Caveman of Southeast Alaska

From deep beneath the Tongass, Steve Lewis calls for conservation

  • Looking out from El Capitan Cave, where Steve Lewis helped map two miles of passage — and where he got hooked on caving.

    U.S. Forest Service
  • Steve Lewis examines a formation in a cave on Chichagof Island.

    Tongass Cave Project
 

Name Steve Lewis
Age 56
Occupation Cave explorer; conservationist
Current hometown Tenakee Springs, Alaska (pop. 93)
Number of public restrooms in Tenakee Springs Zero
Number of caves within a short skiff ride of town Hundreds
Essential caving gear for Southeast Alaska Xtra-Tuf rain boots, aka “Southeast Slippers"; bear spray

It was muddy, it was freezing, it was littered with bear scat. Steve Lewis was hooked.

This was not the first time he'd been underground. Lewis' father, who lacked technical knowhow and carried no equipment more advanced than a sixpack, was the type of old-school cave blunderer who made "spelunking" seem like a dirty word.

But this wasn't his father's kind of spelunking. This was charting the then-unexplored El Capitan Cave -- Alaska's longest, and home of the deepest limestone pit in the U.S. -- on Prince of Wales Island, in Southeast Alaska's Alexander Archipelago, at the random invitation of a friend. This was real caving -- ropes, harnesses, carbide headlamps. And it was brutal: 13 straight hours painstakingly mapping 40 different sections, none longer than three feet, with a compass, fiberglass tape measure and a sketchbook. This was how Lewis wanted to spend the rest of his life.

Indeed, more than 20 years later, Steve Lewis is one of the state's leading cavers and cave defenders, having surveyed and mapped most of the 500-plus known caves throughout the Alaskan Panhandle. (There are likely many more that have not yet been discovered.)

Lewis' earliest brush with subterranean life came as a boy tagging along with his dad on weekend trips throughout the Midwest. In Lewis' early teens, his family spent a year in Micronesia, building a high school on the island of Pruk (now Chuuk) about 650 miles southwest of Guam. There, he stumbled upon and explored a network of tunnels dug by the Japanese during World War II. "It wasn't until many years later that I realized how dangerous this was," he now says, considering the potential for cave-ins or encountering unexploded munitions. "I had no idea what I was doing."

Lewis landed in Alaska in the mid-'80s thanks to a wildlife management master's program in Fairbanks. But halfway through his Ph.D. –– he was studying bat reproduction, a subject that caving had inspired him to pursue –– things began to unravel: "The funding didn't cooperate, the bats didn't cooperate." And then he met Tongass National Forest  Sitka District archaeologist Rachel Myron -- where else but in a cave. The two married and built an off-the-grid house in tiny Tenakee Springs on Chichagof Island, the perfect base for caving throughout the Alexander Achipelago. There, he has become a self-taught expert on, and outspoken advocate for, the region's fragile karstlands.

Karstlands -- areas of water-soluble bedrock distinguished by caves, pits, sinkholes and underground drainage -- typically form in limestone. Rain alone will dissolve limestone and carve caves, but acidic runoff from forests and peat bogs, or "muskeg" -- the predominant landscapes of Southeast Alaska and its 17-million-acre Tongass -- speeds up the process. The improved drainage in these areas grows more and bigger trees, making karstlands some of the most attractive timberlands in the Tongass. This is especially true on Prince of Wales Island -- southeast of Chichagof -- which not only boasts Southeast Alaska's largest, best-explored and most accessible cave systems, but also some of its most extensive clear-cuts.

As Lewis and fellow cavers Kevin Allred and Pete Smith explored the region's karst, they couldn't help but notice the destruction wrought by clear-cuts. With no forest canopy to shield it, heavy rain washes soil into the caves, forming silt deposits that can deface -- and sometimes completely cover -- stalagmites, stalactites and other formations. The silt can even plug up entire cave sytems, which sometimes provide drainage and fresh water for local communities. Oils, toxins and organic debris from timber harvesting can also wash into cave systems.

And so, in the mid-'90s, Lewis, Allred and Smith co-founded the Tongass Cave Project, which uses research to help protect Southeast Alaska's karst. Working with geologists, the Tongass Cave Project developed a vulnerability scale, based on factors such as soil depth, abundance of karst features like sinkholes, pits and caves, and contribution to domestic watersheds. In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service used this scale to develop the first federal karstland management program for the Tongass, protecting especially vulnerable pieces of karstland from clear-cutting.

These days, Lewis is working to convince the state of Alaska -- which has no rules to protect karst on private or state land -- to develop a similar program. "There has to be some balance," he says. "There's no reason why we can't develop our resources and still maintain our unique environment."

Lewis' love of the environment goes beyond what lies underground. He also photographs whale flukes as part of a humpback identification project for the University of Alaska Southeast, and monitors sea lion activity on Lowry Island for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"I'm weird," he says. "I'm happier freezing my butt off in the field than wading through paperwork at a nice warm computer."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.