Goliath’s Cave: The Rubicon Passage lives up to its name. Feb. 2008

Many cavers have heard of Goliath’s Cave but few have visited it. This cave (including a few other smaller caves) is located in a forested blind valley on the outskirts of Cherry Grove, a tiny Fillmore County “town”. It was reported that S.E. Minnesota cavers first entered the cave in the mid 1950’s and explored portions of it. Shortly afterwards however, the prominent cave entrance became blocked by a massive talus pile.

During the next 20 years cave explorers, including Ron Spong, a charter member of the MSS, would occasionally attempt to remove enough of the talus pile to gain entry to the cave. Finally in 1980, after a 7 inch rain, Ron managed to access the cave. After negotiating his way through the 2 near-sumps, located just inside the cave, he hiked through the upper level of the cave before retreating due to another immanent flood threat.

In the 1980’s MSS President Jim Magnuson and fellow cavers focused their efforts on this cave. They explored and surveyed the upper and lower level passages and quickly realized Goliath’s Cave was an important and extensive cave system. In 1986 the cave owner, Tom Kappers, gave Jim permission to create a safe man-made entrance into the cave. Unfortunately during this process several cavers almost lost their lives. One was airlifted to Rochester’s Mayo Clinic; thankfully both made a complete recovery.

In 1988 Tom Kappers banned all cavers from the property. Ten years later (even though his wife referred to the wooded parcel as a “sacred special place”) the Kappers applied for a Conditional Use Permit to turn the woods and caves into a gravel quarry. Since the water flowing through this cave system exits the Big Spring in Forestville State Park, the DNR was understandably concerned, and in 1999 purchased the property. (I had made Kappers a generous offer for the property but the DNR trumped me on this one because they had promised that if the Kappers sold them the property they would locate a suitable quarry site for them). The DNR/SNA (Scientific Natural Area) promptly gated the cave and banned all access.

In 2004, after waiting 5 years for a policy change, I (The Minnesota Cave Preserve) purchased several surface acres, along with 358 acres of underground cave rights, directly across the road from the DNR/SNA parcel and created a safe man-made entrance into the cave. Even though I had only visited the upper portion of the cave one time I was positive that given a chance I could expand and identify the true cave system.

As the DNR/SNA’s new neighbor, I did not receive the usual welcome basket, but instead received a terse formal letter advising me not to trespass under their portion of the cave.

Our new entrance was appropriately named “David’s Entrance” and once again, after more than 16 years, survey and exploration work resumed. In Feb. 2005 John Preston and I dove through a dangerous convoluted sump at the end of a side passage near David’s Entrance. After successfully groping along the boulder choked lower level we rose straight up 20 feet to the base of a thundering waterfall. After surveying one third mile of tall walking passages that we named the “Iconoclast Section”, it was learned that this section may indeed lie under the DNR/SNA land. (Unfortunately the DNR/SNA cannot access this new cave segment unless they trespass under the Cave Preserve portion of the cave and conduct their own sump dive).

Also in 2005 an entire dry upper level, including several lower level segments, was discovered by the “Iconoclast team”. This team included Clay Kraus, Dave Gerboth and Charles Graling. Any other caver that showed up with the right qualifications was knighted with a crow bar on the spot and inducted into the team.

Again, these upper and lower level discoveries that occurred near the David’s Entrance region of the cave were determined to possibly lie below DNR/SNA land. Some hinted that the DNR/SNA was not appreciative of the gifts we had presented them. “But hey”, I wondered, “How can you protect and study something you don’t know exists”? Even though I felt that I should receive some sort of cheap plastic Made in China plaque of recognition, what I received instead was an intercepted copy of a “classified” e-mail that declared “HE MUST BE STOPPED”!

After we were satisfied we had investigated all viable leads near the vicinity of David’s Entrance, the Iconoclast Team decided to focus on passages located well under the Minnesota Cave Preserve’s property. Besides, it would be less controversial exploring under land you are positive you own.

After walking a short distance downstream from David’s Entrance the towering Rubicon Passage is encountered. It is a spectacular borehole trunk line that stretches 2000 feet before dropping into blackness. Eventually a classic waterfall, with a deep splash pool at its base, is encountered. A short distance beyond, the ceiling suddenly drops and the stream passage width becomes very wide. In Feb. 2005, after sliding several hundred feet along this stretch of passage with my chin above water I noticed a narrow watercourse off to one side. I followed the passage a short distance and entered a dry dome with a steep mud bank on one side. About 20 feet up, along one wall, I spotted what I thought could be an enterable opening. Our team did not have the gear to investigate the lead that day but listed it as a high priority. Later that same day we conducted a radio location at an expansive nearby lake and determined that Venita Sikkink’s home (She is the landowner that sold me the property) was located over 130 feet directly above the site.

The following year, March 2006, Clay, myself, and others returned to the dome lead. After repeated attempts, I managed to toss Clay’s grappling hook up into the hole and wedge it securely. (Even though the grappling hook would typically crash down and hit Clay on the head, it did not compare with last years incident when I slid down the steep mud embankment and landed directly on top of him while he was steadying the misc. electronic cave radio components along the waters edge). When I reached the top of the grappling hook I glanced ahead and was astonished to see a large void. I pulled myself into the expanse, stood up, and secured a climbing rope around a rock projection. After Clay joined me he used his infra red measuring tape to determine that the ceiling rose a whopping 42 feet above us. We were even more elated to see a 6 foot tall walking passage stretching off into the distance. After following it for 52 feet we were stopped by huge rock slabs. I could see blackness beyond. If only I had a rock hammer.

