Sunday, March 25, 2001

Exploring with Roger Brucker and James Borden


Authors follow underground obsession into world's longest cave

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Roger Brucker and James Borden are on a mission: Find the rest of Mammoth Cave. Not that it's lost or anything — just undiscovered and waiting for somebody to squeeze through some passage leading to a couple hundred more miles.

        Mr. Brucker and Mr. Borden already have had some success. In 1972, Mammoth Cave was 144 miles. By 1983, they and fellow cavers had squeezed through enough passages to extend it to 300. Today, it's 365 miles.

[photo] James Borden and Roger Brucker
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        “But there's more,” Mr. Brucker says. “We estimate it's 1,000 miles in all, and a lot of people think that's conservative.”

        They recount their adventures — face down in muddy passages, wading through underground rivers, ducking falling rocks, slipping past dangling bats — in the new book Beyond Mammoth Cave: A Tale of Obsession in the World's Longest Cave (Southern Illinois University Press; $26.95).

        They did a signing at Joseph-Beth last week for a large crowd, no doubt swelled by the success of Amazing Caves at the Omnimax and the upcoming 60th birthday of Mammoth Cave National Park.

        Mr. Brucker, a 71-year-old retired ad exec who just completed a cross-country bike ride (San Diego to St. Augustine), lives near Dayton. James Borden, 43, is a divorced father of two who manages a data center in Louisville.

        They haven't always been friends. Before they joined forces, “I was suspicious. I thought they were trying to steal my discoveries,” Mr. Borden says.

        “There were things we needed to talk out if we were ever to unravel the mystery of the cave,” Mr. Brucker adds.

        The mystery of Mammoth Cave, a popular weekend trip hereabouts, is its size and layout. It's actually a series of caves connected by tiny passages and streams. The authors' goal is to put them all together.

        It's a race for discovery marked by politics, jealousy, in-fighting and petty rivalries among caving groups. Even between Mr. Borden and Mr. Brucker, as the book makes clear.

        Reason enough to separate them and ask each the same questions. See how close they are now in a game of he-said/he-said.
       

James Borden

        My most exciting moment caving . . .

        Probably it was my first time when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a feeling, an experience I've never been able to duplicate. Raw, exciting, all that.

        I knew I was hooked on caving when . . .

        That same trip. I knew from then on I wanted to explore caves. Think of it, exploring something right under our feet that's still untouched.

        The best thing about writing this book with my co-author . . .

        It was the opportunity to get to know someone really well at a personal level. We learned a lot about each other and how (we) worked as persons in the complex dynamic of caving.

        One thing I'd do differently . . .

        Probably be more open and trusting of my companions. Less plotting and selfish in sharing discoveries.

        First-time cavers need to know . . .

        That they should find a person or group to mentor them. Caving isn't necessarily dangerous, but it does require certain skills and knowledge. They need experience with other cavers.

        One lesson caving has taught me . . .

        The skills of working with people. They're skills I probably wouldn't have without caving — to learn how to get people to work together toward a common goal.

        One thing a caver always misses about being topside . . .

        Most striking are the vibrant colors of the surface. The bright greens and reds and the blue skies. You come out after a 24-hour trip and it's color and light and it's like wow!

        My next goal . . .

        Is to continue exploring Mammoth Cave, but also to find the next generation of explorers.

        My favorite thing about Amazing Caves . . .

        It was so visually stimulating, but it didn't show the kind of caves we go into. Theirs were grand and exotic with extremely attractive people. We crawl 2,000 feet on our bellies, sleep wet, spend 32 hours and come out covered with mud. I do like the positive message it sends.

        One thing you should have asked me but didn't . . .

        Why do we do this? Because it's the opportunity to see things that have never been seen.

Roger Brucker

        My most exciting moment caving . . .

        Was rappelling down 300 feet into the Hawkins River in Proctor Cave. To get there and put the first footprints ever at the bottom, I still get goosebumps.

        I knew I was hooked on caving when . . .

        A friend and I, 300 or 400 feet into a cave in Pennsylvania, turned off the lights and tried to find our way out — feeling along walls and floor. It took hours, but after about 20 minutes, your hearing gets so acute. It hooked me.

        The best thing about writing this book with my co-author . . .

        Was getting to know Jim in a capacity different from explorer, as a person on several levels. We didn't always agree, even argued about ways to do things, but it brought out our different sides.

        One thing I'd do differently . . .

        Write it faster. We took years. I would also try to defuse his notion that we were trying to steal his discoveries. We should have ironed that out much sooner.

        First-time cavers need to know . . .

        Always go with a person familiar with cave exploration and who is willing to teach you.

        One lesson caving has taught me . . .

        The ability to depend on others. In a large cave like this one, you can't explore without teamwork and people to rely on, whether to save your life or just provide caution.

        One thing a caver always misses about being topside . . .

        I call caves a curvo-linear environment — no straight lines, no right angles. That plays with light and shadows and provides an aesthetic high. But you miss seeing the sky and feeling the wind.

        My next goal . . .

        I'm writing a book, historical fiction, about Stephen Bishop, a slave in the 1830s and a guide at Mammoth Cave. He was also an explorer who made some major discoveries in the Mammoth system.

        My favorite thing about Amazing Caves . . .

        It was some of the most spectacular photography and visual presentations of caves I've ever seen. And it gives people an understanding of what caves are about.

        One thing you should have asked me but didn't . . .

        Would you do it all over again? Absolutely. The strongest friendships and most joyous times of my life have been down there.

       



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