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Caves Draw Adventurers into the Dark

By: Brent Frazee, McClatchy Newspapers

PONCA, Ark. (MCT) - Moments after making his way down a steep slope in a cave near the Buffalo National River, Mike Slay paused to take in the view.

Looking up at a shaft of light coming through the entrance, he said, "Looks like the stairway to heaven, doesn't it?"

Getting to that vantage point wasn't easy.

Slay had hiked almost an hour just to get to the cave entrance. Then he crawled through a narrow hole and made his way down a long, 75-degree slope - a descent that was filled with loose rock that occasionally gave way as he searched for a foothold.

But as usual, the rewards for such efforts were great.

"The general public can't understand the fascination of a place like this," said Slay, 31, who has been exploring caves for most of his life. "This is something most people will never see.

"I feel very fortunate to be a part of this world. Sometimes I'll just sit in the dark in one of these caves and reflect on the beauty of where I am."

If that sounds like the passion of someone who would just as soon be underground as on land, you've got the right impression of Slay.

It started when he was a kid - he had a Huck Finn-type fascination with poking around caves in northwest Arkansas, not far from where he grew up. But it eventually developed into much more.

He remembers a landmark moment when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Arkansas, when a professor recruited him to do a wildlife inventory project at a cave.

"I had to belly-crawl in," he recalled. "Once I was in, I remember sitting at the edge of this pool, and out crawls a crayfish that hadn't been seen in 20 years.

"Here's this ghost-white crayfish with no eyes, and it's right in front of me. It just amazed me that there was that kind of life down there."

Today, that fascination with caves and the life they support continues to lure Slay.

He is the Ozark karst program director for the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to "saving the last great places on earth" (or as Slay has adapted that mission statement to read, "also the last great places under the earth.")

That means he spends a portion of his work week exactly where he wants to be - in the Ozarks' underground world.

Yes, it's true that Buffalo National River country is awe-inspiring to the average person, with its majestic bluffs, peaceful streams, rock formations and beautiful hiking trails.

But it is just as fascinating underground, Slay will tell you.

He was in that world, visiting one of the caves open to the public. After adjusting the headlamp on his helmet, he began surveying his surroundings.

As he took a few steps into the darkness, a bat flitted past. Stalactites hung from the ceiling like icicles after a winter thaw. And a beautiful stalagmite formation, sparkling in the beam of Slay's headlamp, greeted him as he entered the room.

"We actually dropped in through the ceiling to get here," Slay said. "The only reason we're able to get into this cave is that part of the ceiling collapsed at one time.

"Otherwise, we'd walk right past this cave and not even know it's here. It makes you wonder how many other spots there are like that."

But that's not the only thought that fascinates Slay. It's also the constant wondering of what lives in those places.

Slay has found everything from cavefish to tiny millipedes in the dark world of Ozark caves. Those creatures often are ghost white, without eyes but still able to function quite well in their world. 

© 2007, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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