, the Kubla Khan might have said it was relieved the parks department can’t replace the broken computer that was once used to display a light show over its surface.”Budget cuts,” said my tour guide.Sources:Chuck Duncan, Kartchner Caverns tour

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