California Literary Review

Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns

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May 5th, 2008 at 8:48 am

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Neil Miller

Neil Miller [Photo by Paul Brouillette]

CLR INTERVIEW: Neil Miller is a lecturer in journalism and nonfiction writing at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His new book, Kartchner Caverns, tells the story of two amateur cavers who discovered a 2.4 miles long limestone cave in Southern Arizona—a cave that had never before been seen by humans. It began their 25 year odyssey to protect what they had found. Below is Neil’s interview with the California Literary Review.

Kartchner Caverns by Neil Miller
Kartchner Caverns: How Two Cavers Discovered and Saved One of the Wonders of the Natural World
by Neil Miller
University of Arizona Press, 224 pp.

What is Kartchner Caverns and what makes it unique?

Kartchner Caverns is a stunning limestone cave, located near Benson, Arizona, about an hour or so east of Tucson. The cave was totally sealed up for 200,000 or so years until it was discovered in 1974, by two young cavers, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen. They discovered a totally pristine, “living” cave, dripping with water, with dazzlingly beautiful, often phantasmagorical formations. Its speleothems—the stalactites, stalagmites and other formations—range in age from 40,000 to 193,000 years. The cave has two large chambers—The Big Room and The Rotunda/Throne complex. The latter chamber includes a 58 foot high, eight-foot-wide redwood column known as “Kubla Khan,” which is probably the most spectacular feature. It also includes the second longest soda straw in the world, at 21.2 feet. Tufts and Tenen kept the cave a secret from all but a few cavers and family members for 14 years until 1988, when the Arizona State Parks agency purchased the cave from the Kartchner family—on whose land the cave lies. In 1999 it was opened to the public as Kartchner Caverns State Park.

Kartchner Caverns: Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen

Randy Tufts (left) and Gary Tenen discovered Kartchner Caverns in 1974 and dedicated their lives to ensuring its preservation. [Photo courtesy of Gary Tenen]

How did they discover the cave?

It happened by chance. Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen were two young cavers in their 20s, just out of the University of Arizona, who were hunting for caves in the Whetstone Mountains, east of Tucson. Tufts’s dream since he was a kid was to discover what cavers refer to as a “virgin cave,” a cave no one had ever seen. On a November day in 1974, on a hunch, they visited a sinkhole that Tufts had once climbed into as a teenager and had dismissed at the time as going nowhere. This time, they felt a warm current of air that smelled of bats, coming from a ten-inch wide crack. They squeezed through the crack and crawled on their bellies till they reached a rock barrier, which contained a grapefruit-sized hole. After hacking away at the barrier for a couple of hours and crawling on the hands and knees for another 250 feet, they found themselves in a long corridor, dripping with water, with beautiful formations. There was no indication that any human being had ever penetrated into the cave. The following week they returned and found the Big Room, which is a chamber larger than a football field, filled with beautiful formations. They returned week after week, but it wasn’t for an entire year that they discovered the cave’s most stunning features, the Throne/Rotunda Room and Kubla Khan.

Kartchner Caverns: soda straws

“Soda straws” are hollow tubes created by the minerals contained in leaching water. They grow about 1/10 inch every century depending on the amount of water seeping into the cave. Kartchner Caverns contains one 21.2 feet long. [Photo by K. L. Day, Arizona State Parks]

After the cave’s discovery, what were the biggest concerns of Tufts and Tenen?

Tufts and Tenen saw themselves as guardians of the cave. They were extremely concerned that their discovery could be looted and destroyed, as had happened to other caves in southern Arizona. They were determined to preserve its pristine quality. They became obsessed with secrecy, and hired a lawyer to write out a legally binding secrecy document that they insisted that anyone whom they had any reason to tell about the cave must sign. Tenen even made his future wife sign a secrecy document on their second date! In early 1978, with some trepidation, they approached the owners of the land on which the cave lies—the family of James A. Kartchner. The Kartchners, of course, had no idea that there was a cave on their property. The cave discoverers were extremely lucky that the Kartchner family owned the land. Mr. Kartchner, by then in his late 70s, had been a science teacher and a school superintendent, and was the father of 13 children, six of whom were medical doctors. They were a small-town Arizona Mormon clan, well-educated and scientifically-minded. The Kartchner family followed Tufts’ and Tenen’s lead in trying to preserve the cave. Tufts and Tenen soon became convinced that the best way to save the cave was to open it to the public in a controlled setting, either as a private business or under the aegis of a government agency. But all this had to be done in intense secrecy. In fact, when the Arizona legislature approved the purchase of the cave in 1988, only a handful of legislators knew what they were voting on until the last minute. The whole process by which it finally became a state park is a long and fascinating odyssey that really consumed Tufts and Tenen’s lives for years.

