National Geographic : 2009 Jun
• underground. We call it cave fever. You can see it in our eyes---a certain glow." Bobo has explored more than 700 caves. In the process she has broken her back, torn mus- cles, snapped ngers and toes, and almost died from hypothermia. But what really hurts Bobo is when a cave is injured. In 2001 she visited a cave where the stalactites and stalagmites had been wantonly broken o . "Hundreds and hundreds of formations that had taken a million years to form, destroyed. I looked around and was just overcome. I sat down and sobbed. For some reason man has the need to destroy things," she says with genuine sorrow. "Rare, very sensitive species not found anywhere else in the world live in the microcli- mates of caves. And there is archaeology! Like what we saw in Jaguar Cave." We had entered the system through a secret hole high in the forest, rappelling 32 feet. A er the rappel we slid down a jagged gully into the rst of dozens of passageways, then followed the course of a swi underground river. As we moved along in a foot of water, Bobo pointed out the fauna: a cave cricket, pale and angular as a skeleton; a cave sh, an inch-long, pure white ghost; a slimy salamander, black as coal and covered in mucus. In a large river passage with sandy banks on both sides, we examined prehistoric jaguar prints le by two animals as long ago as 35,000 years when they became trapped. Even more re- markable, 274 ancient human footprints have been discovered in a part of the cave called Ab- origine Avenue, which is now closed to explor- ers. Dated at 4,500 years old, they are the oldest human cave prints in North America. Sure enough, more recent visitors had also le their mark. Even though the ancient jaguar tracks had been surrounded by survey tape and stones, someone had intentionally tromped right through, obliterating most of them. e cave s main entrance is now barred by a massive steel gate---the rst one Bobo helped to build. Her 2001 epiphany---that caves need protection--- altered the course of her life. She enrolled in welding school, then apprenticed with Roy and clawing and writhing. I manage to knock o my headlamp, and everything goes black. CAVERS AREN'T LIKE you and me. "I don t get claustrophobia," Kristen Bobo explains. It is twilight, and we re seated in wooden rocking chairs on her lush backyard lawn in Cooke- ville, Tennessee. "In fact, I m very comfortable with a wall six inches or less in front of my face." Bobo, ve feet four and 102 pounds, won the "squeeze box" competition in her age and weight class three years in a row. A xture at caving festivals (bacchanals famous for cheap beer and champion bon res), the squeeze box looks like a medieval torture device. Two sheets of plywood are placed one on top of the other like a sandwich, with the space in between ad- justed in quarter-inch increments. Bobo can slide through a six-and-a-quarter-inch space. Despite wearing a helmet, gloves, elbow pads, shin pads, kneepads, and a reinforced nylon suit, Bobo is covered with scrapes and bruises from our journey into Jaguar Cave. " at s the normal state of a airs," she says dismissively. "Cavers are too obsessed to worry about such trivial things. We all just want to go right back Kristen Bobo knows caves, and steel. A gate helps control access to Tennessee's Devilstep Hollow Cave, protecting centuries-old Native American rock art from accidents and vandalism.