The short lifespans of a handful of Bigfork High School students, even collectively, are but a blip in time compared to the age of caves in Arizona that have forming over thousands of years.
But a small weeklong project could yield long-lasting results for six caves that were explored and studied by the Bigfork High School Cave Club during spring break.
The high school’s Cave Club, founded in 2005, has allowed students to learn how to conserve, protect, map, explore, and study caves in Montana. Montana is home to more than 300 caves, including the cave known in North America. The club’s sponsor, teacher Hans Bodenhamer, has been exploring underneath the ground for more than 40 years. He got his start in Arizona, and eventually decided to share the joy with his Bigfork students more than a decade ago. The students have mapped scores of caves in Montana. The U.S. Forest Service in this has noted that the kids do such a good job, that they are often used to collect data the agency needs about caves on its land.
But when Bodenhamer suggested that a team of high schoolers could come down to Arizona and conduct cave monitoring on Coronado National Forest in Arizona, the forest administrators balked a little bit.
“They think they are just kids,” Bodenhamer said.
Bodenhamer had been contacted by forest officials to see if he had any notes left from when he had performed cave monitoring projects on the forest 20 years ago.
“They had lost almost all their documentation,” Bodenhamer said.
He was able to track down some of his notes and proposed that his students conduct some research. Even after copious amounts of documentation were produced indicating that the Cave Club had helped the U.S Forest Service, Montana Heritage project, and Bureau of Land Management in the past, the forest officials in Arizona still weren’t convinced.
With the help of the Southern Arizona Grotto, the Escabrosa Grotto, and the Cochise County Cavers, Bodenhamer was able to get the project rolling, after a grant was made by the National Speleological Society.
A team of freshman Rhianyon Larson, senior Gabby Eaton, sophomore Kalvin Eaton, sophomore Johan Bencomo, senior Eli Passwater, and chaperone wildlife biologist Ellen Whittle joined Bodenhamer on a 10-day trip.
During that time student compiled more than 100 pages of data and 550 photographs. Fifty of the photographs were recreations of the ones Bodenhamer took over two decades ago, meaning that they can be studied side-by-side to understand how the cave has changed over 20 years.
Many of the caves the group worked in are heavily decorated, with many formations including stalagmites and stalactites. One of the caves is considered the second-best cave in Arizona. Most of the them have been blocked off by the Forest Service for public access, Bodenhamer said.
The students are now putting their data into an online Geographic Information System format that will allow officials to peruse the data more easily in map form.
Bodenhamer was pleased with the trip.
“I think it was a success,” he said.
Senior Gabby Eaton agreed.
“The work was long and tedious but it was also a great learning experience and a lot of fun,” Eaton said. “I really enjoyed making connections with the people we met in Arizona who are part of various cave grotto’s. I think having a bunch of high schoolers who were willing to do all of this work in the caves impressed them immensely.”
Freshman Rhianyon Larson was also pleased.
“My favorite part/thing about being in Arizona was not only being in the most incredible caves I had ever been in, but also meeting people who were so kind and helpful to us,” Larson said. “For example, the cave grotto in Arizona helped with getting keys and giving access for caves which are usually blocked off, and going out of their way to make thing easier for us especially when they guided us through caves that would have taken us half a day to even figure out. Arizona was an amazing place to go because it is so different than up here in Montana, and quite a wonderful experience that I will never forget!”
The Bigfork High School Cave Club will present a webinar through the U.S. Forest Service on May 30 about cave monitoring. Anyone can watch by following this link: https://usfs.adobeconnect.com/ckm-500