Sixth-grader collecting dust in the Caverns | PostIndependent.com
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Sixth-grader collecting dust in the Caverns

Post Independent Photo/Kelley CoxTwelve-year-old Margaret Harrison is conducting her school science fair experiment in the Glenwood Caverns.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Margaret Harrison takes seven dance classes a week. It’s background that serves her well whenever she goes caving ” which is a lot.

“Margaret is very graceful going through caves,” said her dad, Wayne Harrison. “She’s very agile.”

Monday, the 12-year-old sixth-grader from Pine, which is south of Conifer, was climbing gingerly around the Glenwood Caverns with her dad. Margaret was collecting data for an experiment she’s conducting inside The Barn portion of the caves.



Margaret spent the day fully equipped with wind pants, jacket, gloves, a cave pack loaded with gear, and a helmet with not one but two headlamps attached to it with black electrician’s tape.

In December, Margaret and her father visited the Barn twice: the first time on Dec. 7 to place 20 petri dishes around the enormous limestone cave, and the second on Dec. 28 to check on the dishes to see if dust had collected in them.



Margaret’s objective is to determine if the Barn is being affected by public visits since it was opened commercially in 1999.

‘Body clouds’

Margaret is conducting the experiment for a science fair at her school, West Jefferson Middle School, in Conifer. The school has 250 sixth-graders, and 750 students total, though Margaret said she’s pretty sure she’s the only student conducting her science fair project in a cave.

Margaret explained why she’s conducting her experiment at the Barn.

“Every person has a body cloud,” she said, of the Pig-Pen-like aura that follows every human wherever they go. “It’s made of hair, dander, lint and dust.”

Harrison said when people visit the caves, they bring this dust with them. This can affect the natural balance inside the cave ” even upsetting the progression of cave formations.

She also said human bodies put out heat which can affect an enclosed environment like a cave.

Monday, as Margaret collected the petri dishes she had left earlier, she found very little dust ” which is good news for the Barn and bad news for her experiment.

“Margaret’s worried she won’t have enough data,” said her dad. But Margaret’s findings are good to know for cave management, he said, since the data shows little is being disturbed here.

In other caves with higher traffic, like the Cave of the Winds near Colorado Springs, for example, public access can become a environmental problem for cave habitat.

Science experiments

As Margaret traced each petri dish on graph paper, she made notations of the dust she did find in each dish ” dust and mud that wasn’t evident earlier in the experiment.

Margaret said people can really change a cave by their presence.

Although Margaret’s science project at school will end Jan. 26 during science fair judging, she said she’ll continue to conduct her experiment for another year.

“I want to see what happens as more people come into the cave,” she said.

Cave owners Steve and Jeanne Beckley and cave manager Phil Kriz are also interested in Margaret’s findings.

“They want to make sure the cave is protected and isn’t being harmed,” said Wayne Harrison. “They’ve been wonderful with us. They’ve given us open access to the Barn for us to conduct Margaret’s experiment.”

Science experiments are a natural for Margaret. Wayne said his daughter received third place in a national science competition she entered in the fourth grade.

“It was about the kind of plants that could grow on Mars,” Margaret said, noting that she used greenhouse shade cloths to try to filter the sun’s intensity as it would be on Mars.

So what kind of plants could grow on Mars?

“I forgot,” she said with a big smile.

Caver vs. Spelunker

Margaret is one of youngest members of the Colorado chapter of the National Speleological Society, though she said she doesn’t mind.

“I started caving when I was 9,” she said. She started when her father invited her to go on a caving expedition to the Yeoman Cave near Eagle.

“I went up there and said, ‘That looks fun,'” said Margaret, who now guides caving trips inside Groaning Cave, Colorado’s longest cave, which is accessed through special permission only through the U.S. Forest Service.

Margaret said she often goes caving with adults ” her dad and his friends, and occasionally, her dad’s friends’ kids.

“My dad’s friend’s daughter and I go caving together,” she said of fellow caver, Ember Bryce. “She started caving before I knew her. But mostly I end up going with adults.”

Whoever she goes with, however, don’t call her anything but a caver. Margaret said she has a rule of thumb for determining the more experienced and prepared caver versus the notoriously ill-prepared, inexperienced spelunker.

“A caver brings three sources of light,” she said with a laugh, pointing to her main headlamp, back-up headlamp and extra flashlight and batteries in her pack.

“A spelunker only brings one. I’ve seen people getting ready to enter caves wearing flip flops. There’s one story about a group of 10 people who were inside a cave sharing one Coleman lantern. Somebody dropped it and it broke. That’s a spelunker.”

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518

cclick@postindependent.com


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