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Spelunking Leads Students Into Hidden World
Bigfork High School receives $250,000 GIS software upgrade, $6,400 hardware grant
Hans Bodenhamer, left, a biology and geology teacher at Bigfork High School, shows examples of the mapping work done by the high school's cave club to Bigfork School District 38 Superintendent Cynthia Clary. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
BIGFORK – Biology and geology teacher Hans Bodenhamer and the members of Bigfork High School’s Cave Club know what it is like to encounter a 6-foot-long cluster of spiders while spelunking in Glacier National Park.

They have also seen piles of woodrat feces as tall as a person, and found whole communities of flatworms living in streams below ground. There was even a bear encounter at the mouth of a cave.

But as far as the club is concerned, this is all just business as usual.

The club studied and recorded these creatures, as well as other environmental factors, as they built a compilation of previously unrecorded data on the life and times of Glacier Park’s caves – a project that has earned them national attention and grants for top-of-the-line equipment.

Caves aren’t a top priority in a national park with a shrinking budget and other priorities, such as bears and traffic, to worry about, Bodenhamer said.

“It’s a big empty niche that we can fulfill,” he said.

Once the club began working with the park, they collected information, which the students entered into a geographic information system (GIS) mapping program. The data includes biological, temperature, mineralogical and physical measurements, among others.

The information also determined the condition of the caves and how fragile their environments are, which could help Glacier Park develop management plans, Bodenhamer said.

These unique efforts have not gone unnoticed.

The Cave Club was one of 10 groups to win the President’s Environmental Youth Award in 2009, and two club members – Ernie Cottle and Tia Bakker – were invited to speak to a crowd of 10,000 at an international GIS user conference in San Diego this summer. The kids also met President Barack Obama, Bodenhamer said.

Bigfork High School received a $250,000 upgrade for their GIS software from Esri, a leading company in the field, and a $6,400 grant from Plum Creek Timber Co. to buy seven new hand-held field computers the students can use to enter data directly into their mapping software while they collect it.

“It’s kind of the wave of the future,” Bodenhamer said.

With new equipment and the possibility of multiple fieldtrips, Bodenhamer thinks GIS mapping could become part of his regular class curriculum. Ideally, his students would work with professionals on projects with real-world results, he added.

“I think it’s more of the way we should be educating kids,” Bodenhamer said.

The Cave Club started while Bodenhamer was teaching in Browning. His students there began the process of mapping Glacier Park’s caves, and when he moved to Bigfork he brought the idea with him.

Now, with high-end equipment on the way and more students to bring to the field, Bodenhamer said future projects would probably branch out from underground. His biology classes may try to chart the valley’s lakes, which can be challenging because many of the small ones are only accessible through private land.

The students would map the water quality, depth, animal and plant presence and pollution, Bodenhamer said.

“It’s really exciting that we’re going to be using top-of-the-line GIS equipment,” Bodenhamer said. “I think we’ve got to fit into these big shoes that we’ve been put in front of.”

As one of the core members of the club during his time at Bigfork High, Cottle said he now has a rare perspective on the park.

“(The best part was) just being able to see all these things that no one else really gets to see,” Cottle said.

There have also been frustrations, such as when the computer could not keep up with how fast Cottle wanted to access the data. The program was easy to pick up on, he said, and the Bigfork club had five years of data entered in five weeks.

This visual representation of the group’s findings was part of his and Bakker’s presentation to the GIS conference in San Diego. Being the only student group to present was a little nerve-wracking, he admitted, but a great experience.

“The conference was awesome,” Cottle said. “We got a really good reaction.”

Cottle, who is attending Flathead Valley Community College this fall, said he didn’t plan on joining the Cave Club, but was reeled in after exploring four caves on a geology field trip.

“It was definitely better than other field trips,” Cottle said.

He now plans on using GIS in his future career, which at this time is headed toward marine archaeology.

Bodenhamer said he has already spoken with several federal and state agencies about working with them the same way the club worked with Glacier Park. These projects could include mapping an area of invasive species before and after the U.S. Forest Service performs a prescribed burn or charting animal tracks in the snow while the students snowshoe.

They may even take a biological survey of golf courses in the valley, Bodenhamer said.

But while these endeavors would make good use of the equipment and help the valley residents better understand their surroundings, Bodenhamer has his sights set on a large-scale project for the Cave Club.

“We were invited to go do some work on caves in the Grand Canyon,” Bodenhamer said. “The work we’d be doing would be sort of some landmark work in terms of using student volunteers and also the types of monitoring and conservation work we’ve done.”

The only roadblock is getting there. Bodenhamer has applied for grants to help with the travel costs, including one from National Geographic, and he is looking for other funding possibilities.

But in the meantime, Bodenhamer is focused on the start of the school year. In his Bigfork classroom last week, Bodenhamer clicked through the data points on a map showing cave locations and sizes. He viewed specific graffiti spots in each cave, accompanied with a hyperlink to a photo of the defaced areas.

He also checked the various biological organisms mapped throughout the year, and the flatworms in one cave in particular posed a perplexing riddle with their preference for different water sources within the caves in different months.

It’s not clear why the worms move around or what happens to them when they disappear, but it is a puzzle he plans on presenting to his biology classes.

Questions like these could help contribute information to future cave management plans, which Bodenhamer finds particularly encouraging.

“If the kids could do this and make a difference, it’s sort of our little message of hope,” he said.
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