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Crystal Cave adds new 'wild' tour

posted Aug 7, 2015, 1:23 PM by Al Schema   [ updated Aug 7, 2015, 1:35 PM ]
  Crystal Cave owner Eric McMaster stands at the entrance of South Portal Cave in Crystal Cave Park in
 Spring Valley, which visitors can now explore during a "wild" tour while outfitted with lights, 
  boots and helmets. (Herald photo by Sarah Young)

By Sarah Young on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:56 a.m.

Feeling adventurous? Crystal Cave’s website invites the public to “experience a cave as a true caver.”

Eric and Kristen McMaster, who have owned Crystal Cave since 2012, recently added the South Portal Walking Flashlight Tour to the popular tourist attraction’s offerings.

The tour will take you deep into South Portal cave, which is the most recently discovered cave in Crystal Cave Park, Eric McMaster said. To get to the cave entrance, participants must hike down into a gorge, which is rated as a moderately strenuous trip.

“If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous, or to do something different, this is it,” McMaster said. “We had a soft opening in July and we’ve received great feedback. We’re slowly ramping it up.”

The tour takes visitors into a cave where few people have gone before, lit only by caving headlamps. South Portal Cave is not connected to the larger “improved” Crystal Cave, and is a little under 1,000 feet in length, McMaster said. The passages are slightly smaller than those in Crystal Cave and there are no large rooms in South Portal. There are no lights. The path in the cave is not improved.

Cavers will receive 45 minutes of instruction prior to the trek to the cave, which includes learning about caving and caving equipment. They’re then outfitted with helmets, lamps and boots. Total time spent exploring the cave is about 45 minutes.

South Portal was discovered in 1990. Mud and debris from the glaciers had filled the cave, McMaster said. When a cave is dug out, loose material is removed until the natural cave wall is found. The person who discovers a cave is given the honor of naming it.

“We are looking at the back end of South Portal,” McMaster said when asked about the possibility of other undiscovered caves or passages beneath the 100-acre park property. “There is some air flow through cracks at the back of the cave, which sometimes indicates another passage or room. We haven’t yet found a navigable way back.”

Visitors must be 14 years of age or older to take this tour. Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult, and reservations are necessary. A maximum of six people are allowed per tour, which takes place daily at 3 p.m.

Crystal Cave and others

Crystal Cave was discovered in 1881 by William and George Vanasse. The two boys were chasing a small animal when it disappeared down a hole, which they later explored. The cave at that time was called Sander’s Corner Cave.

Crystal Cave was developed into a tourist site by Henry A. Friede beginning in 1941. Friede was an advertising agency manager and an amateur geologist, according to Crystal Cave’s website. The cave officially opened to the public June 7, 1942.

The cave was owned by the Moe family from 1957-1986. They later sold it to Blaze and Jean Cunningham, who operated the cave until 2012, when it was bought by the Cunninghams’ friends, the McMasters.

In 1992, major exploration began in the cave, according to the website. It was during this time that discoveries were made which tripled the length of Crystal Cave (which is known to be a little under one mile in length). A smaller cave called Fuzzy Critter Cave was also found, as well as one that was dubbed Tree Fork Cave (which has since been connected to Crystal).

“It has all been mapped out,” McMaster said. “They are mostly under the picnic grounds. This includes all navigable passages. It’s really a big, compact footprint. From a conservation standpoint, it’s important to own all land on top of a cave system.”

The McMasters are looking to add a three-hour wild tour, which would allow visitors to explore the unimproved other side of Crystal Cave. This tour would call for crawling and squeezing through passages.

The McMasters

Eric and Kristen McMaster, who are long-time friends of former owners Blaze and Jean Cunningham, bought Crystal Cave in 2012. The two couples met while caving, McMaster said.

The McMasters met while attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where they were co-chairs of the Outdoor Club. Eric earned a Masters of Engineering in Electrical Engineering and went on to become the president and CEO of KWIK SEW Pattern Co., Inc., which catered to the home-sewing and quilting markets. The company had offices in the Twin Cities, Toronto (Canada) and Brisbane and Auckland (Australia).

Thanks to their passion for caving, and Eric’s urge to get out of corporate life, the couple bought the cave, he said. Both are lifetime members of the National Speleological Society (“they can’t get rid of us,” McMaster joked.) He was awarded the ““Fellow of the National Speleological Society” for his lifetime of volunteer work.

Kristen received a Ph.D. in Special Education at Vanderbilt. She taught for several years in Nashville public schools, and is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Eric said.

During the winter months, the couple likes to take on caving adventures in exotic locales, which have recently included Tasmania and the Cook Islands.

Additions/improvements to the park

Since acquiring the property in 2012, the McMasters have been busy adding their stamp to the beloved western Wisconsin attraction.

The gift shop has been remodeled and now focuses on offering more fossils and rocks, along with other regional merchandise.

“Many people don’t realize it, but we’re one of the largest fossil and rock shops in the Midwest,” Eric said.

The park has also focused on offering educational programs, such as “The Rockin' Geology Excursion,” which allows groups of 10 or more to identify rocks, discover where different types of rocks are found throughout the region, how and why rocks play an important role in the world today, and learn which animals were alive in Wisconsin and Minnesota about 450-500 million years ago. The class is geared toward kids ages 8-14.

Participants will also create their own plaster fossil to take home and explore sections of the park that are off limits to the general public, including a private tour of Crystal Cave.

The gem-panning attraction at Prospector’s Creek has expanded to include more fossils, ore and gems, Eric said. A new picnic shelter provides a shaded place to eat and relax, and an interpretive nature trail boasts 30 signs full of information about the surrounding topography.

Another little known fact: maple trees on the cave property are tapped and the maple syrup is sold onsite in the gift shop.

“We’ve really been ramping up efforts on training guides and providing a guest-centered approach to make this a destination,” Eric said. “A lot of work goes into making sure everyone is happy and having a fun time here.”

For more information on Crystal Cave programs and tours, visit www.acoolcave.netor call 715-778-4414.