Big River Magazine
Driftless Area Caves
A cave excursion is a good change of pace when you’re looking for something to do on a rainy or hot day. You can explore a cave for yourself — several are open to the public in our area.
Illinois has closed its state-owned caves to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome, a fatal disease of bats.
One of the greatest treasures in the Driftless Area — the heart of the American heartland — is hiding right under our feet.
Every kid growing up along the Mississippi probably knows about at least a couple local caves. The most notable in Carroll County, Ill., where I grew up, was Bob Upton’s Cave north of Savanna, where thesoldier of fortune reputedly hid from a war party during the Blackhawk War, around 1832.
My dad took my cousins Stewart and Jim Peck and me there about 1961. They are a few years older than me and had spent most of their childhood sniffing around the Putnam Museum in Davenport. Every summer they would visit our grandparents in Mt. Carroll, Ill., for a couple of weeks.
Jim became a botanist and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Among other things, he wrote the white paper The Flora of Allamakee County (Iowa) 30 years before I “discovered” Allamakee County and moved there.
Caves and bugs have fascinated Stewart since we were kids. He has worn a professorial smirk on his face since we were youngsters. Post-graduate study at Harvard had added a slight upturn to his nose the last time we saw each other, as young adults.
I followed a parallel path as a hunter and fisher, writing about the great outdoors.
Fifty years passed before Stewart and I stood face to face again. Meanwhile, he has earned world renown for discovering over 100 species of cave beetles. As we reminisced at cousin Jimbo’s botanical retreat in Cedar Key, Fla., last winter, our talk turned to caves. Next morning Stewart handed me a computer printout about Coldwater Cave. His steely gray eyes still twinkled behind a somewhat wrinkled but perpetually professorial smirk. “It’s right in your back yard!”
Stewart left the Midwest in the early 1970s to teach at Carleton University in Toronto, without ever visiting the cave. He knew Coldwater was one cave he would never be able to explore, because of his age.
An opportunity for an adventure Stewart could only dream about proved too hard for me to resist. I had to explore Coldwater Cave.
There are hundreds of caves in the bowels of our karst topography of the Driftless Area, where rainwater dripping through limestone crevasses over thousands of years have created miles of hidden caverns hung with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, like stone icicles. Several “show caves” — Crystal, Niagara, Mystery, Spook, Maquoketa — are open to the public, spectacular and easy to access. Many other hidden treasures lay beneath private property and are kept secret.
The only natural entrance to Coldwater Cave was discovered in 1967 by three intrepid souls using rudimentary tools and scuba equipment. After several years of covert cave diving they revealed their discovery to state officials.
When Iowa was granted an easement and exploration rights to it they bored a 94-foot vertical tunnel about two miles from the natural opening in 1971, and the full-blown exploration of Coldwater Cave began.
At one point the state considered opening the cave for public viewing. This plan was abandoned because of the logistics of making it accessible and the environmental damage that would cause.
It has been called “by far the most significant cave in the Midwest” due in part to the plethora of spectacular features, including over 100 domes, many with significant waterfalls. In 1987 Coldwater was designated a Natural National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
After several years Coldwater was returned to the landowner, who has graciously worked with a secret society of cavers ever since. To date they have mapped 17.4 miles of passages, making Coldwater Cave Iowa’s biggest.
My quest to visit Coldwater Cave began at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources office in Decorah, where an employee reluctantly gave me the name of the landowner’s son.
At his place of employment, after considerable scrutiny, he gave me directions to his mother’s farm, near Burr Oak, calling ahead to warn of my arrival. She was taking scones out of the oven when I knocked. After asking a few pointed questions through the slightly cracked door, she invited me in for a friendly interrogation that ended with a warm smile and invitation to show me the entry to Coldwater Cave.
She drove me around to the back of the farm, handed me a ring of keys and gestured “It’s down there,” pointing to a snow-covered, muddy field of corn stubble.
A five-minute stumble down the hill brought me to the padlocked gate of an eight-foot, barbwire-topped, chainlink fence enclosing a padlocked tin shed. Inside the back room of the shed stood a tube 30 inches in diameter imbedded in concrete capped with a steel cover weighing several hundred pounds, secured by two padlocks: the door to the fabled Coldwater Cave!
Unlocked, the cover was too heavy to move by myself. It was like coming to the gates of heaven then being forced to skulk away — through a snow-covered, muddy cornfield.
Back at her vehicle, the landowner smiled and handed me a sheet of paper with contact information for members of the Iowa Grotto, a group of serious cavers who are the primary stewards and guardians of Coldwater Cave.
It took several weeks of phone conversations and emails to arrange, but eventually Ed Klausner, president of the Cave Research Foundation, sent the curt email “are we on for Saturday?”
My acceptance brought the command to bring a wetsuit and some particular other gear and meet him at the cave by 10 a.m.
Since the late 1970s, cavers from all over the Midwest meet at Coldwater the third Saturday every month to explore and study the cave.
My return to the heavily secured tube was one of my most anticipated and apprehensive moments in recent memory. Legendary caver Mike Lace was feeding a wood stove in the anteroom when I walked in. The mention of my venerable cousin, Dr. Stewart Peck, proved to be a key to the inner sanctum.
Lace shook my hand and explained, “We like to say there are no caves to speak of in the Driftless Area.”
Klausner and his wife, Liz Miller, were my guides. Meanwhile, a half dozen other cavers departed for the nether reaches of Coldwater before the three of us climbed down the tube.
Caves are dangerous places, so safety is paramount in any wild caving experience. We descended the ladder one at a time, assembling on a wooden platform at the bottom before stepping off into the waist-deep, 38-degree water of Coldwater Creek.
We worked slowly upstream, stepping out of the water to ease along the cave floor when possible, while being extremely careful not to touch stalagmites and other fragile features of this surreal environment. The cool damp air was constantly filled with the sounds of moving water — from the trickle of the creek to the roar of the occasional waterfall.
Our flashlights and the lights on our helmets revealed wonders that deserve better adjectives than “spectacular” and “jaw-dropping.” After a half hour my jaws ached from hanging open in awe and laughing.
We passed countless stalactites and stalagmites of every size and shape, from tiny soda straws to complete columns to membranous travertine, commonly called “bacon” by cavers.
I believe that the honor of beholding the treasures that lay at the foot of that 94-foot ladder may have added a secret twinkle to my eye.•
Capt. Ted Peck has been guiding on Pool 9 for 35 years. His last story was “Battling an Ancient River Monster,” March-April 2016.