may well be Iowa's wildest place. Explosions and new trenches have
some who love the cave hopping mad. One man is pushing the envelope
to answer a question: Who owns this cave?
Beneath Winneshiek County, there runs a stream. Eons ago, it likely
began as a mere trickle, exploiting cracks a nd crevices in the limestone
bedrock. Over hundreds of thousands of years, it scoured a larger and
larger pathway for itself, leaving space for air and joined by numerous
rivulets from all directions. Mineral-laden water filtered through cracks
above, dripping and flowing, depositing brilliant white calcite and
colorful substances into smooth rock formations. Over hundreds or thous
ands of years, stalactites grew down from ceilings; stalagmites up from
floors. Sometimes they met to create columns that grew microns wider
with each passing season. Other deposits flowed across walls, making
"flowstone," which undulated into myriad outlandish shapes and
In many ways, a cave is like an ancient, living entity, constantly morphing
across a geologic timeline into something new, leaving recordings of
what it was with each layer of muddy sediment or crystalline stalactite.
But like all caves, bejeweled Coldwater Cave is not sentient. The cave
did not know or care how coveted it would become.
Iowa has seven National Natural Landmarks, and Coldwater Cave is one
of them. Among cavers, it has for decades held a mystique. Far and away
Iowa's largest cave, Coldwater has 16.5 miles of passage. It is
the longest cave in the Upper Midwest and the 33rd longest in the United
States. Festooned with formations, it is better decorated than any other
cave in the region. That, and a small river runs through it.
Despite having no actual legal protection, the cave for years has had
de facto protection from the people who owned the only usable entrance,
Kenny and Wanda Flatland. Cavers know their very presence can be a problem.
Delicate formations are easily shattered or broken off, and beautiful
caves across the country have been loved into trashiness. When cave
traffic got heavy and the trekkers tracked mud across some formations
and broke a soda straw or stalactite here and there, the Flatlands shut
cavers out for a few months to reassess. Then they worked with cavers
to get the formations cleaned, and cavers actually repaired some damaged
Last March, in a part of the cave known as the Windmill Passage, a grinding
sound filled the hall. A bit of rubble fell from the ceiling, and then
pinkish lubricant gushed from a six-inch hole in the ceiling. Time passed.
A camera emerged from the hole, right next to a clump of stalactites.
On the surface, one man was giddy. He knew this would launch the caving
community into a tizzy, and was glad of it. He had a pressing question
to answer: Whose cave was this, anyway?
On a 10-degree day in December, I'm a passenger in a furniture van
heading north out of Spring Valley, Minn., toward the Minnesota Cave
Preserve (aka"The Cave Farm"). John Ackerman, a cheerful 49-year-old
Twin Cities furniture restorer with blue eyes, curly dark hair flecked
with gray and a mustache, is in the driver's seat. He owns 325 acres
- soon to be more than 500 - that at first glance appears to be typical
Midwest farmland. Examine closer, and you'll notice here and there
a grassy depression at the very center of which extends a 30-inch-diameter
pipe with a steel lid. There are 18 such structures on his property.
Each tube is equipped with an aluminum ladder. Ackerman and his caving
friends installed them to access a labyrinth of underground passages.
Some connect to one another. Others are just short caves. Each was originally
a "sinkhole," or a spot where the earth has sunk due to a gap
beneath the ground. As with many cave explorers, Ackerman's life
obsession has been to wiggle, dive and contort his way into new cave
passages - to be the first to lay fully dilated pupils on a crack in
the earth never before known by humans. Unlike others, he's made
modern excavation and demolition critical in his technique of exploration
of his cave system.
"Ever since I was a little boy, I was always interested in caves,"
Ackerman says."As you can see, it just got out of control."
He shows me one sinkhole that he's presently digging out. Aiding
him is Cave Finder, his own Caterpillar 312 Excavator, modified with
an extended boom to dig 25 feet down. There's a large pile of yellow
dirt and stones, and the gaping maw of a dirt-filled cave at the bottom
of a large hole. After the cave's mouth is dug out, he'll install
a ladder pipe, fill the dirt and rock back in, and seed grass over the
"It doesn't look good when you're doing it," Ackerman
says."After it's done, you wouldn't know all this happened."
We drive through a field and park near a wooded area, near the main
entrance to Spring Valley Caverns. It's a reinforced concrete bunker
built into the hillside with a limestone block facade. The Minnesota
Speleological Survey keeps caving and rescue gear in it, and there's
a loft where Boy Scout groups can sleep. Open a door, and you can walk
down stairs, right into the cave. It's a nicer facility than some
state parks would have, and Ackerman built it all.
