Devil’s Icebox cave offers mental, physical challenge

Monday, October 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:16 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

As the cool autumn breeze begins to blow, the Devil’s Icebox cave moans and echoes to the visitors of Rock Bridge State Park.

Some visitors hear this call to walk the unbeaten path and enter another dimension of life that exists in the seven-mile Devil’s Icebox cave.

The park provides guided tours of the natural and unique cave in August, September, October and April.

People older than 14, most with no caving experience, let their curiosity run wild as the eight-hour tour proceeds through the dark cave.

Joe Berg, an MU forestry student, has had previous experiences with caving, but said each experience is unique. He and eight friends took the Devil’s Icebox tour together; some had more experienced with cave dwelling than others.

Berg said the Devil’s Icebox was not as difficult as others he has explored.

"It’s a good introductory cave, not too intense, just mostly walking," Berg said.

Other outdoor enthusiasts hoping to tour the cave should be in good physical condition to handle the many terrains of the hike. The three-mile tour is more than walking; participants will also must wade, stoop, climb and crawl.

Volunteer tour guide Paul Lowry said the experience of exploring a cave is more than physical strength.

"It is like discovering a whole ‘nother world beneath our feet," Lowry said.

After completing a required volunteer course in 1996, Lowry has guided more than 100 explorers through the Devil’s Icebox.

"Caving has been a lifelong interest; my family used to go to the Show Caves when I was a kid," Lowry said.

Roxie Campbell, a park naturalist, wild cave tour leader and member of the Rock Bridge Memorial State Park staff, said common commercial caves tourists frequently visit are a different experience when compared with the guided tours of the Devil’s Icebox.

"There is such excitement in being able to see the cave in its natural environment," Campbell said. "Commercial caves are just very casual and easy."

Campbell said the tour gives the participants the opportunity to test themselves.

“They meet the challenges of wading across the cave stream and crawling through small side passages,” Campbell said.

The naturally unaltered habitat plays a key part in maintaining a healthy ecosystem within the cave boundaries.

The Devil’s Icebox is home to many endangered and endemic species, often seen during the tours.

"One of the most interesting parts about the trip is the bats," Lowry said. "They are also what you see the most often."

The cave plays an important role in protecting five out of 1,000 known bat species in the world, including the federally endangered gray bat and Indiana bat.

In addition to the large population of bats, the cave is home to the only known "pink planarian" flat worm in the world.

Lowry said having the public explore and understand these caves’ contribution to research is a key.

"More education about that part of our world is very important," Lowry said.

He says these characteristics of the natural cave provide the tour participants with "the unknown, both physical and mental."

A hike from the parking lot to the cave immediately challenges tour groups as they carry a 65-pound canoe on their backs.

Once they reach the cave entrance, the participants paddle down a half-mile water passage where the ceiling is sometimes so low they are forced to sit on the bottom of the canoe.

Although physically and sometimes emotionally exhausting, tour groups frequently give Campbell positive feedback about the cave experience.

"One person said, ‘This trip showed me I am stronger than I thought I was,’" Campbell said.

Campbell recalls another time she took a tour on an alternate route,

"There was a ledge 12 feet high, and there was a man who was extremely nervous, but after climbing down he felt really rewarded to conquer and overcome his fears," Campbell said.

This highly recommended experience is easily accessible.

"If you live in Columbia, you should definitely take the tour," Berg said. "The coolest thing is when you sit there in the dark.

“It’s really peaceful and creates a bond with you and the other people on the trip."

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