One highlight of the week in Decorah which had absolutely nothing to do with choral music or Weston Noble or Luther College was the visit which I paid with the Spencer-Bergs to Niagra Cave, which is right outside of Harmony, Minnesota. I remember visiting Wonder Cave and Ice Cave when we lived in Decorah, but I’m pretty sure that we never quite managed to make the trip 27 miles north to see Niagra Cave, although it was known to be the best of them all. This felt like a great opportunity – and I had a feeling that even if the cave itself turned out to be little more than a glorified hole in the ground, experiencing it with Kaj, AIdan and Anna would make it worth every minute.
And boy did it ever! Kaj was the cutest little cave explorer you’ve ever seen, complete with a little plastic miner’s helmet that was adorned with a working light on top. (For most of the one-hour cave tour, Kaj continued to offer his light to anyone who needed something in particular to be illuminated.) Kaj was also hanging on every word of our tour guide’s explanations of the various rock formations we were seeing below, above and all around us. . . and then peppering him with various questions and a few observations of his own. And the guide loved it- or at least said he did, and truly seemed like he did. I think an exuberant kid like Kaj is so much better than the kids who spend the whole time whining about the cold or pestering their siblings or grumbling that they would rather be playing video games. Kaj was truly mesmerized and that only enhanced our own enjoyment of this incredible cave.
When you drive up to the place, you see this pleasant looking wooden structure that looks for all the world like a fairly nice steak house in middle America. But when you walk in the door, you’re in a gift shop selling agates, toy miner hats, and tie-dyed sweatshirts that say (rather curiously) “Niagra Cave Staff.” (I hope it takes more than buying and wearing one of the sweatshirts to be on the staff for real.) We spent a few minutes in there, and the biggest challenge was in convincing Randi – who is not fond of enclosed spaces – that this was going to be a lot of fun and that she would manage the trek without succumbing to a debilitating panic attack.
And I must admit that when the guide told us just before hand that we would be descending 280 feet underground, I gulped a bit. He also said that it’s pretty damp down there and can get rather slippery, which made me doubly sorry that I was in my Dockers slip-on’s rather than my tennis shoes. And finally, he warned us that the temperature down there averages right around 48 degrees – and indeed, when we descended the eighteen steps from the lobby to the cave entrance, it was as though we had gone from July to November in ten seconds. (Thank you, Randi, for buying me a sweatshirt to wear down there. Without it, I likely would be frozen down there like one more stalagmite.)
I am so glad Randi and I gritted our teeth and did this because it was absolutely incredible down there. First of all, it’s just amazing to think of the engineering feat involved in fashioning all of the concrete walkways, bridges and railings which allow people to penetrate the cave so safely. Just thinking about the complexity of that enterprise gave me a headache. And the cave itself is beautiful- an intricate network of various “rooms” and passageways with each one offering its own distinctive beauty. Certain places were quite open, but mostly it was quite cozy and on many occasions our guide had to caution us to lower our heads lest we really hurt ourselves. Our guide did a nice job of setting the stage for each step of our journey. . . giving just the right amount of information and pitching his commentary for regular folks rather than geology majors. (My only complaint is that certain formations got described in terminology that struck me as rather juvenile and unsophisticated. About one stalactite formation, for instance, he said “this is what is called a Bacon Fat formation.” I could be wrong, but I am willing to wager that a bona fide geologist or cave-ologist (whatever you call a cave expert) would have a better term for them than that- even if they do look a bit like Bacon Fat. At least he used the terms “stalactite” and “stalagmite” – and a term that was brand new to me, “Chert,” which referred to these block-like quartz formations that protruded from the cave walls in rather haphazard fashion. That was a fun new word to learn.
In some ways the most thrilling moment of the one hour we spent underground was when we saw what gives this cave the name Niagra. . . a splendid underground waterfall, which apparently is one of the largest such waterfalls in North America. The observation deck for the waterfall is right at the top of it, looking right over the brink – and I’m only sorry that I couldn’t get a photo of it that even began to convey the majesty of the sight. I guess some things you just have to commit to memory without the aid of Kodak.
Now for the weirdest thing we saw: Niagra Cave has its own small wedding chapel. It has a podium and four “pews” – benches which each seat about three adults comfortably. Our guide told us that quite a number of people over the years have been married in the Niagra Cave Chapel, which is beyond my comprehension. Of course, we had pipe organ, trumpet, and two choirs provide music for our wedding, so obviously the Niagra Cave Chapel would not have been a good choice for us. But I guess if someone wants to begin their married life in out-of-the- ordinary fashion, this might be one way. (The one thing I would have liked about it was the cool – although 48 degrees would be pushing it.)
Anyway, having just gotten the news about Steve going into the hospital earlier that day and feeling utterly helpless more than anything, I am really glad that Matt and Randi realized that Getting Out Of Dodge would be the best thing for us – and that a trip to Niagra Cave, plus a side trip through the Amish countryside of southern Minnesota, would somehow be just what our weary souls needed.
pictured above: Deep in the bowels of Niagra Cave. The bright light is from the flashlight of our guide – and just beneath the light, wearing his little miner’s helmet, is Kaj. His sister Anna is to the left.