By ADAM VOGE, Winona Daily News
WINONA, Minn. (AP) — Descending into a cave means entering a new world. There is no weather. The temperature remains steady year-round at 48 degrees. The cave's movement is barely perceptible. It takes a century to shift an inch.
Almost 100 feet of solid rock form a barrier between you and the outside. An occasional man-made light is the only separation from blackness.
Hope you're not claustrophobic.
There is no sun here, but that's not to say this world is free of familiarity; here you will find wedding chapels, pipe organs and even bacon — but maybe not the kind you're used to.
Fewer than 100 miles from Winona are the only two commercial caves in Minnesota: Mystery Cave, part of Forestville State Park near Spring Valley, and Niagara Cave, near Harmony.
The two caves are located about 20 miles from each other. But the similarities, even to the untrained eye, end there.
Immediately upon entering Mystery Cave, two things stand out.
First, the chill of the cave is a welcome reprieve from the muggy conditions outside.
Second, the appeal of Mystery Cave isn't in grandiose passages or gaping expanses. It's in the details.
On one cave wall is a fossil of a cephalopod, a member of the family that includes octopi and squid. The creature, a major predator in the body of water that once covered Minnesota, likely lived 430 million years ago.
Now all that's left of it is a small marking on a rock wall — or so it would seem. Looking across the path to the other side of the wall, about 6 feet away, you see the other side of the creature, suddenly all the more impressive.
Mystery Cave is an active, expanding cave. Stalactites drip water, which helps them grow at a rate of about 1 inch each 100 years. The cave has about 14 miles of tunnels, making it the longest cave system in Minnesota. The tour covers only a half-mile of the system, parts of which are still unexplored.
Small pools are present on either side of the walkway, filled with tiny white dots that appear to be dandruff. The dots — actually microscopic creatures called Springtails — benefit from tourism just as much as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, cleaning up bits of dead skin and hair left behind by people.
As you move deeper into the cave, the sound of rushing water grows steadily louder.
The cave's dimensions cramp as you go. Anyone taller than 5 feet 8 inches better be prepared to stoop.
At the end of the walk is Turquoise Lake.
The small pool is a picture of tranquility. A steady trickle of water comes from a far corner, keeping the water moving constantly but just slowly enough to not disturb the sense of clean stillness.
If Mystery Cave is about the details, Niagara's wonder lies in its scale.
The tour includes a full mile of walking, much of it past formations larger and more frequent than anything found in Mystery's warrens.
A staircase at least 100 steps long leads from Niagara's main building to the cave below. A rush of water can be heard almost immediately. The temperature drops as the humidity rises, giving the cave a cool, wet feel, like a walk-in refrigerator.
The first main attraction at Niagara is the Wishing Well, a 60-foot waterfall named by early explorers after the iconic New York destination.
Soon after the falls comes the Wedding Chapel, complete with benches, an altar and "stained-glass windows," large voids left in the rock wall by years of slow formations.
Triangular pathways too narrow for the widest sets of shoulders and ceilings too tall for the touch of the most gifted high jumpers separate one attraction from the next.
Ribbon stalactites, about 75 feet from top to bottom, crowd part of the tight walkway.
The formations, known as the wedding veil, are at once a spectacle and a sad reminder of the days that pre-dated federal cave regulations. Visitors in the 1930s and 1940s broke off individual stalactites and took them home as souvenirs.
The most impressive formations in Niagara Cave come near the end of the tour. The first, called the Battleship, is a limestone island at least 20 feet tall. The pointed edge towers overhead, forking the cave path.
A walk of about 625 feet through a long, straight, descending crevice known as the Grand Canyon leads to a corridor full of dripping stalactites the size of bazookas.
The largest, called the Grandfather stalactite, is more than 400,000 years old and weighs 2½ tons.
The tour ends with an example of the cave's isolation. Walking on lit pathways with a flashlight-toting guide makes it easy to forget you're 100 feet below the Earth's surface.
Time to turn out the lights and let reality set in.
One. Two. Three.
You can't see or hear a thing. Then it dawns on you:
Down here, in the dark, things are different.
Information from: Winona Daily News
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)