Maribel mystery: How deep do caves go?

It was late winter as I headed toward Door County, in the mood for snaking around on county roads. The ruins appeared unexpectedly, so I braked and shifted into reverse.

“Maribell Caves Hotel,” a small sign announced, and only the limestone exterior remained in the otherwise barren field. There were no windows, no roof and no clues about the prosperity that such a handsome artifact must have once provided.

Turns out that this Manitowoc County building, constructed in 1900, had turned Maribel into a popular railroad stop. The hotel was a health spa and resort, its magnesium-rich spring water purported to hold medicinal value. People bathed in it, drank it and shipped it to Chicago. The remnants of a bottling plant still exist, near the hotel.

Think Milk of Magnesia, says Mike Demske, who heads the county’s planning/park commission. “It flushed out the system and made people feel better,” he explains. “But I don’t know about the purity anymore” because of agricultural waste run-off, upstream.

The hotel closed and turned into a country tavern long before fire gutted the building in 1985. Today it is privately owned and dormant. Demske wishes there was money to preserve and reopen it as an educational attraction.

Other progress to that effect goes on here, but it occurs underground. Members of the Wisconsin Speleological Society (whose members explore and study caves), and others, donate their time at the adjacent Cherney Maribel Caves County Park, to clear out what may be the largest cave system in Wisconsin.

“We are not sure but the potential is high,” says Kasey Fiske of Madison, one of the project’s volunteer leaders. That conclusion is based on ground test results. “Multiple, multiple, multiple cave passages exist throughout the park,” Kasey says. It is a matter of removing the “glacial backwash” of gravel to dirt.

He calls Maribel “the newest renewed cave project” in Wisconsin and predicts the work “probably won’t be completed in my lifetime.”

Up to 20 volunteers at a time on weekends fill five-gallon buckets with sand, silt and clay. They marvel at their discoveries along the way. Today it is possible to walk 200 feet inside of the park’s New Hope Cave, whose ceiling so far is 10-13 feet high. Width ranges from 6 to 100 feet.

Cherney Maribel Caves County Park is on County R, just north of Wisconsin 147. A work schedule is posted online, and volunteers also give tours. Donations help cut the travel costs of people who work at the site. Additional volunteers always are appreciated.

The cave gate is locked when work is not being done. Smaller caves stay open. For more: www.maribelcaves.com, 262-375-8792. The park is a shady green respite from summer sunrays, full of ferns and mosquitoes, so pack a repellent.

Wisconsin’s best-known and most heralded underground environment, Cave of the Mounds (near Blue Mounds in Dane County), was discovered 68 years ago. The cave and its wondrous formations were found Aug. 4, as workers dynamited a quarry of limestone.

Less than one year later, the cave opened as a tourist attraction, and today it is a National Natural Landmark, one of only about two dozen caves in the nation to earn this protected status.

Being on the edge of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area means the cave never filled with sediment from glacial movement and remained relatively undisturbed. “It’s jam-packed with crystal formations,” notes Joe Klimczak, general manager of the property with his wife, Ann Wescott.

He was an electrical engineer and she was a middle school science teacher when friends decided to retire from their role as the cave’s caretakers. Joe says he and Ann are “living a dream” because they love the natural world and enjoy teaching others about it.

“All caves are so different,” Joe notes. “It’s this great adventure, a strange and beautiful world.” He compares Cave of the Mounds to a jewel box that is easy to take for granted because its dynamic nature “can’t be seen from the air, or at a distance” when on ground.

Visitors on Aug. 4 and 5 will use flashlights to get an idea about how quarry workers felt when entering this cave for the first time. Although typically well lit, Joe says the cave’s underground lights will be turned off during the first part of the tour, to set the mood for discovery.

Children who are 12 or younger will receive a bag of panning sluice, then search for fossils and gemstones, with the help of a guide. Local falconer Aaron Allred will bring raptors and conduct flying demonstrations.

The cave is open all year, and tours last one hour. Joe calls it a soft adventure – no crawling, and no muddied boots. The cave’s first room, he notes, is 100 feet long, 30 feet high/wide.

Some of the property’s oak trees are more than 200 years old. Also on the ground are butterfly and rain garden demo projects. Nearing completion is prairie restoration and an interpretive nature trail.

The cave’s trust purchased 30 adjacent acres in 2004; that move prevented the land from becoming a housing subdivision. “We used to seem way out in the country,” Joe says. Not anymore.

For more: www.caveofthemounds.com, 608-437-3038. Cave of the Mounds is near U.S. 18 and 151 in Dane County.

Seventeen other sites in Wisconsin have earned National Natural Landmark status. They are:

Abraham’s Woods, Green County; Avoca River Bottom Prairie, Iowa County; Baraboo Range, Sauk County; Bose Lake Hemlock Hardwoods, Forest County; Cedarburg Bog, Ozaukee County; Chippewa River Bottoms, Buffalo County; Chiwaukee Prairie, Kenosha County; Finnerud Forest Scientific Area, Oneida County; Flambeau River Hemlock, Sawyer County; Kakagon Sloughs, Ashland County; Kickapoo River Natural Area, Vernon County; Moquah Barrens Research Natural Area, Bayfield County; Point Beach Ridges, Manitowoc County; Ridges Sanctuary, Door County; Spruce Lake Bog, Fond du Lac County; Summerton Bog, Marquette County; and Wyalusing Hardwood Forest, Wyalusing State Park, Grant County.

For more: www.nature.nps.gov.