Behind the Stories

Journey to Idaho's Middle-earth

By Sauni Symonds, Outdoor Idaho producer
October 6, 2015

Beautiful formation in a cave.
The title for this show pays homage to J.R.R. Tolkien's, Lord of the Rings, where Middle-earth represents a realm of dark, mysterious, and even evil forces. The term, for me, really just represents what we might find on a journey beneath the surface, but before the center of earth, the place where caves exist.

Extreme caving or wild caving is an adventure for a select few. You have to be ok with dark, tight maneuvers deep underground, sometimes through water and even ice. Why do they do it? What is the allure of going deep underground? What type of person makes this their passion? That’s what this program set out to discover.

Looking up in a cave.
We met with two groups of wild cavers who took the Outdoor Idaho crew into two of Idaho's most significant wild caves. The vertical limestone cave and the long lava tube cave provided our camera crews and camera gear with a supreme challenge – maneuvering and shooting in dark, tight, wet, and cold conditions. And when I say dark, it's the kind of dark that incapacitates humans unless they have artificial light. It's pitch black nothing, with only the sound of dripping water or complete, utter quiet and stillness.

Climbing. | credit: Brian Gindling
After weeks of anticipation and preparation we finally descended into the vertical cave. We spent ten hours crawling, climbing, squeezing and rappelling through the maze of passages and caverns underground. It was physically exhausting and challenged every ounce of stamina in our bodies just to navigate the cave, let alone handle the camera gear and lights. I couldn’t wait to see what we captured on video. Well, at least what I thought we captured.

When we got back to work we were heartbroken to discover that two of our four cameras did not perform well in the pitch black dark of the vertical cave. Even after testing them in our dark studio, and fussing over the details of lighting and audio, the images just didn't hold up. The pitch black of the cave just sucked all the light out of the frame on any shots that weren't close-ups. And, unfortunately, we could not redo the shoot.

Luckily, the two cameras that did perform gave us some amazing footage. A producer always wants more footage than they need, so this was also a writing and editing challenge. But, with a little help from the cavers own photographs we were able to build a great story about the vertical limestone cave. And, the experience in the vertical cave helped us fine-tune a few technical details before shooting in the lava tube cave.

In a Cave. | credit: Brian Gindling
Though frustrating on the production side, the journey to Idaho's Middle-earth was one of the most amazing experiences of my life – a place most people never see, or even want to attempt to see or navigate. It was not only a physical challenge but a mental one as well, at least for us newbies. I had to force myself to focus on the task at hand more than a few times - try not to let my mind wander to the dark side, pun intended. I discovered that my inner child is, yes, still afraid of the dark. And also, not particularly fond of tight squeezes under a ton of rock.

I have the greatest respect for those who explore wild caves, however, it is not something I ever need to do again. I'll keep my adventures above the surface.

The people that made this production possible.


By Melissa Davlin
September 23, 2015

The Owyhees that straddle the Oregon-Idaho border are home to gorgeous varieties of jaspers and agates.

A selection of fossils found at Clarkia Fossil Bowl. The fossils found at Clarkia are 15 million years old, and attract researchers from around the world.
At the top of the bookshelf in my living room sits a cardboard box filled with stones and pebbles. I call it Garrett's Rock Box, and whenever he has a chance, my two-year-old son will show off his collection to visitors.

The rocks aren't remarkable from a geological or aesthetic standpoint, but something about each one of them had caught Garrett's eye. Every time we go on walks, he scans the ground for a rock, pine cone or acorn to stick in his pocket and add to his stash. (We keep Garrett's Rock Box out of reach because he has a tendency to throw the rocks when he gets excited. I'm hoping he grows out of this.)

Whenever he sticks another rock in his pocket, I'm reminded of “Rockhounds” and the people I've met while working on this episode.

Star garnets, Idaho’s official gem.
When I was assigned to produce half an hour about rockhounders, I wasn't sure how to approach the show. It was my first Outdoor Idaho, and though I'd gone garnet digging and fossil hunting in north Idaho in college, I can't say I'd ever been interested in making it a hobby. So I started making phone calls, which led me to rockhounding enthusiasts across the state.

Regardless of their specialty or experience, each was friendly and eager to help. The reporting trips took me to some of the most gorgeous places in Idaho, some of which I'd never been to despite living in the state for 30 years. My personal favorite: a trip to hunt jasper and fossils in the Owyhees with rockhounders Brent Stewart and Greg Biebel. The journey took a few hours, and we spent the last leg on ATVs that allowed us to ride into a steep canyon with breathtaking views.

Outdoor Idaho photographer Seth Ogilvie shoots video at the Emerald Creek garnet area.
I learned plenty about production during the assignment, too. I have a background in print journalism, and while I've worked on Idaho Reports for two legislative sessions, I quickly (and painfully) realized producing outdoor programs is a different beast. The shooters and editors I worked with were mostly patient with me during the process, and hopefully, the next Outdoor Idaho I work on will go more smoothly.

There was another snafu: in early July — right in the middle of writing “Rockhounds” — a freak storm slammed Boise, resulting in a flooded production area and a couple inches of water in our offices. I was on vacation at the time, but other IdahoPTV employees saved my belongings from the flood.

Among those items: All the rocks and fossils I had collected over the previous 12 months while producing
“Rockhounds.” General manager Ron Pisaneschi had carefully packed them up and labeled the box “MELISSA'S ROCKS.”

Now both my son and I have our rock boxes, and I'm beginning to understand the allure.

Outdoor Idaho photographer Jay Krajic films near Clarkia, Idaho.

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