This man’s cave isn’t metaphorical

Staff writer

Batman of Gotham City and Gary Schuler of Marion have two things in common: Both own an extreme cave and both have their own crusade.

Where the fictional masked avenger monitors imaginary villains from his dark recess, Schuler seeks to explore, map, and improve an adventure tourism destination called Hurricane River Caverns.

“It’s a living cave; I just fell in love with it,” Schuler said. “The system was formed by an underground river, and the rock formations are actively growing.”

Now closed for restorations, Schuler’s cave is located near Pindall, Arkansas, in the Ozarks, and is part of Hurricane River’s spring bed.

Schuler, former supervisory district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and his wife, Mary, bought the cave last December while searching for a project to throw himself into during retirement.

He said neighbors had tried to keep the business going when the former owner died, but it ended up falling into disrepair.

Refuse and junk were scattered throughout the property, a fire had damaged a building, and inside the cave, a walkway suspended over the underground river had rotted, making it unsafe for visitors. Cave lighting also needs to be updated.

“The whole property was trashed and a lot of things were overgrown,” Schuler said. “I’ve always believed in conservation. The cave is so unique it was worth restoring and preserving. It deserved something better.

“My goal is to get it all fixed up and reopen sometime next year. I’d like to build a small museum there that highlights the cave’s history, ice age mammals, and Native American history. But most important, we have a crew coming in to actually map some passages that were found a few years ago.”

Along with fixing up the cave, Schuler explored the serpentine depths of the river-carved caverns, and he started out by exploring some areas by himself.

He navigated a small boat down one passage filled with crystal-clear water by the light of his headlamp.

As Schuler delved deeper into the cave, the passage walls narrowed to only a couple inches wider than his boat and the ceiling dropped, forcing him to change the way he maneuvered the boat.

“I had to lie on my back in the boat and basically crawl on the ceiling to move the boat along,” Schuler said. “It’s a crazy feeling to be in there alone. I wondered, ‘Will I ever get out again?’ I don’t recommend it to anyone who is claustrophobic.”

That time he decided to stop. Later, he returned with a guide to conquer the suffocating 100-foot stretch that eventually opens up into a bigger cavern.

“It’s kind of dangerous,” Schuler said. “They call it ‘wild caving’ now, but it’s essentially the same thing as spelunking. You pit yourself against the cave, constantly contorting your body and doing weird crawls, ducking, stepping over crevices, bending over and around things, but the payoff is seeing these interesting rock formations.”

He also enjoyed taking his older son, Matt, through the caverns with him.

“Matt really liked the diversity,” Schuler said. “He was smiling the whole time. He called it the adventure of a lifetime.”

Squeezing through the 42-inch wide “birth canal” passage, and crawling through another portion, Schuler said he heard a hollow sound underneath him that he learned were giant geodes.

In other areas, there are pure white calcite formations some of which approach “extremely gorgeous” sublime dimensions.

Stalactites, stalagmites, and delicate soda straw formations provide cave salamanders and tri-color bats ample places to crawl and hang.

“The bats look like fuzzy little chicken nuggets hanging from the ceiling,” Schuler said. “People talk about feeling things brush against their legs when they’re in the water; there are giant bullfrogs in there, I mean they are just huge. There is a legend about a cave monster that I don’t want to go into because I’m sure it’s not based in fact.”

However, Schuler explained the source of another cave marvel that occurred in a 60-foot tall by 100-foot wide cavern.

“There was a legend about blue orbs that would float around in what they now call the ‘Big Room’ whenever lightning struck,’” he said. “I guess the Indians used to call it the ‘Ghost Room.’ I haven’t seen the orbs yet, but the previous owner did.

“It must have been something conducting electricity. There is metallic ore in that room. The cave was a zinc mine at one point, and there could be iron ore, too.”

The skeleton of a 15-year-old Native American boy rests in the cave’s dense darkness.

“It’s a difficult climb to get to him,” Schuler said. “Scientists think he died a natural death — maybe got lost after a torch went out.

“We plan to leave him there. It is a sacred deal for Native Americans. We try to protect it. Guides don’t allow anyone to disturb the bones.”

The remains of extinct short-faced cave bears that romped in the ice age also lie in the caverns, and a saber-toothed tiger ‘skeleton that was discovered there is now displayed in an Illinois museum, Schuler said.

Infamous outlaws also may have used the cave as a hideout.

“Jesse James, Cole Younger and their gang supposedly hid out there,” Schuler said. “We went to a barbecue with the descendents of the Younger family. We know the James-Younger gang was in the area but there is no documentation of them being in the cave.”

It is uncertain what cave cartographers will find when they map the new passages, but Schuler hopes its rich history and mysterious legends help draw thrill-seeking travelers back through the cave’s yawing mouth and into its beautiful abyss.

Last modified Aug. 10, 2016