LOGAN -- Kirsten Bahr spent much of her summer enduring near-freezing temperatures, visiting the site of an ancient sea, and squeezing through rock passages that twisted and plunged deep into the earth.
All without leaving Cache County.
Bahr, a Utah State University graduate student in geology, was documenting features and forces at work in six of the hundred or so alpine caves in a four-square-mile area of Cache County.
"I'm trying to study how the folds, fractures and rock type influence cave formation," she said. "That's the giant project in one little line."
Bahr uses a Brunton compass, an inclinometer and a laser rangefinder to measure the "strike and dip" of the fractured walls, and the bends and turns of passages.
"I put the compass up against a fracture and figure out which way it is going," said Bahr. "If the room is going the same direction as the fractures, we can say the fractures influenced the formation of this passage.
"If it's not the same direction, we attempt to say what did influence the formation, which is a lot harder. It may have to do with rock type, and whether there's something about that layer that allows water to travel through more easily. It's a little like a 3D puzzle in chemistry."
The Bear River Mountains, extending from Hyrum to Idaho, consist mostly of carbonates limestone and dolomite.
"Millions of years ago, the Bear River Range was a shallow sea," Bahr said. "Over time, carbonates were laid down and later became rock. Thousands of years later, the rock was uplifted and folded into the mountains we see today."
The immense pressure of layers of rock pushing and grinding against each other created some of the caves, creating relatively flat walls, with angled floors and ceilings. Karsts formed when water seeped from snowy mountaintops, seeking the path of least resistance to get to the water table, far below. Acidic rain dissolved portions of the limestone and dolomite, creating more rounded hollows inside the mountains.
Of the caves Bahr has researched this summer, two had the angular walls, with chunks of angular rocks littering the bottom. Two were rounded spaces created by the dissolving of rock, and two had a combination of the features. Bahr has been as deep a 800 feet into Cache County caves, a distance more than the length of two football fields.
"Alpine caves don't tend to have features like stalagmites and stalactites," she said. "They tend to be fairly boring caves in terms of features. A lot of people have to see stalactites and stalagmites, like in show caves. These caves are more holes in the rock."
Show caves also tend to be horizontal, and sometimes even stroller friendly. Bahr and her team quite often lower themselves 200 feet or more, using ropes.
"It can get pretty dangerous," she said. "That's part of the reason most of us don't want to tell people exactly where these caves are. Another reason is to protect and preserve the caves."
People interested in caving can join a local grotto, a group of enthusiasts who train for safety and responsibility before taking field trips to local sites. Visit the National Speleological Society, at www.caves.org, to learn more about caving and area grottoes. To visit more user-friendly caves, consider Timpanogos Cave, in American Fork; Minnetonka Cave, near Bear Lake, just over the Idaho border; or Lehman Caves, in Baker, Nev.
As for Bahr, the caving she does for research cannot be called recreational. To prepare for the 34 degree temperature, she puts on winter thermals, then usually two more layers of clothing before covering up in a cave suit, designed to take the abuse of sharp rock edges and rugged surfaces.
She pulls on a warm cap, and tops that with a safety helmet that has a head lamp. With a large plastic trash bag and a candle in her backpack, she puts on gloves, and is ready to go.
"If you have a 200-foot rope you have to climb, and you can only have one person on a rope at a time, you have a lot of people sitting at the bottom, and they start to get cold," Bahr said. "You can take a plastic bag and punch a hole in the bottom of it and put it over your head like a poncho. With a candle inside, it can keep you very warm."
Besides hypothermia, the main danger is falling.
"If you are not careful, you can slip or fall off a ledge," Bahr said. "Even on a small fall, you can break something. A broken ankle or wrist can lead to a seriously long extraction, or to hypothermia and death. When you are training, you want to train for self-rescue. If you get hurt in a cave and you're 500 feet underground and you have to climb a rope, it's easier to try to get yourself out than to wait for someone else to come get you."
It may take another caver in your party an hour to climb out of the cave, then an hour to get to the bottom of the mountain, and another hour to drive out of the canyon to call for help. Returning with help can take another hour or two, but there's still climbing back to the cave mouth, then back through the cave.
"If you are inside a mountain for six or seven hours in the cold, without moving, it's very dangerous," Bahr said.
Handling ropes wrong, so they rub against sharp rock, presents another danger.
"The rock works like a razor blade, and will cut through the rope, so you can fall if you don't take precautions, and you can get stuck."
The other thing to fear is fear itself.
"A lot of people don't realize when they go underground that they are claustrophobic," Bahr said. "They panic and do things they shouldn't. If they think they can make it through a small crevasse, then start to get stuck, they can panic and get themselves more stuck than if they remain calm."
In non-alpine caves, drowning is a threat.
"If people are down by the water table, they can drown," Bahr said. "If you're in a passage that's half full of water and it starts raining outside, you get a rise in the water table, and maybe you can't get out. So, yes, there's a few dangers to caving. You never go by yourself. I usually go with a minimum of three people."
Bahr discovered her interest in cave research after a caving field trip with Dave Liddell, the USU Geology department head and professor.
"Kirsten is very dedicated, and it's been a challenging but fun project," said Liddell, a lifelong cave enthusiast. "It's a tough environment to do field work, and a pretty challenging project. It's perhaps a little more work than we often ask of our masters students, but Kirsten is up for it, and she also does very good work in the laboratory."
Bahr also has been looking at how water flows through the cave systems, Liddell said, putting a non-toxic dye in the snow fields, and seeing where the colored water shows up in springs.
"Water is huge here in the West, and it is important to know where our water comes from," he said. "When Kirsten finishes this project, she will have skills she can apply to a number of areas. She can work for an oil company, the Forest Service, or several other fields. She has the skill set to do that."
Bahr, who originally came to USU to play softball, isn't sure what career choice she will make. She does know she will always love caves.
"There are organisms down there, and caves are always growing and changing," she said. "They are living, breathing systems. Caves need our protection."