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Mercyhurst cavers discover upside of underworld

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gary Loo, Dennis Arthur, Kimberly Fortier and Marta Timmerman

Most college students embark on a new academic year with their sights set high, but for four Mercyhurst University RAs it was all about mastering the underworld known as Harlansburg Cave.

Dennis Arthur, Marta Timmerman, Gary Loo and Kimberly Fortier recently hiked the cave’s maze-like passageways as part of a team-building exercise led by Jared Snyder, assistant director of residence life and student conduct, and his trusty beagle-mix, Rearden.

As they navigated the inky depths, often in knee-deep mud, the group did their share of shoulder-leaning. And, as Snyder hoped, besides appreciating each other, they came to respect the extraordinary cave system and his personal passion for its conservation.

A 2006 Mercyhurst graduate with a degree in environmental biology, Snyder was the ideal guide for their first caving foray. He is the assistant manager of Harlansburg Cave, which is managed by the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy, a nonprofit corporation that oversees more acres of caves and karstlands than any conservancy in the United States.

Reputedly the longest cave in Pennsylvania, Harlansburg is situated on private property near Grove City. Access must be granted by the conservancy, whose mission is the study, conservation and preservation of caves and karst resources.

As Harlansburg’s assistant manager, Snyder has served as guide for a number of interested groups, including Mercyhurst students and, on occasion, faculty. He recently joined Mercyhurst geologist Scott McKenzie in a paleontological study within another MAKC-managed property, Bear Cave near Blairesville.

The consummate outdoorsman, Snyder often arranges opportunities for the 10 RAs he supervises to bond alfresco – everything from hiking excursions to roasting hot dogs around the campfire. But not everyone has the temerity for caving, so Snyder made his most recent excursion optional.

The four who took the trip had nothing but good things to say.

“Caving was such an amazing experience,” said Timmerman. “It was an opportunity to really get to know the earth. At one point we turned off all of our headlamps and just enjoyed the peacefulness. It's a feeling I will never forget.”