Dave Palmquist, second from the left, a park ranger at Whitewater State Park, explains how the Skunk Hollow cave was formed Saturday during a cave tour which was open to the public. Rory O’Driscoll/Winona Daily News
By Jessica Larsen- December 6, 2009
JoAnne Lemke twisted her orange hard hat tighter to her head, squirmed on her belly and slid through a tiny hole in a rock wall.
A rough dirt path led to a small opening, where she was met with 20 pairs of eyes. They took the easy way into this cave at Whitewater State Park, through a larger opening just a few feet over.
On Saturday, the group of area residents toured Skunk Hollow Cave just outside of Altura, Minn., in a program hosted by the park. In most areas, the walls were just tall enough to crouch in. In other places, the explorers had to crawl on rocks and leaves. The few places to stand were narrow, and few could fit.
But all the wiggling, spider webs and claustrophobia were worth it for the tour-goers, who got a rare chance to explore some of the least-seen spots in southeast Minnesota.
“The southeast corner of Minnesota has most of the caves,” said park ranger Dave Palmquist, who pointed out the stalactites and rock formations with a flashlight. “And most of them, nobody has ever seen.”
Lemke, a 13-year-old cave junkie, is trying to add as many caves as possible to her explored list. She began surveying the caverns of the Midwest when she was just a couple of months old, strapped to her mother’s back.
Most of them are much bigger than the 33-meter Skunk Hollow, but that didn’t stop her from crawling to every part she could squeeze into.
“It’s the mystery,” she said. “You don’t know what is just a couple inches in front of you until you shine a flashlight on it.”
As Lemke went deeper into the cave, her mother, Sarah, pointed out the straw stalactites to the adults who couldn’t fit between the small openings of the rocks. Spiders scurried into cracks when highlighted by the beams of flashlights. A few women screeched when they felt a spider crawling on their hands.
Spiders don’t bother Sarah Lemke. She started exploring caves with her parents when she was about 6. She remembers her family taking vacations simply to search for caves. It became an obsession, and something she wants to pass on to her kids.
“I don’t know what it is about them,” she said. “It’s just so fascinating.”
From behind a wide rock, out popped the head of 16-year-old Adam Lemke.
“You guys got to check these formations out,” he said. His sister followed, disappearing into the dark.
The Lemke children know more about caves than most kids their age, their mother said. School science classes have taught them some, but their best lessons come on days like Saturday.
“It is who I am,” Adam Lemke said. “I live and breathe caves.”
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