Now it is a geological fact that the DNR/SNA portion of Goliath’s Cave cannot and will not lend itself to many more surprises. This cave system trends east-northeast, right under David’s Entrance and under the 358 acres we have subterranean rights to. In fact, dye traces have shown that the Rubicon trunk line is just a small gateway leading into what has yet to be discovered. In 2005, cave diver John Preston inspected the wide flooded downstream portion of the Rubicon passage, and after spotting a large fish, he decided he had a fair chance of following the nearly sumped passage until breaking out into the main system that surely exists. The Grappling Hook dome is located in the same vicinity.

Two years had slipped by since Clay and I were stopped by those rock slabs. Numerous amazing discoveries in other caves had been occupying our time, and yet that rock in Goliath’s Cave was still etched vividly in my mind. In spite of our hiatus Goliath’s Cave was still buzzing with activity. Dr. Calvin Alexander and his associates had assembled data logging equipment and performed an accurate survey of the cave, downstream from David’s Entrance. Even the DNR/SNA jumped in and suddenly began surveying their portion of the cave. Although it was rumored that the sole purpose of their ambitious survey was to define their underground boundaries to prevent social inferiors from trespassing, we can only hope they have more of an interest in science than in personal vendettas.

Finally on Feb. 23, 2008, John Preston arranged to push the downstream portion of Goliath’s Cave. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond his control, he had to cancel the trip. With spring snow melt right around the corner, the Iconoclast Team realized the window of opportunity to explore deep into the cave was slipping by every day. In light of this, the decision was made to visit the downstream portion of the cave anyway, and extend the survey as far as humanly possible. Oh, this time we would bring a rock hammer to Grappling Dome.

After climbing out of the water and into the dry Grappling Dome, Clay began to assemble a newer modified version of the grappling hook. This unit was made from an expensive aluminum alloy and appeared as though it could fly on its own, right up to the opening. After securing the grappling hook up through the window, I made the exhausting climb up in my full wet suit. Soon thereafter Clay joined me topside as Dave and Charlie (who elected to remain below) readied our gear to be hoisted up. They were amazed to see our lights so far above them.

After beating on the offending rock that was blocking our forward progress, it abruptly fell from the ceiling where it had been attached. Instead of crashing to the ground, it became lodged between the walls, about 8 inches from the ceiling. This rock, which could crush our legs like a pretzel if it fell down on us, was still blocking our way forward! Clay and I took turns trying to whack it into submission with no luck. I even laid on Clay’s back while trying to move the rock with my feet. Because I was in a full wetsuit I felt like the Energizer Battery Bunny on sleeping pills. This rock was zapping my strength. We began to make plans to come back with the drill during another trip, but remained persistent. Finally, in mid afternoon, Clay provided the final blow that dropped it to the ground. After Clay looked ahead to verify there was open blackness ahead, we sat down, rested, and had lunch. As usual, Clay asked me if I was eating a raison bread sandwich with peanut butter and strawberry jelly.

As we reached the boulder pile Clay carefully removed and folded his rubber gloves, placed them on a ledge, methodically cleaned his glasses, opened his bright yellow survey book and hung the compass around his neck. As he pointed forward, I took the cue, grabbed the tape measure and slid over the rocks. I stood up, and looked around while remaining totally silent. You know, kind of like when a baby gets a shot at the doctor’s office. There is that delay time until the baby realizes something profound just occurred.

I didn’t know it was possible to do 2 cartwheels and one back flip in a full wetsuit but that that is exactly what I did after climbing up a few feet into a major upper level thoroughfare!

Meanwhile, Clay remained on station and politely and calmly asked that once my uncontrolled antics were over if a small amount of composure could be regained so that an accurate survey may be conducted. “Stunned” would be an understatement. Clay and I began to survey the spacious easterly trending passage, with ceiling heights from 6-20 feet tall and wondered out loud if we were dreaming. We found ourselves in yet another level above the Grappling Dome room and shouted the news down to Dave and Charlie as we ventured forward. As Clay and I placed our survey stations 100 feet apart I began to seriously wonder if this trunk line passage was going to intersect the major subway sized passage that surely exists along the Canfield Creek corridor. It was amazing that we were in a spacious dry cave passage so far above the main stream passage. Could this dry cave segment bypass the need for John Preston’s lower level exploratory push trip?

As we made our way along unknown territory Clay and I noted that organic debris and bits of plastic could be seen all the way to the ceiling. No place in Goliath’s Cave, even up here, is safe from flood events. By early evening the main east trending passage that we had been exploring finally narrowed down. We were reasonably certain that Dave and Charlie had left the cave.

Clay and I had surveyed almost ¼ mile of stupendous cave passages and were still in awe.

We made our way back to the beginning of the survey, where the sounds of the main waterfall could be heard. I followed the passage in a westerly direction and eventually found that I could see the waterfall a considerable distance down through a crack in the floor. The unsurveyed passage continued ahead, out of sight.

Our top priority will be to hang a ladder from the upper level in the Rubicon Passage so that we can explore this new section of the cave in dry attire.

It may be up there, around the next corner, where hidden secrets are waiting for us.

John Ackerman