, Muskogee, OK

July 17, 2010

Exploring caves, mines can differ

By Liz McMahan
Phoenix Staff Writer

— While caves and the old mines near the Fort Gibson Dam have attracted adventurous youth for years, going into them without proper training and equipment is not a good idea, a cave expert says.

A Fort Gibson man recently died on a trip inside the old limestone mines north of Fort Gibson. It took rescuers several hours to find his body.

He had told family members he was going to explore the old mines, which follows one of the rules for cave exploration. However, he went alone, which is against the rules.

Too, under the policies of Lafarge North America, the company managing the reclamation of the old mines, “No one is permitted to be in the underground mine at Fort Gibson under any circumstance,” according to an e-mail from Serene Jweied, the company’s director of communications.

Geo Graening of The Subterranean Institute of Folsom, Calif., said it is recommended that no less than three people go into caves together. If one gets hurt, that leaves one to stay with the person and another to go for help, he said.

Cavers like the experience of observing the geological formations they find.

“Mines don’t give you that,” he said. “Mines have good recreation potential, but they actually, for the most part are much more dangerous than caves.”

Caves were formed naturally over many years, while mines are much more recent and may have been built without following the laws of physics, he said. They also may not have settled.

Dustin Moore of Fort Gibson has witnessed some of that falling-in while exploring the old mines.

“The very first time I went in there was a couple of years ago,” Moore said. “We went in and came back the next day. There were rocks about the size of a small bus that had fallen from the ceiling overnight.”

There is some risk of exposure to gases or low oxygen in caves, but that risk may be even greater in mines, Graening said.

The old mines at Fort Gibson are used to dispose of excess fly ash from the OG&E coal-fired generating plant east of Muskogee.

Graening said most good cavers don’t do mines, that there is special training needed for that kind of exploration.

The old mines are on private property and anyone exploring them may be trespassing.

Exploring the caves on public property near the dam is not necessarily illegal, said Nate Herring, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs officer.

If the caves are not in a restricted area and are accessible, it is OK to go inside, he said. However, the public is encouraged to follow safe caving practices.

If you go caving

• Leave no trace.

• Never cave alone and always tell somebody where you’re caving and when you’re out.

• Never cave during or after rain.

• Each caver needs at least three light sources, spare food and water, warm clothes, good boots, gloves and helmet.