We enter the cave, where it's a balmy 48 degrees, for a nearly 3-mile
subterranean trip. Some is walkable. Other portions require crawling
on hands and knees, wading, or belly crawling (about 700 feet of it
in the"Mini-Miseries" passage), chimneying up crevices, leaping
over 70-foot deep pits, and walking with a 20-foot gorge between our
When we get past the Mini-Miseries, Ackerman becomes excitable, describing
the first time he was this far back in the cave.
"Stop. Do you hear that rumbling?"
It's almost imperceptible, but audible.
"That was a lot louder, the first time we were back here," Ackerman
says, his voice conveying the eeriness of the unknown."We didn't
know what it was, but the farther we pushed, the louder it got."
As it turned out, the quiet rumble came from the falls of a subterranean
stream in what he and Gerboth named Symphony Hall, for the multiple
tones the different cascades make. It was louder because more water
was running. When we arrive at this portion of the cave, Ackerman is
"And then we get back here and see all this," he says."It's
like a miniature Coldwater Cave!"
As adventurous as this trip is, this 5.5-mile long cave system is less
than a third as long as Iowa's Coldwater Cave. The passages are
not nearly as large. There are a few pretty formations, like the Leaning
Tower, a massive white column. But most of it is simply rocky passage
of varying shapes. There's good reason the Iowa cave is a National
Natural Landmark and this one isn't.
Spring Valley Caverns is, however, a 5.5-mile long cave system, most
of which Ackerman discovered along with his caving partner, David Gerboth.
The Big Find came in 1990, just a few months after Ackerman had purchased
his first 176 acres of the property, when there was only a half mile
of known passage in Spring Valley Caverns. Ackerman blasted wider a
long, narrow crack in which he'd noticed raccoon scratchings on
The discovery that lay on the other side left Gerboth and Ackerman whooping
it up like high school football champs. The wider passage beyond kept
going and going. In short order, they'd discovered 5 additional
miles of cave passage. Ackerman has since added three more entrances
to Spring Valley Caverns, so you can enter one place and pop up like
a prairie dog in another.
Only two people, Iowa cavers Steve Barnett and Dave Jagnow, first celebrated
the splendor of Iowa's Coldwater Cave in September 1967. They discovered
the cave by diving with scuba gear into Coldwater Spring, through about
2,000 feet of mostly submerged cave, which led to a long air-filled
cave. For the next two years, they included only one other caver, Tom
Eggert, in secret journeys to their massive find. Instead of first going
public, they went to the Iowa State Conservation Commission in 1969.
Soon thereafter, word was out. Longtime Des Moines Register outdoors
writer Otto Knauth crafted a prominent article replete with photos chronicling
the trio's exploits in Coldwater Cave. The cave captivated public
attention. The Iowa Legislature found it fit to explore the possibility
of commercializing the cave and appropriated $58,000, which culminated
in a lease agreement with dairy and crop farmer Kenny Flatland in 1971.
The state of Iowa had a 94-foot shaft drilled to make a much safer entrance
directly to the cave.
Flatland thought it was"kind of neat" that a cave ran under
his and his neighbors' property but wasn't overwhelmed. As state
scouts reported their finds, though, he became intrigued. He climbed
down into the cave with them and, for the first time, experienced the
wonderland of colorful formations, waterfalls and arching rows of tooth-like
stalactites across the ceilings.
For a number of reasons, the state deemed it infeasible to turn the
cave into a tourist attraction. It was far from interstate highways.
Many scenic areas require crawls through tight passages. Constructing
concrete walkways high above the main stream and side channels would
be cost prohibitive. Perhaps more important, the cave itself could be
a dangerous place because its water levels fluctuate by several feet.
As the name implies, no one gets anywhere without encountering very
cold water. In the wintertime, water temperatures sometimes dip into
the 30s. That makes wearing a wetsuit necessary for survival.
Whereas mountain climbers experience thin air, in Coldwater Cave, washed-in
vegetation decomposes and at times produces large amounts of carbon
dioxide, or thick air. The result is the same: hypoxia, or less oxygen
than a person is accustomed to, sometimes at hazardously low levels.
Cavers have found themselves suddenly short of breath, with headaches
or nausea, on the verge of blacking out.
The state's lease ended in 1975. Flatland had the option to have
the entrance sealed.
