GeoCorps™ Underground

by Jake Tholen, Montana State Parks AmeriCorps Member

I think to myself, just breathe out. Drop the shoulders, put one arm through, relax the muscles, and ease through the constriction. Try with the helmet on, but it might be better to pass it through on its own. Push with your legs, don’t pull with your arms. Navigating a squeeze in a cave can be difficult and nerve-wracking. Besides the physical challenge of contorting to fit through an opening most would consider far too small, there’s the mental challenge. While it is very unlikely and rare, the intrusive thoughts of getting stuck and the incessant replaying of the escape route play through one’s mind. I had intentionally placed myself in this tight spot, with a smile on my face no less, thanks to not one but several experiences with the GeoCorps Program.

Look back to 2013. I’m a newly-minted geology student looking for something exciting to do over the summer related to geology and outside of my home state of Michigan. Keying in some fated combination of “geology”, “internship” and “summer” led me to the GeoCorps™ positions page, which posted positions across the country. Among many choices, one shined in particular – Cave Guide for Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The posting had some quirks, like inclement weather, remote living quarters and hectic schedules. A healthy dose of optimism make these hurdles look more like adventures. I accepted the position in March, and shortly after final exams I was boarding the ferry for Prince of Wales Island and the adventures I had committed to.


Author passes through a constriction in Jewel Cave, South Dakota.

Thankfully I wasn’t cast out into the wilderness alone – my co-guide Benny and I quickly became great friends, which makes living in a cabin without electricity for a week at a time bearable and even enjoyable. The cave itself was a fantastic geologic classroom and displayed a fault, a volcanic dike, fossils, cave formations and bats. Together we read anything we could find about caves, researched the history of our cave’s exploration, and organized our presentations to make the best experiences for our visitors. We quickly found how to effectively co-lead tours and maintain our remote worksite. While not presenting, we were picking huckleberries, kayaking along the shores, gazing at the stars, and (on one special night), catching the Northern Lights.

With Alaska behind me, I found I had gotten hooked on caves. I changed to a new agency – from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior, hosted by Wind Cave National Park. GeoCorps had provided me with the geology knowledge and interpretive skills to hit the ground running, although I would quickly realize mistakes I had made in Alaska (those poor tourists who had to listen to a 19-year-old talk about stable oxygen isotopes on their vacation!). And although I wouldn’t work for a National park or National forest again until years later, the connections I made between these two jobs led to the Cave Research Foundation and honors thesis studying the drainages inside Mammoth Cave National Park. I spent a year completing the research and, as a bonus, helped map new sections of the world’s longest cave.


Author and field partner Lorrie visiting Horseshoe Bend while working at Kaibab National Forest, Arizona on GeoCorps assignment (2017).

After graduation came another karst GeoCorps experience. Kaibab National Forest sought help mapping geohazards within its Tusayan Ranger District immediately south of Grand Canyon National Park. I was paired with another excellent field partner, Lorrie. Given a Forest Service vehicle, hard hats, radios and a GPS unit, we scoured exposures of the Kaibab Limestone in search for karst depressions. We didn’t search blindly – we created a georeferenced Avenza map from a former USGS surficial geology survey to aid our fieldwork and groundtruth sinkholes depicted on the map. Our collective experiences in GIS made this real-world application a breeze. In addition to numerous hazards now known to the Forest, we found a prominent pictograph site that was previously unknown to the forest archaeologist. Visiting the Grand Canyon is practically a geologic pilgrimage, and living within biking distance of the South Rim was an experience we took full advantage of as often as possible.


Author investigating speleothems in a cave in northern California while working for the Pacific Southwest Region of the United States Forest Service on GeoCorps assignment (2017).

I excitedly discovered the caving world is small and well-connected, not unlike many of the caves we explore. A Cave Management position for Forest Service Region 5, hosted by Joel Despain through GeoCorps, was recommended to me by other cavers not because of the title or the location, but because they had been caving with Joel before. Three weeks of exploring the geology of the West timed with the Great American Eclipse graced the transition to my third GeoCorps position. Within the first week of my arrival, Joel and I attended a Cave Research Foundation expedition at Sequoia National Park to continue exploration of Ursa Minor Cave. Named for a bear skeleton inside the main chamber, the cave is featured in an article of National Geographic Magazine. The assignment continued to impress me throughout the fall. I attended many more caving weekends, visiting caves in several National Forests in geologic settings I had never encountered before. Many of the caves had major drops that required ropework to navigate, providing the chance to practice my vertical caving skills. The remote location of many of the caves required extensive hiking and backpacking to access. The days spent in the office filling water rights reports and completing cave data entry were well balanced with the field excursions. I left the Golden State with improved caving skills, new connections in the caving community, a greater understanding of California’s geology, and two articles posted in the Forest Service karst management newsletter, “Beneath the Forest”.


Happy Caving!

The common thread between my GeoCorps experiences, caves, continues into 2018. This month I will begin an AmeriCorps position with Montana State Parks, where I will guide tours, lead field trips, recruit volunteers, oversee trail construction and update social media in an effort to promote Montanans and visitors engaging with the karst landscape at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. I plan a return to scientific research through a masters program in geoscience at Western Kentucky University. My studies will focus on the karst environment I’ve been so enamored with since day one of my GeoCorps position in Alaska.

What started as a simple-enough search to do something interesting over the summer has led to so many experiences, friends, and insights. This program has been an all-encompassing part of my growth as a geoscientist and as a student. Ultimately, I cannot thank GSA and the GeoCorps program enough for exposure to what has become simultaneously a hobby, a career, and a passion.

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