COLUMBIA — It's 9:30 a.m. on a sunny and warm Sunday, and eight men and women are gathered for a long day of caving at the Devil's Ice Box in Rock Bridge State Park.
The group, all members of Chouteau Grotto, a organization from Columbia that plans regular caving outings, puts on helmets and straps on gear. They lift canoes onto their shoulders with their heads inside and walk carefully along the trail. After a few minutes, they reach their destination, set down the canoes and carefully slide them through the entrance of the cave and into the small river flowing steadily past inside. Standing in the cool moist air emerging from the cave, they place their gear inside the canoes and finally climb inside. The entrance way is small, but once inside, the cave opens up. They are ready. Today, their main mission is to collect biological data, but other trips often explore new caves.
According to the 2005 Missouri Speological Survey, the number of caves in Missouri is 6,037. The number of caves in Tennessee, according to www.nature.org, is more than 8,500.
Nonetheless, on Jan. 27, 1995, Missouri claimed the title "The Cave State" after the Missouri Speological Survey announced there were 5,000 caves in Missouri.
Jeff Crews, president of MSS, said that because Missouri was the first state to report having 5,000 caves to the MSS, it claimed the title instead of Tennessee. Crews said that, in fact, Tennessee had identified 5,000 caves before Missouri did. It just didn't spread the news.
Kirsten Alvey, often called the "Lady Caver" by landowners and other members of the Chouteau Grotto, has found about 35 new caves in Missouri within the past five to six years. The process of finding new caves takes patience and good communication skills, both of which Alvey has plenty.
Alvey grew up in Hannibal and said she has been caving for about 30-35 years. She says she was a tomboy at a young age, and she was always doing things like hiking, caving and rafting. From the day she set foot into her first cave in Hannibal, to the moment she stepped out of the Devil's Ice Box on August 3, her love for caving has never ceased.
Now, at 40, Alvey, who pulls her hair back into a pony tail and breaks her sentences with smiles and laughter, says she caves to have fun. In a cave, she says she is always counting things like bats and amphibians or making note of unique geological formations.
"For me, counting biology while caving is recreational," Alvey said.
Alvey, who makes her living as a chef at Summit Lake Winery and the Jefferson City Country Club, takes whatever she learns and passes it on to the Missouri Speleological Survey, including new caves she discovers.
She says people can find new caves by field walking, ridge walking, reviewing topographical maps and visiting landowners who have caves on their property. The most important thing, she says, is getting out and talking to people.
"A lot of cases the locals know about the caves that the MSS doesn't know about, so they're not counted on the registry," Alvey says.
She says she often would be looking for another set of caves on a landowner's property and would find more caves just by talking to the landowners.
"We'd go out on landowners property and tell them we wanted to look at specific caves, and they would often tell us they had other caves on their land that they don't think anyone else knew about," Alvey says.
Alvey says she has also met a lot of wonderful old families while researching different caves, and has heard great stories from families as well.
She says when she visits landowners about caves on their property, they almost always pull out pictures and show her old pictures of their great grandparents inside the caves and other family members. She said they often share their earliest memories of the cave and what they did in them when they were young with their friends.
"Out of it, they tell you the story of the caves too," Alvey says.
Alvey says that one story she heard from a landowner dealt with Diamond Cave in Polaski county. Alvey says that while the landowner drove her to see the cave, he told her the story of how it got it's name as "Diamond Cave". He said that somewhere between the 1930s and 40s, a jewelry store was robbed in St. Louis. Supposedly, the robbers used the cave as a place to hide their stollen loot while running from the police.
"Almost everyone's cave has some kind of story behind it," Alvey says.
The landowners sometimes give Alvey names of other people who live near caves as well. She said another way she will find new caves is by going into local coffee shops of areas where she knows there are caves present, and going up to people and just talking to them about caving.
"I'm a people person, I'm not really that shy," Alvey says. "They joke that I can walk into the coffee shop in the middle of nowhere and introduce myself to three old men and walk out with 20 new caves," Alvey says.
Jeff Crews, president of MSS, said that cavers are "eternal optimists."
"We're totally convinced that we'll find the largest cave around," Crews says.
Crews says that for the most part, whenever cavers are looking for a new cave, they have the classic mind-set that they're looking for more. He says they usually want to find a cave that's beautiful, that goes on forever, and has beautiful formations. However, there are other times when they can tell there won't be any of those things inside.
"There's some locations where we know what to expect and are more optimistic about coming out with a number of new caves found in that area," Crews says.
Alvey agrees with Crews explanation of a cavers mind-set when finding a new cave.
"I'd love for every cave to be the ‘big one'." Alvey says. "Usually though, I am just happy to find a hole that I can get into that is more than 25 feet and doesn't make me wander around to find it."
Although the cave finding process might seem competitive, Alvey says it's not. She says a lot of finding a cave is just luck.
"There's some science." Alvey says. "A lot of it is luck, and having a good relationship with landowners, so they tell other landowners you're OK to talk to."
After someone discovers a new cave, it is common that they will not print the exact location or print out copies of where the cave is. "It's the policy of MSS to not distribute cave locations," Crews says.
He says caves are fragile environments that don't recover from disturbances very well, so because of this, the MSS doesn't want people who are not familiar with how to properly go caving going in newly found caves and vandalizing them in any way.
"Once something is done to a cave, it's relatively permanent," Crews says.