When Ira Sasowsky was 7 or 8 years old, his parents took him to see Ice Caves Mountain in upstate New York.
Initial fascination has turned into a continuing career for Sasowsky, 53, a cave expert and geology and environmental science professor at the University of Akron.
In his office at UA’s Crouse Hall, Sasowsky displays a graphic rendering of what a 1,000-foot-long cave looks like, and he shows visitors a knobby cave deposit brought back from China by colleague Hazel Barton, the UA associate professor of microbiology and geology who co-starred in the 2001 IMAX movie Journey Into Amazing Caves.
“What is very unique about it is it wasn’t attached to anything,” Sasowsky said as he held the object. “We aren’t sure what it is. It was like a Christmas present.”
He calls the object he and Barton are studying a “speleothem,” a crystalline deposit found in a cave.
Sasowsky will travel this winter and spring to Brazil and Spain to study various caves on a semester-long sabbatical. Before he left, he spoke about his love of caves.
Q: What was your second cave explored?
A: It was a cave in Pennsylvania near the Delaware River. I went with an outing club from college, but they allowed high school kids to go. ... That is what got me the bug. I realized people do this and they go explore caves ... There was a geology major from college who was on the trip. ... He would tell me things about the cave. It got me fired up.
Q: What is so intriguing about caves?
A: It is two things. The one is when I look at a hole in a cliff, I just want to see what’s in there. I am just drawn to it. ... I just want to understand it. Why is this cave here and not over there? How old is it? ... I think caves have fascinated people forever. So many religions have a connection with caves. There is also a fear of going deep in. The primitive cavers of North America went in ... with reed torches. If you lost your light, there is no way you could find your way out.
Q: Are new caves being formed as we speak?
A: Yes, absolutely, but very slowly.
Q: How long does it take to make a new cave?
A: It depends on the chemistry of the water, and the rate of movement of the water through the rock, and it depends on the rock.
Q: What is the most unusual thing you have ever found in a cave?
A: I have seen bare footprints and knee prints of a person... [and] have seen jaguar footprints. The person’s footprint was in Tennessee in the Obey River Gorge. If you aren’t used to looking for these things, which I am not, you can go right past them.
Q: Did you ever get lost in a cave?
A: I was in New Mexico. We always leave word on the surface so if we were to get lost, someone would come looking for us. Otherwise, we cavers say you have the rest of your life to find our way out. ... It was a big cave. ... It goes off in many directions. It is a maze. I decided to go off in this direction by myself to try to find something. On my knees. I can’t stand up. Also caves are hot. It is sort of oppressive. I realized when I tried to find my way back that I didn’t know which of the ways I had come from, and so I breathed faster and finally I said [to myself], “Stop.” I laid down and closed my eyes so I didn’t think about being in such a close space. Then I started yelling for my friends and eventually I heard their voices and I was able to find my way back.
Q: Are there still lots of undiscovered caves?
Q: How do you find them?
A: There are two ways. One way is called ridge walking, where you go to an area of known caves and you follow along the bed of rock that is likely to have [a cave] and look for entrances. The other is looking at the landscape and thinking there might be an entrance buried, and then digging.
Q: The ultimate thing for a caver is to find a brand new cave, correct?
A: It is a virgin cave. A cave no one has ever found. I haven’t found a virgin cave, but I have been in a cave and gone into a passage that nobody has been in before, which is called a virgin passage. [That occurred] in Colorado and in New Mexico. It is thrilling. You don’t know what you’re going to find. You know nobody has been here before. The way you know is you don’t see footprints or something broken.
Q: Why is that such a thrill?
A: If you try to think about where in the world could somebody go to walk on something that nobody has seen before, there is basically no place. All the high mountains have been climbed. ... You are really seeing something that hasn’t been seen before. In some ways, it is like going to space, but a lot cheaper and closer to home.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.