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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Pasco students explore underground at Dames Caves

WITHLACOOCHEE STATE FOREST - The 37 students stared at the dark, narrow cave entrance with growing skepticism. When they embarked on this excursion to the Dames Caves along the Hernando and Citrus county line, most of the students imagined a leisurely stroll into an underground chamber with plenty of head room. The reality actually meant lowering themselves into a dark pit and crawling over dirt and rocks into cramped territory. Some were game. Others were vocally dismayed. "You signed up for adventure," teacher Betsy Palmer-Bigler reminded them. "You're getting adventure."
A few grumbles later, they were underground. By the day's end, most of these sixth- and seventh-grade students from Athenian Academy of Pasco concluded that cave exploration wasn't such a bad field trip after all, even if they did leave the woods looking like the "before" portion of a laundry detergent commercial. "I got my brand new pants dirty," said Kelci Adkins, 11, a sixth-grader. "I don't care." Palmer-Bigler, who teaches science and math to middle school students at Athenian Academy, said the spelunking trip was a year in the making. The students at the New Port Richey charter school raised money to pay for the cave tour, which is an educational program offered by the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. One day last week they finally reached their destination: the Dames Caves. The Dames Caves are a group of caves that probably were connected at one time, according to a geological report by the University of South Florida's Department of Environmental Science and Policy. Four of the caves have been named and mapped, USF's report said. They are Danger Cave, Vandal Cave, Peace Sign Cave and Sick Bat Cave. At one time, the water table was much higher and the caves were formed by water flowing through the limestone, the USF report said. These are not extensive caverns, but for the moderately brave and the physically flexible, they provide a few hours of underground fun. A bus dropped off the Athenian Academy students at the edge of the woods next to County Road 491. With them were seven teachers and parents. The group then hiked to the caves.
Lorraine Steffens and Jim Burns from MOSI's education department served as tour leaders. Burns is new to the caves tour but not to MOSI, having spent time working on the museum's other educational offerings. Steffens has worked the caves tour for about two years and is equal parts adventurer, teacher and mother hen, making sure everyone - adult chaperones included - has plenty of food and water. She effortlessly hands out practical words of advice. "Do not put your hand in a hole in the ground or a hole in a tree without knowing what's in there." "You do not want to pet the bat. It might bite you." The good news: Steffens promised she wouldn't ask the students to do anything she wouldn't. The bad news: "I do a lot of crazy things," Steffens said. A few minutes later she proved that was no idle boast, telling the students: "See this hole? You are going to crawl through it." Michael Fay, 11, a sixth-grader, admitted to initial nervousness. "I'm not really good with small spaces," he said. "I had a hard time getting out and getting in." Michael was unimpressed after the first cave, but his mother, Jennifer Fay, one of the chaperones, reminded him there was more to come. Later, after his second foray underground, he revised his opinion and said, "I think it's really cool." Jennifer Fay recalled coming to the area to explore the caves with a church group when she was about 5-years-old. That trip remains a nice memory for her and she is certain the same will be true for this group years from now. "I think it's a great experience for the kids, even though they are complaining," she said. Steffens noted that several of the students immediately took on leadership roles. For example, Wade Midkiff, 12, a sixth-grader, helped pull up cavers -- including some adults -as they exited a hole. Paula Velasquez, 11, a seventh-grader, worried about getting stuck in one of the narrow passageways. Her fear soon dissipated. She also discovered something about herself. "I'm a lot more agile than I thought," Paula said. Brianna Akers, 12, a seventh-grader, had the opposite experience. "I thought it would be fun, but when I got in I was scared," she said. Brianna's conclusion: "I like being above ground."

Reporter Ronnie Blair can be reached at (813) 259-7065.

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