Photo by Ron Simmons

Cave book Mammoth undertaking
By Bob Batz
Dayton Daily News, 3/10/01

Like many men and women who spend their spare time crawling around dark, damp caves, Roger Brucker has a favorite "close call" story.

"It was 1955 and four of us were exploring a new passage in Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave, Kentucky," the 71-year-old Beavercreek resident recalls. "I was walking along a muddy bank that sloped down to a river when I lost my footing and fell head-first into an opening the size of a 55-gallon barrel. The water extinguished my carbide lamp. I was in a larger room and when I floated to the top, my head hit solid rock. I started thrashing around and suddenly felt cold air on my face, which meant I was back in the cave again."

Brucker, who lived to tell - and write - about that caving incident and many others, will be signing copies of his new book, Beyond Mammoth Cave: A Tale of Obsession in the World's Longest Cave (Southern Illinois University Press, $26.95), March 21 at Books & Co. James Borden, co-author of the book, also will be at the store.

As the book's title more than slightly suggests, Mammoth Cave has been Brucker's favorite spelunking spot for quite a few years.

Brucker, a retired advertising executive who teaches at the School of Advertising Art in Kettering, explored his first cave when he was 21.

"I was immediately hooked on the hobby and by 1953 I was intensely involved in caving," he says.

Brucker remains active today. In addition to the four books he has co-authored and his frequent visits to Mammoth Cave, he also teaches a course in speleology at the cave every summer for Western Kentucky University.

Since the 1800s, explorers have boasted that Mammoth Cave is the world's largest cave. But that claim wasn't proven until 1972 after Brucker and other cavers went on a series of well-organized expeditions into the Mammoth Cave and nearby Flint Ridge cave systems.

"As a result of those expeditions, we now know that Mammoth Cave is 365 miles long, more than three times longer than any other cave in the world," Brucker says. But, he adds, that isn't even the half of it.

"As Jim and I point out in our book, we believe the cave system will be expanded to at least 1,000 miles before the end of this century."

For a long time explorers have been finding connections between caves in the Mammoth Cave area. Combined, those other caves have about 400 miles of known passages, some of them less than a mile from Mammoth Cave.

"If you add in the other unconnected fragments and the anticipated lengths of caves under other ridges and a sinkhole plain, you get pretty close to a thousand miles," chips in Borden, who lives in Louisville, Ky. He is a past director of the Cave Research Foundation.

As Brucker prepares for his next descent into Mammoth Cave, he's writing a new book - this one a historical novel about a pre-Civil War black cave guide named Stephen Bishop.

"Bishop, a slave, was a guide from 1838 to 1857, and he made a lot of the principal discoveries," Brucker says.

In Beyond Mammoth Cave, Borden provides detailed accounts of the more recent cave expeditions in which he was involved. In the same book, Brucker describes his explorations between 1972 and 1983 to find cave connections.

The popularity of caving is growing rapidly all over the United States, including the Dayton area.

"I'd say there are about 200 men and women in the Miami Valley who go caving occasionally," Brucker says. "Of that number, there are probably 50 or so who go caving five times a year, and another 20 who go as many as 12 to 15 times."

The hobby appeals to people of all ages and from all walks of life, says Brucker, a fellow of the National Speleological Society and past president of the Cave Research Foundation. He has been an adjunct professor of marketing at Wright State University for 25 years, and is a member of the Library Advancement Association of the University of Dayton. He is also a member of the board of directors of K12 Gallery for Young People.

"It's especially attractive to young people because it is so physically strenuous," he adds, noting that many women excel at cave exploration.

"They do well because physiologically their weight distribution gives them greater endurance than men," he says. "Caving doesn't require upper body strength because it's mostly about the lower body, especially the legs. You don't need to be a strong person to do it. Wiry people do better because they can fit into smaller places."

And there are plenty of caves left to explore.

"An engineer has developed a formula, and he predicts the number of actual caves in the country is about 10 times the number of known caves," Brucker says.

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