Dedicated explorer chronicles Mammoth undertaking
By Elizabeth B. Barovian
Columbus Dispatch, 6/09/01
BEAVERCREEK, Ohio -- For a man of many interests -- film producer, author, teacher, biker, cartoonist and agility-dog trainer -- Roger Brucker has only one passion: to be underground.
"I work to cave," he said at his home near Dayton.
During vacation time and on weekends since the 1950s, Brucker, 71, helped increase Mammoth Cave National Park near Bowling Green, Ky., nine times over by patiently connecting its convoluted passages.
The tale of the connection that clinched Mammoth Cave as the longest in the world is told in Brucker's new book, Beyond Mammoth Cave: A Tale of Obsession in the World's Longest Cave (Southern Illinois University, $26.95), co-written with Jim Borden, his former rival.
In 1972, Mammoth totaled 144 miles. The opportunity to more than double the cave's size -- by connecting it to nearby Roppel Cave -- was there for the taking.
This connection, however, involved more plot twists, secrecy and intrigue than a Tom Clancy novel.
The Cave Research Foundation, founded by Brucker and other cavers in 1957, battled the Roppel cavers, who opposed being "swallowed up" by the National Parks system, Brucker said. The foundation also faced the Central Kentucky Karst Coalition, a caving organization founded by Borden.
In the early 1980s, both groups had discovered a river that connected the two caves. The findings, however, remained secret.
Not until Geary Schindal, a graduate student at the time, threatened to reveal the connection did the two sides join in 1983 to plot and map the connection, extending Mammoth Cave to 300 miles.
"Connecting caves is difficult because there is usually something in the way," Brucker said. "You either have to travel too far out in the system, the ceiling is under water or there is a collapse. The Roppel-Mammoth connection took one day."
The present cave system, totaling 350 miles, is three times longer than any other cave in the world. But Brucker still isn't satisfied.
He longs to see Mammoth expanded to 1,000 miles, a prediction he believes is more reliable than "the one about California falling off into the ocean." He also has a double agenda for cave promotion and preservation.
Born in 1929 in Shelby, Ohio, Brucker's obsession with caving began at age 5, when he began building "caves" out of card tables, chairs and blankets. He visited Mammoth Cave for the first time when he was 8.
"I was constantly asking the guide where dark passages went, and he responded, 'They don't go anywhere. They stay right here,' " Brucker said. "I was irritated and responded that I would figure out where they go, and as it turns out, I was right."
Brucker graduate from Oberlin College in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in art.
Had there been a lucrative market for professional speleologists, Brucker would have signed on. "There is no money in caving," he said.
Instead, he has made a full-time hobby out of caving. He used every spare moment from the job he held at Odiorne Industrial Advertising.
Being involved in caving for more than 50 years, Brucker has seen it evolve on technological, safety and interest levels.
He said cave exploration has taken on an efficient, "commandolike" approach, in which a small group of people is trained to be self-reliant and explore 18 to 26 hours at a time. Speleological instruments, databases and mapping techniques also have taken a leap.
Cave exploration results in about 50 to 60 accidents per year, most of them minor, due to falling rocks and people falling in holes. Brucker said from five to 10 people die each year, usually while exploring caves under water.
Brucker estimates that there are more than 500 cavers in the Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton areas.
"This number does not necessarily mean project cavers," Brucker said. "A lot of people just like to explore a couple of smaller caves and drink beer in between."
Cave and karst studies also are popping up as courses in universities around the country. Brucker will teach a weeklong speleology course June 17-23 at the Center for Cave and Karst Studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. The $385 course, which he has taught for 20 years, will cover the science of cave exploration through classroom instruction and on-site visits. This year's class is already full.
"There is no one that can teach speleology better than Roger Brucker," said Nicholas C. Crawford, director for Cave and Karst Studies at Western Kentucky. "He has proven his ability to find big caves, and that is what speleology is about."
More recently, Brucker's interest in Mammoth Cave has been geared toward protecting it from pollution, not exploring it.
"There is so much at stake here," Brucker said. "The National Parks represent the most priceless pieces of our national heritage that Congress set aside to protect forever and enjoy forever."