It’s not your run-of-the-mill kind of adventurer who plunges into the darkest depths of the Earth for a chance to squeeze through the tiniest of openings, navigate pools of freezing water and avoid being crushed by balancing rocks that have never been touched by a human hand.
For more than 40 years, Hamilton’s Mike McEachern has been part of the small world of serious spelunkers who set their sights on exploring a part of the planet that many don’t even know exists.
Starting Thursday, visitors to the Ravalli County Museum will have a chance to learn about this unseen world as part of a new, home-grown exhibit called “Illuminating Darkness Cave Exploration.”
The exhibit includes displays of the equipment that McEachern and other spelunkers have used over the decades to explore and map caves in Montana and beyond. It also offers visitors a chance to wiggle their own way through re-creations of openings that cave explorers have encountered in their underground travels.
The exhibit focuses on the caving opportunities in the state.
McEachern’s introduction to spelunking started surprisingly in a library in California when he spotted a book titled “Adventure is Underground” while going to college back in 1962.
“That book changed my life,” he said. “I’ve always been sort of small. Caving is something a small person can excel at doing. You can squeeze through tight passages that a larger person can’t.”
A little over a decade later, McEachern’s life’s path took another major turn when he and his friends opted to take a detour on their way to Canada to check out reports there might be some interesting caves to explore in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The resulting trip to Silvertip Mountain in 1973 opened a new world of caving opportunities in the state. Guided first by the light of a carbide lamp and then LED lights, McEachern has spent countless hours in the depths mapping Montana’s unseen geologic formations
While Montana might not have as many caves as other places in the country, it does have some that are very deep.
The Tears of the Turtle Cave in the Bob Marshall Wilderness is considered the deepest limestone cave in the United States. It is 1,629 feet deep and a little over a mile long.
Caving isn’t for everyone. Some don’t do well navigating tight spaces or rappelling down hundreds of feet underground.
“For a lot of people, it only takes one trip for them to decide this isn’t for them,” he said. “You use all the muscles in your body to wiggle your way through some spots. You can feel that the next day.”
He remembers one couple who tagged along on a fairly long caving adventure that went in one entrance and out another.
“They called me the next day to let me know that they felt like they had been in a car wreck,” McEachern said.
It’s also not hard to get confused when you’re wiggling your way through unknown caverns.
“One of the tricks you learn early on is to be sure to look back occasionally,” he said. “The passages look a lot different on your way back out.”
Every caver probably has a story of getting a bit turned around while underground.
“Being lost feels worse the longer it goes on,” McEachern said. “After you’ve been lost for a while, when you see something you remember, it’s hard to remember if you saw if before you were lost or after you became lost.”
McEachern and others will share some of their caving experiences with people at the exhibit’s opening reception at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 15. The exhibit will be available for viewing through October.
Ravalli County Museum Director Tamar Stanley said the idea for the exhibit has been years in the making.
“I started talking to Mike about this idea about four years ago,” Stanley said. “He’s been working with his colleagues for the past three years to pull the bits and pieces together. I think people will find the information that they have put together to be fascinating.”
McEachern hopes the exhibit will encourage people to get out and explore Montana’s caves.
“I hope people come away from this exhibit with a desire to try something new and adventurous,” he said. “I hope we can give them an idea on what it takes to map these caves and the rewards that effort can bring.”
And he hopes that those who do choose to go underground will understand just how important it is to leave the caves they explore unmarred.
“It’s important for people to know they shouldn’t write their names on the walls or take formations home with them,” McEachern said. “There’s a sense of awe that comes with seeing these places that so many others don’t even know exist. That’s what we want to be able to leave behind.”