"I chose to leave it as it was so that other people could enjoy
the cave," Flatland says.
And enjoy it they did. Regular streams of cavers began to arrive, from
Minnesota, then Illinois, then Iowa and other states. Some of them began
calling themselves the Coldwater Cave Project (CCP). Until cavers completed
a heated shed over the entrance, Kenny and his wife, Wanda Flatland,
invited cavers into their home to change into wetsuits. Visiting with
the Flatlands in their living room became part of caving at Coldwater,
and Kenny donned a wetsuit himself to go on several epic journeys in
Grand adventures ensued. Far back in the cave where there are only a
couple inches or less of air above flooded pools, brazen caver Mike
Nelson perfected a method of pulling his floating body along the ceiling.
"If there's enough air to get one nostril out of the water -
it doesn't need to be but an inch or so to do that - but you do
need nerve," says Patricia Kambesis, who has caved at Coldwater
since the 1970s, and now is assistant director of the Hoffman Environmental
Research Institute in Kentucky."You cannot freak out. You'll
drown in there."
Humans became like flies, scaling walls after a grappling hook was thrown
to scale a waterfall. They became worms, wiggling through muddy passages.
They became otters, swimming frigid snowmelt waters.
CCP cavers became good friends of the Flatlands, and the Flatlands were
good friends of the cave. CCP cavers showed up the third weekend of
each month, and it became expected that outside cavers would work themselves
into CCP projects, primarily involving surveying, exploring and photographing
the cave. About 15 percent of the trips were recreational. The entrance
owners relied on the living room counsel of their caver friends. The
cave became Iowa's least trammeled place - a wilderness unlike any
other in the Upper Midwest.
The CCP people published their trip reports in the newsletter of the
Iowa Grotto, the state's chapter of the National Speleological Survey.
Over the years, they became quite protective of the cave. At one point,
a rift developed between two prominent members of the group about whether
stalagmites could be removed for scientific study by University of Iowa
One cave researcher, Calvin Alexander, a University of Minnesota geology
professor, alleges that academics began to find the cave more trouble
than it was worth throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. They selected
caves that weren't quite the treasure trove of information that
Coldwater Cave is.
"The rules were, if you want to go in Coldwater, you suck up to
the Iowa project people," Alexander says."If you can't live
up to what their rules are, you can't go caving. I don't like
that as a scientist."
John Ackerman had never been in Coldwater Cave, but others had sung
its glories to him. His caving buddy, David Gerboth, got the two of
them invited on a Coldwater Cave survey trip after several months of
Gerboth is well known as the yin to Ackerman's yang. The two have
caved together since 1980, when they both joined the Minnesota Speleological
Survey. But it would be hard to find two men more opposite. Where Ackerman
is all guts, bravado and athleticism, Gerboth is soft-spoken, diplomatic
and not the fastest-moving caver. Where Ackerman runs a wildly successful
furniture restoration business and lives with a beautiful wife and family
in a multi-million home he constructed, Gerboth's greatest glories
for the most part happened underground.
Gerboth was quite excited to go caving with CCP surveyors. He wanted
to share with them his new map of Spring Valley Caverns, and maybe swap
ideas on mapping techniques. When they arrived and Gerboth unfurled
his map, he says he was dismissed. In the cave, the group he and Ackerman
were assigned to rushed forward. Ackerman could keep pace, but Gerboth
couldn't. Gerboth hoped to show Ackerman a particularly showy column
in the Monument Passage called the Pillar of Light Arising Out of the
Divine Reasoning. The CCP cavers wouldn't let him, even though it
was nearby, citing restorations of formations as the reason.
They did, however, let Gerboth bring Ackerman to the Windmill Passage,
where the pipe of a windmill-powered pump built in the early 20th Century
extends through the cave and downward to the water table. Driving home,
Gerboth and Ackerman simmered over their treatment in the cave. Gerboth
says that, in retrospect, maybe they should have volunteered instead
to schlep photographic gear on a less-intense photo trip. But still,
how could they treat a major cave owner that way?
Later that year, Ackerman asked Wanda Flatland if she and her husband
would sell their entrance to the cave. Nope. When Ackerman read an October
1997 issue of the Wisconsin Speleological Society newsletter, he took
great interest in an article by Gary Phelps. The editorial titled"Is
Cold Water Cave Really Open?" suggested that even prominent cavers
in the NSS received cold treatment at Coldwater.
