When Ian Chechet finds himself squeezing into a two-foot-wide passageway, making his way into the chilly, damp, muddy depths of the Tears of the Turtle Cave in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, he reminds himself that he’s exploring the deepest cave in the contiguous United States.
It helps keep the unpleasantness of the experience at bay, Chechet said, to know that his footprints are among a set that only a half-dozen human beings have left at the bottom.
“This cave is a particularly miserable cave,” Chechet said, a smile in his voice. “As true explorers, we’re mapping this as we go.”
As the chairperson of the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto — a community of caving enthusiasts — Chechet speaks of Tears of the Turtle with reverence and respect, a hidden gem found deep in the wilderness of the Bob.
And it’s because of people like Chechet that most of the population won’t ever have to actually squeeze into a cave with a temperature in the 30s and where 90 percent of the passageways never get wider than 24 inches.
Instead, curious potential cavers can head to the comforts of the Lodge at Whitefish Lake for the 11th annual Voices of the Wilderness celebration and fundraiser on Nov. 3, hosted by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation. Chechet will give a keynote presentation on the Tears of the Turtle Cave exploration along with other caves that his group has explored in the Bob.
Along with Chechet, renowned cave cartgographer Hans Bodenhamer and the Bigfork High School Cave Club will give a keynote presentation, touching on the work the club has done with state and federal agencies while working in the Bob for the last 17 years.
Jessica Evans, outreach coordinator for the foundation, said the Voices of the Wilderness event is one of the key fundraisers for the organization, which is a nonprofit dedicated to stewardship and conservation in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
It’s a time to raise money for the group so it can continue its work in the wilderness, but it’s also a time for all the people who love the Bob to get together and socialize.
“It’s one of our biggest opportunities to congregate, because so many people are usually in the wilderness independently and unseen,” Evans said. “What we really want to celebrate — besides the value of the keynote speakers — is to meet likeminded people. It’s about community building, relationship building and partnership. So many people experience the wilderness on their own or with their family.”
Along with learning about the caves of the wilderness, attendees will hear music from Sweet Water Junction and Josh Harvey, and will also have the chance to win raffle prizes and auction items. The grand prize raffle item is a five-day pack trip with Swan Mountain Outfitters.
Proceeds from the event help the foundation to keep trails open in the Bob and do other “boots-on-the-ground” work, Evans said.
The money will also go toward programming in 2018, including work in areas burned by wildfire.
“With respect to the fire season, the work of the foundation will become more important next year,” Evans said. “As the premier partner of the (U.S.) Forest (Service), we will have a lot of opportunities to help them as they work on their restoration of those fire areas.”
Tears of the Turtle Cave was originally discovered in 2007, and officially became the deepest cave in the lower 48 in 2015 at 1,659 feet deep. Chechet said that so far they’ve found “mostly mud and streams,” but the airflow indicates there is more to discover.
Six people have been to the furthest depths, he said, and they’ve conducted scientific experiments and catalogued what they’ve experienced so far. They still don’t know where some of the water running in the cave originates and exits, and there will be more exploration to come.
But only after they explore some more hospitable areas first, he said.
“It’s such an unpleasant experience that we’re not planning to go back to continue the exploration until 2019 at the soonest,” Chechet said, laughing.
Voices of the Wilderness takes place Nov. 3 at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at www.bmwf.org/events or at the door.
Update: The headline of this article was changed from “Spelunking” to “Caving” to reflect a difference in skill level.