In the spring of 2004, Marc Ohms was out looking for holes in the ground at Wind Cave National Park. He found one that has led to keeping a more than decade-long secret.
“It looked like 50 other holes I’d looked in,” said Ohms, a park physical-science technician whose job includes exploration.
This particular hole was a depression tucked into an outcrop amid the park’s rolling plains and lightly forested terrain. If Ohms had been looking from a slightly different elevation, he wouldn’t have seen it. That was one likely reason the spot wasn’t previously explored; other reasons included a thick patch of poison ivy and a number of rattlesnakes.
Those obstacles curtailed Ohms' exploration on discovery day. On his next visit, he heard a sound he first mistook for a vehicle on a nearby road.
The surprise came when he realized the sound was actually the hum of air emitting from what turned out to be a cave, and the cave later turned out to be full of fossils from at least 22 species dating back 11,000 years.
“As a caver, you always dream of finding the next big cave,” said Ohms, who’s been working at Wind Cave for 17 years. “I always said it’s here; you just have to be persistent and find it.”
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Ohms began calling the spot “Persistence Cave,” and the name stuck. Park officials stayed quiet about the find for 11 years as they gathered wind data from the opening, conducted a test dig, protected the site from amateur spelunkers and underwent the bureaucratic process necessary to do extensive exploration.
This week, staff members from the park, The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, and teachers and students from East Tennessee State University, the Royal Alberta Museum, the Florida Museum of Natural History and The University of Maine are beginning a two-week field camp at the cave. They will remove material, screen-wash it and prepare it for curation.
The event is closed to the public, but members of the media will be allowed to view the camp Wednesday. The hope is the commotion will scare off the rattlesnakes.
In its current condition, the cave is like a cramped crawl space of about 15 square feet. Ohms said the cave’s true dimensions are concealed by a “dirt plug” that has accumulated over a long period, and it is unknown how large the cave might be once it’s further excavated. The cave’s air is believed to be connected with Wind Cave, which has 144 miles of known passages and is the sixth-longest cave in the world, but the size and location of the connections are unknown.
Ohms is humble about finding Persistence Cave, but he does allow himself at least one joking indulgence related to the cave’s famous neighbor: “I always say, ‘Wind Cave’s the small one. We just found the big one.’”