"Whether or not this was an accurate portrayal of how things were
run there, it greatly influenced John," says Gerboth. Ackerman labeled
it a pattern, and made it his goal in life to open access to Coldwater
Cave, standing up for the little guy, wresting control from elitist
Men of means typically pick hobbies or sports other than caving. Sailing
yachts. Driving golf balls. Buying rides from the Russians to the International
Space Station. In caves, mud is all about, easily slung. When John Ackerman
became fixated on Coldwater Cave, it became predetermined that the cave
would change, and that Ackerman would take heat for it. He understood
Early last year, Ackerman obtained 5 acres of land surrounding the windmill
above the Windmill Passage in Coldwater Cave. Now he owns the Pillar
of Light Arising Out of the Divine Reasoning.
By March, he'd first had the exploratory hole drilled, dropped a
remote camera down the hole, saw stalactites, and rethought. He had
a larger, human-sized, 30-inch-diameter hole drilled into the cave farther
down the passage, where it wouldn't damage formations. All in all,
he spent more than $80,000 on land, drilling access to Coldwater Cave
and an easement to cave (if more cave is found to exist) on 200 acres
He announced in a post on the National Speleogical Society Web site
that he was drilling a 188-foot shaft into the cave, accusing the Flatlands
of overly tight access restrictions, and CCP members of rudeness. He
titled his somewhat warlike manifesto,"So whose cave is it, anyway?"
and ended it with,"Now who owns this cave?"
The answer still isn't clear. His announcement catapulted some of
the caving community into a tizzy. A flurry of postings on cavers'
Internet message boards decried the event as the worst thing ever to
happen to Coldwater Cave. Others applauded. All were shocked.
"In a lot of ways, it was the last little bit of true wilderness
in the Upper Midwest," laments John Lovaas, science coordinator
for the CCP,"and a rich guy has built a road into it."
Ackerman believes his entrance to be less invasive than the original
drilled entrance, partly because it is in a side passage. He takes pains
to point out that he had the drillers use the least invasive techniques
possible, at his own personal expense. Others counter that that's
fine, but a second entrance was not needed.
"He was never denied access to the cave," says Kenny Flatland."Any
caver has always been welcome. It's too bad he felt he had to spend
all that money to drill another entrance."
The new entrance wasn't the last controversy. Last month, four cavers
sniffed the acrid scent of explosives as they made their way down the
main passage. Ackerman had used a small amount of explosives to remove
large rocks near his new entrance. Ackerman says he did it because he
needed to lower the floor in order to protect stalactites that people
would have knocked off while stoop walking through the passage. He also
would eventually like to install a lift from the surface. Its platform
requires a lowered floor.
In any case, it was the first time explosives had been used in Coldwater
Because the cave water feeds Coldwater Spring downstream, Department
of Natural Resources fisheries biologists tested the spring water for
contaminants."Live fish were observed in the spring run," read
the report. "Caddis fly cases were abundant on the rocks also. Nothing
was observed out of the ordinary." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
has said it has no jurisdiction to require permits for activities in
Coldwater Cave. Essentially, caves in Iowa are a sort of legal no-man's
land, with no applicable legislation or case law established.
"Every state that has caves should have a cave protection act,"
says Lovaas."They are unique ecosystems. They are a very alien landscape
that's very fragile. Whether most cave protection acts would affect
what Ackerman is doing, I don't know."
One caver in the group, Dawn Ryan, was particularly incensed that Ackerman
had modified the passage. He had threatened via e-mail in August that
he would do exactly what he did if she didn't stop publicly criticizing
him. She says she stopped.
"When I saw this, I was really surprised that he lied," Ryan
says."I understand what he's doing is perfectly legal, but does
that make it right?"
More recently, Ackerman has threatened that if the criticism - or "publicly
destroying my integrity" - doesn't stop, he will string an electric
fence across his property line in the cave, effectively cutting the
cave in half. First, though, he says he would discuss it with the Flatlands.
"You know [putting up the fence] won't happen," Ackerman
says. "The Flatlands will probably intervene with these people."
Lovaas is surprised that for all the arrows Ackerman has lobbed over
the CCP's elitism and the Flatlands' alleged access restrictions,
he can't seem to handle criticism." Dawn comments on the landscaping
in his passage, and he accuses her of slander. "It's like having
a nutty neighbor."
Ackerman's friends say he's just often misread. Alexander, the
Minnesota professor, says he finds Ackerman's confidence inspiring."
What come off as statements of incredible bravado are really simple
statements of what he is doing, has done or plans to do. He's not
bragging. Sometimes he does threaten people."
