The December/January issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine features “the best of” adventure travels. Fillmore County cave owner and explorer John Ackerman, who lives south of the Twin Cites, is included on the Top Ten adventure list. 
(Cover provided by National Geographic Adventure. Bluff Country Reader photo of Ackerman by Lisa Brainard)
The December/January issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine features “the best of” adventure travels. Fillmore County cave owner and explorer John Ackerman, who lives south of the Twin Cites, is included on the Top Ten adventure list. (Cover provided by National Geographic Adventure. Bluff Country Reader photo of Ackerman by Lisa Brainard)
Iconoclast. That’s a word sure to send people scurrying for their dictionaries.

It’s also a word used to lure readers into the December 2005/January 2006 “Best of” issue of National Geographic Adventure (NGA) magazine. It lists the top 10 adventurers of 2005, splitting them into the categories of “Elites” and “Iconoclasts.”

You’ll find Fillmore County caver and Karst Preserve owner John Ackerman in the latter.

“What’s an ‘iconoclast’?” Ackerman asked, just like everyone else.

He was initially contacted by writer Geoffrey Norman in September. Norman told him it was someone who doesn’t follow the norm, for example, a person climbing big rock walls without the security of ropes. He also noted they were looking for the “best of the best.”

The author apparently found out about Ackerman’s passion for caves by talking with members of the National Speleological (or cavers) Society. He asked if there were cavers who might own as many caves as they’ve discovered. Then, Ackerman’s at times unorthodox method of exploration likely wrapped up his spot on the list.

Scratch the surface

Part of the NGA’s listing on iconoclast Ackerman says of his cave discoveries:

“Generally speaking, this involves finding a sinkhole, excavating it with a backhoe, and blasting a way in using explosives – methods that have elicited criticism from caving purists.

“‘With John it’s quicker for him to blast in than find another way in,’ says Blaze Cunningham, secretary of the Minnesota Speleological Survey. To be fair, he adds, ‘There is a way of justifying some of it.’”

The article continues, “Fair or not, there is no disputing Ackerman’s passion for discovering and preserving caves.”

The Reader first caught up with Ackerman just 11 months ago, touring Spring Valley Caverns and sharing an unconditional enthusiasm, respect and urge to preserve these gems lurking beneath the surface of Fillmore County and surrounding land. As he often states with reverence, when exploring caves you could be the first person walking through passages and pristine formations that could be hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of years old.

Spring Valley Caverns is part of 500 acres of sinkhole- and cave-riddled-property north of Spring Valley, land on which he continues to hunt caves and test theories.

“It’s like gambling. You never know what you’ll find,” said Ackerman.

When asked about the likelihood a sinkhole will lead to a cave, he added, “I’d say my odds are excellent.”

Cave No. 28

This year Ackerman discovered two more caves at the Spring Valley Caverns property, Nos. 28 and 29. All this came from his recorded attempts to find caves by excavating “30-some” sinkholes.

“Most people never find the cave when excavating a sinkhole because it could just be a tiny crack,” which could be covered and lost in the process, he stated.

Ackerman said he has the experience and “knows the signs,” such as how rocks react when pulling them out and from which direction to dig. “Then,” he said, “You try to do it safely. Part of the day is always spent shoring up (the site).”

Cave No. 28 was found with the aid of what Ackerman calls his “Cave Finder,” a backhoe-type excavator. A crack, which went straight down, led to a small room and, now, a passage in which Ackerman said he gains 6 to 10 feet every weekend.

He’s heard a “big echo” around a corner, but the tight passage has prevented putting eyes on it yet. Ackerman will slightly widen the passage through the use of small explosives. He’s even learned to use them close to a person’s body as needed in cave rescues.

Cave No. 29

The discovery of Cave No. 29 again put Ackerman’s theories on cave passages to the test, again successfully. The main entrance to Spring Valley Caverns sits on a ravine with a building constructed to protect it, while providing a place for cavers to gather and gear up. Ackerman wondered if the cave passage might not extend on the other side of the ravine, thinking it might been cut through in glaciated times.

In the main passage, using a surveyor-like “precision measuring” tool, he projected a point on the other side of the ravine to explore, where he felt the passage at one time might have continued. “I felt it extended many miles east and west,” he stated.

Measuring with a laser to the top of the hill on the ravine’s opposite side, Ackerman placed a stake and called a well driller to sink a test hole.

“We hit a void 50 feet down, right where we thought it would be,” he said. Then they drilled 15 feet away, found a void and lowered a video camera to get a view.

“We encountered a 15 feet wide passage. You could see it continued. We’ll have the well driller create an access shaft,” said Ackerman, laughing as he added that you know you’ve gone off the deep end when you regularly call the well driller.

Other caves

He also has drilled accesses into Coldwater Cave in Iowa, located just south of the Minnesota border at Canton and at Goliath Cave in Fillmore County. Each cave had seen access to cavers in general severely limited due to various reasons.

Coldwater is designated a National Natural Landmark. In 2002, Ackerman bought five surface acres, along with 200 in underground rights there. The following year he drilled a 188-feet deep shaft, 30 inches in diameter, completing the project in May of 2004.

In the fall of 2004, Ackerman purchased two surface acres and 358 in underground rights from Venita Sikkink near Cherry Grove. He said the Minnesota cavers who first mapped Goliath Cave at that location had their access taken away when a Cherry Grove Scientific Natural Area (SNA) was set up through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Another reason

In further explorations of Goliath Cave this year, often involving cave diving through water-filled passages – which are known as sumps – Ackerman found another good reason to create a cave entrance or further a cave passage by small, controlled blasts: saving a life, quite possibly his own.

A harrowing tale of cave diving at Goliath Thanksgiving weekend, excerpted from Ackerman’s writings, follows this article.

Despite the fear of drowning in a cave, a challenge Ackerman has taken on and not quite conquered yet, he still can’t wait to explore all the passages he saw in one-third of a mile in Goliath, a major discovery. He also feels another branch of the cave will lead to the Big Spring at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, since a dye trace exited the cave system there.

Ackerman laughed to note the photo used in National Geographic Adventure magazine was done almost as an afterthought. It was taken at the conclusion of three hours he perched on a small ledge in Spring Valley Caverns, laden with rope, drill and other equipment to look like he was going to blast.

The magazine editors chose the simple outdoor shot of Ackerman in his orange caving suit against a yellow field of soybeans ready for harvest, perhaps showing that spectacular discoveries await most anywhere for, to use their term, an iconoclast.