What were Tufts’ and Tenen’s roles in opening the cave to the public and what has happened to them outside of that effort?

Once the state of Arizona bought the cave and went ahead with plans to develop it as a tourist attraction, Tufts and Tenen took somewhat of a back seat. However, they still saw themselves as stewards of the cave, tussling with Arizona State Parks agency officials on various issues. Both of them were remarkable people. Tufts had been the president of the student body at the University of Arizona and worked as a community organizer. Late in life he returned to the University of Arizona and began a second brilliant career as a planetary scientist. He discovered a fault on Europa, a moon of the planet Jupiter, and plotted a model that indicated that fault couldn’t exist without an ocean under it. It was a discovery that created a lot of interest among planetary scientists. This likelihood of water made many speculate that there could be life on Europa. He died tragically in 2002 at age 53 as a result of a rare blood disease. Tenen is a successful businessman in Tucson, married with three children. Since Tufts’ death, he has played a role in articulating the conservation effort regarding the cave that both he and Tufts had promoted over the years.

Kartchner Caverns: mud flats

“Mud flats” area. [Photo by K. L. Day, Arizona State Parks]

How was the cave made accessible to the public without damaging it?

It wasn’t easy. The process of taking a living cave and turning it into a tourist attraction was an extremely delicate one that took more than ten years and cost $30 million. The Arizona State Parks agency took great pains not to harm any of the formations or to affect the ecosystem of the cave. For example, when trails were being constructed inside the cave, no vehicles were allowed inside. Everything had to be hauled in by wheelbarrow or in five gallon buckets. Work crews used only hand tools. No welding was allowed inside. Workers did practice-building of trails outside the cave; every day, construction crews had to have their clothes misted—like vegetables in a supermarket—to prevent tiny fibers of lint from falling from their clothes and harming formations. There were incredible problems and difficulties all the way along that no had one anticipated.

Kartchner Caverns: strawberry sundae

The “Strawberry Sundae” formation. [Photo by Noelle Wilson, Arizona State Parks]

What are the concerns now that visiting are entering the caverns? Does their presence affect the cave’s environment in any way?

The cave was developed according to state-of-the art environmental techniques. Huge refrigerator doors keep the desert heat and dryness out. Close to 200,000 visitors a year now visit Kartchner Caverns. Every visitor is instructed in the cave’s conservation etiquette; they have their clothes misted when they come in and they’re warned against touching anything. Still, there are concerns that the body heat generated by visitors, plus lint and dust could affect the cave’s ecosystem. In fact, during the period when the cave was being developed, the temperature inside increased by four degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity decreased by 2 degrees. It isn’t clear what caused this. State officials have suggested that the drought which has gripped the southwest might be responsible; similar temperature changes have been noted in wild, undeveloped caves in the same area. Others have suggested that outside air may have gotten in during the construction process, despite the precautions that were taken. But no one knows for sure.

Kartchner Caverns: cave bacon

“Cave bacon.” The striped colors are the result of the types of minerals deposited, with the red stripes colored by iron oxide deposits. [Photo by K. L. Day, Arizona State Parks]

What is the “Cave God?”

The “Cave God” was a term that Randy Tufts used to describe a mystical force which he was convinced had always protected the cave. He and Gary Tenen were extremely conscious that they had been entrusted with a great responsibility once they discovered Kartchner. After all, the place had been sealed off from the rest of the world for 200,000 years until they laid eyes upon it. Tufts in particular saw it as a sacred place. Every time he entered, he would bow his head and ask permission from the cave god to enter. Then he would apologize for any mistakes he might have made in caring for it. Both Tufts and Tenen viewed their role with utmost seriousness. It really did become their life’s work.

  • Iris Gerber Damson

    What a find by both explorers and Miller! I’d like to read Miller’s book and see it all. I sense something spiritual from just reading the above.

  • http://http://calitreview.com/624 Paul Austin

    I’m planning a trip and doing some research prior to visiting the caverns. I’m curious to know if anyone can direct me to any of the very first photos by Tenen or Tufts of the sinkhole and the surrounding areas during their initial or early explorations.

  • Kathy Haymon

    I have seen this and it is a sight to behold and experience!

  • http://www.onceuponagoodtime.com Dustin Smith

    Kartchner Caverns Park is one of Arizona’s true treasures. We recently highlighted the caverns as a great educational opportunity for kids recently on our website . . . I’m going to link back here so that parents can have some additional resources. Thanks for posting this interview!

    To discover a great way to make Kartchner Caverns come to life for your kids, visit this page.

  • Pingback: Kartchner Caverns | Underground Atlas

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