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Big Screen spelunking 

by Randy Matin


Dr. Hazel Barton is a British biologist who travels the world collecting samples of extremophiles for use in scientific and medical research. Serious business when one considers the objects of her affections and the samples for her test tubes and petrie dishes come from black smokers at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and from deep inside the hot springs at Yellowstone Park.


Cast along with educator/caver Nancy Aulenbach from Atlanta, Ga., as one of the two leading characters in McGillivray Freeman Films' latest epic for the large format screen, Journey Into Amazing Caves, one might expect a dry, academic atmosphere to reign when speaking to these two leading ladies about their participation in the film.


But, as the speakerphone clicks on at an office inside the Cleveland Science Center, the first thing out of Barton's mouth was more like a commercial for Miller Lite.


"Whazzuppppp!" Barton expels in greeting, followed by giggling from herself and Aulenbach, and with a bit of prompting from producer Greg McGillivray. Clearly the ladies, both members of the National Speleological Society, a 12,000-strong organization of enthusiasts who come together in the interest of cave conservation and science, enjoy each other's company.


Good thing, because over the course of three years spent making director Steve Judson's $4 million film, Barton and Hazel were cooped up together in tents pitched on the Arctic permafrost, dangling from ropes 500 feet beneath the surface of Greenland ice caves, rappelling from cliffs in the Grand Canyon and diving together in cramped, pitch black waterways inside of virgin sea caves in Mexico's Yucatan.


"We are both cavers," explains Barton. "Stick us in a tent together, and there's an instant friendship. We've become like sisters, especially after the weird experience of being involved in a project like this. We've gone though a big learning process together."


The film seamlessly integrates adventurous storytelling with a solid educational component that, as director Judson says, "Comes with the territory when you have Nancy on the team."


Because she was frequently out of the classroom during the filming, the Web site www.nancy4caves.net was established via a satellite telephone phone hookup to keep Aulenbach in touch with her students. And at several junctures in the film, we see this interactive process carried out with on-screen students receiving interactive lessons from remote locations in Greenland and Mexico.


"I think the great thing about this movie is that it gives kids an opportunity to see that science can be a fairly interesting career. When I grew up," Barton says, "the image of scientists were as boring people who went about wearing protective goggles and white lab coats. Now we have kids coming up to us saying 'Wow! I want to be a scientist.' "


The film should make more than just kids think about switching careers since it visits some of the most beautifully exotic locations on the planet -- places that most of us will never be able to experience firsthand because of their remoteness and the required degrees of survival skills.


"Choosing locations was the key thing in shaping this movie," says Judson. "One thing we wanted to avoid was making a large screen version of the typical TV documentary on limestone caves. A lot of people have visited the Mammoth and Carlsbad Caverns, but hardly anyone has been in an ice cave or an underwater cave.


"Greg [McGillivray] urged me to think in terms of color," Judson continues. "To choose locations that would provide different colors and not make people sit in the dark for 38 minutes. And the ice caves in Greenland are the most spectacularly blue places I've ever been. Our guide, Janot Lamberton (seen in the film and in the National Geographic companion book Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms by Michael Ray Taylor), spoke about them possessing a spiritual quality. But it wasn't until the first time I dropped into one that I understood his words. Once inside, I could feel in my bones what he was talking about. It was spectacularly peaceful. You feel like you have gone back in time."


Aulenbach concurs: "You hear about things that are iridescent blue. But this was beyond anything I could have imagined. The whole cave was glowing."


Along with beauty comes a danger that is just as overwhelming. When asked to compare risk factors of sending climbers and camera crew into the ice to those encountered while filming Everest, where he was headquartered at the base camp in Nepal, Judson says he would weigh them equally.


"It's a hairy environment inside the caves. Climbers like to be attached to a wall that they know isn't going anywhere. We had to attach our rigs to the sheer vertical walls of the caves in order to set platforms for the camera crew and the tripod. Often these surfaces are huge blocks of ice weighing tons and tons, and they can shear off. This happened while the crew was there. All of a sudden one of the platforms shifted and the cameramen thought it was going to break loose," Judson recounts. "But it didn't actually break away."


For Barton the most exciting part of the experience was collecting samples of an extremophiles group (microorganisms that use unique strategies for survival in extreme environments) called Haloclines that exist in gelatinous pools where fresh water meets salt water in the underwater caves in the Yucatan. Using English slang, Barton calls these undocumented creatures "boogers" until she gets them into her laboratory where she clones them and then sequences the DNA. To process samples from a one-week trip, Barton says, can take up to six months of lab time.


Aulenbach says the most challenging part of the film was rappelling off of 300-foot cliffs in the Grand Canyon and then swinging by rope into the cave entrance. Not really risky, she says, if you know what you are doing. Having risen to prominence in the male-dominated sport of caving, Barton and Aulenbach still can't believe their good luck at having been cast in the film.


"Without the film company it would have been very difficult to get to the upper regions of the Grand Canyon. It would have been very difficult," Aulenbach says, "for us to hire a private helicopter to take us 60 miles out onto the ice caps of Greenland."


Barton, who does some paid caving when it fits within the guidelines of her extremophile research funded by the National Science Foundation, is used to paying her own way. "When I returned to Greenland to collect more samples, I ran up some pretty good credit card bills buying tickets and extra equipment. We do this for the love of caving, and we do it for science. If I wanted to make money I would not be a biologist. And I certainly wouldn't be a caver."





Journey Into Amazing Caves opens Friday, March 30, at Riverfront Park's IMAX Theatre. Tickets: $7; $6 seniors; $5 children 12 and under. Call: 625-6600.

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