Having spent time with him, it is difficult for me to reconcile the
Ackerman of blustery digital pronouncements with the personally pleasant
and jovial Ackerman who's fun to cave with - even if he does have
the tendency to get carried away with grand schemes that outsiders are
hard-pressed to understand. Is John Ackerman a raging cave monster,
or is he the most exciting thing ever to happen to Midwest caving? Ultimately,
it's a question that will be answered only by his actions, not by
what is said about him now.
Of course, CCP cavers get carried away with rhetoric, too. It all stems
from passion about one spectacular cave.
A good number of Coldwater Cave Project cavers have simply accepted
Ackerman's presence in the cave, modifications and all. Although
she doesn't believe Ackerman's access was necessary, Kambesis,
who's caved on high-profile exploratory trips in the country's
longest caves, points out that Ackerman is certainly within his rights.
She does wish Ackerman's announcement were less confrontational.
She also figures Ackerman could have tried harder to work with the Flatlands
to cave from their entrance.
"Cavers modify caves all the time," she says."Most major
discoveries have resulted from some kind of modification to get into
them. We'd be hypocritical to say this new entrance is evil"
Ackerman brought me to his Spring Valley Caverns because he wants me
to understand that, while he's taken cave modification to a new
level, he's also constructed his very own conservation ethic. After
he blasts, rubble is piled in low spots, covered in mud. From a purely
aesthetic point of view, Ackerman is correct. His cave, once you're
inside it, appears very natural. For future generations, he believes,
cavers will still cave here, giving nary a thought to the modifications.
The caves he has exposed and protected within his Minnesota Cave Preserve
will be his legacy, perhaps held in a trust, run by a conservation organization
or by state government.
After we emerged from a pipe at Spring Valley Caverns, John Ackerman
and I drove across the border into Iowa. Ackerman unlocked the lid on
a tube. We begin climbing 188 feet down. Rung after rung, the circular
patch of gray sky gradually became a dim star above. As the shaft angled
slightly, it disappeared altogether.
We only spend a half hour in Coldwater Cave, but it lived up to its
billing. The Pillar of Light is indeed glorious. An impressive waterfall
dumps into the main stream a short hike from Ackerman's entrance.
Formations are everywhere.
Ackerman appeared infatuated."This cave makes mine (Spring Valley
Caverns) look like a gopher hole," he said. He wanted me to see
this, to feel the excitement, and I did. I know why he wanted in here
So what's really changed at Coldwater Cave?
Ackerman says no one's beaten down his door to use his entrance
into the cave. Two months later, a month after the blasting, I asked
Ackerman about his intentions. Because Coldwater Cave is part of his
Minnesota Cave Preserve, he plans for his portion to have the same protective
status he hopes Spring Valley Caverns will one day. Both will have liberal
access for cavers.
Would Ackerman use explosives to open new passages? He said he'd
have to come across a situation before knowing that, but pointed out
that CCP cavers had used everything short of blasting - shovels, sledgehammers,
electric drills, and so on - to open new passages.
Ackerman has a motto to "break bones, not formations" in his
caves. He's drilled new entrances simply to protect sensitive areas.
If a formation is in the way of exploration, the decision to proceed
is discussed at length. Alexander has a unique double stalagmite in
his University of Minnesota laboratory that Ackerman carefully photographed
and then removed because it was blocking a new passage.
At the same time, Ackerman does extend olive branches."I told Kenny
- and there are witnesses - that I would weld my access lid shut tomorrow
morning if you open your cave to scientists and to responsible cavers
who you approve' The offer is still there."
The answer to Ackerman's pressing question - Who owns the cave?
- has become murky with the talk of fences. His point in asking the
question while drilling a new entrance was that ownership was really
about control of access. Legally, one owns the same amount of land in
the cave that's surveyed on the surface. Ackerman has demonstrated
that one can also purchase caving easements to areas one doesn't
But perhaps such a resource should be viewed as"owned" by everyone.
Perhaps that's why many large caves outside Iowa have become protected
as national or state parks, and while access isn't perfect, many
are happy just to know certain places are protected.
Ackerman is not to be ignored, and his presence at Coldwater Cave will
likely continue to generate questions never before asked.
"This is kind of the Wild West of our time," says Iowa Department
of Natural Resources ecologist John Pearson. "Can someone put up
a fence in a cave? It's going to be up to Marshal
Dillon and Judge Roy Bean to sort this out."