Rocking the Underground
Is bad-boy caver John Ackerman saving Minnesota caves—or destroying them?
(page 1 of 2)JOHN ACKERMAN WAS EXPLORING a dead-end passage of an old commercial cave in southeastern Minnesota when he came to a narrow crevice through which a terrific wind was howling.
For most hobby cavers, that would have been the end: They would have conceded defeat and looked for larger passages elsewhere in the cave. But not Ackerman. Instead of giving up, he bought the property and, in 1989, laid explosives around the edge of the slot. Successive blasts during the next several months allowed him to remove enough rock that he could wriggle through. What he discovered astounded him—a network of “walk-though” passages and enormous rooms, an underground labyrinth that would eventually stretch 5 miles. What thrilled Ackerman most is that he was the first to lay eyes on the place. “That was a tremendous discovery.”
In his efforts to discover unseen passages and formations, Ackerman has fallen into subterranean pits, narrowly escaped being crushed by falling rock, become lost in winding passages, and nearly drowned in an underground river. “You wonder why haven’t more caves been opened up?” he says. “Well, I’ll tell you why, because people value their lives.”
Ackerman, it’s safe to say, has discovered more caverns than any other caver in Minnesota. The reason is attitude. Spelunking is often a passive activity. Usually, a passage happens to reveal itself at the surface through the vagaries of geology and erosion, and people explore it. But Ackerman goes out in search of caves. And unlike most other cavers, he has the financial resources to access caverns that others can’t touch. If a heap of rubble or a wall of rock happens to stand in his way, he simply brings in the heavy equipment, or shaves off slabs of rock with high explosives.
Ackerman is building nothing less than a cave empire, buying and cutting entrances into caves he has discovered, and roughly doubling the number of caverns open to local spelunkers. In the process, he has outmaneuvered many other cave owners, including the State of Minnesota, building entrances to caves they once thought they controlled.
Such behavior has earned him some appreciative friends. “What John has accomplished is to make available to scientists, cavers, and the general public an enormous resource that wasn’t there before,” says Calvin Alexander, a University of Minnesota geology professor and hydrogeologist. Joe Terwilliger, president of the Minnesota Speleological Survey, a local caving club, concurs: “Everybody in the club respects him for being as passionate as he is to discover new caves and make them accessible.”
But Ackerman’s forceful methods have also earned him harsh criticism from caving purists. “He is controversial,” says Ron Spong, who founded the Minnesota Speleological Survey 45 years ago. “He can be brash. He speaks his mind. He’s loved and hated at the same time.”