Twenty feet underground, Bryan Booth switched off his head lamp.
Darkness surged in, tarry and impenetrable, darker than anything that can be found up on the surface. And still, you could almost see Booth’s smile.
"Isn’t this place cool?" he said. "I mean, isn’t it just amazing?"
If he was able, Booth would take every single resident of Florida down into the Peace-Dames Caves Complex in the Withlacoochee State Forest and kill the lights. If you’re quiet enough, you can hear the underground rivers flowing. There’s no better place to feel the porous karst bedrock on which the state is built.
But there’s a problem: few people even know the caves are there.
They may be familiar with Florida’s springs and underwater caves, those glorious windows into the aquifer. But dry caves? Honest-to-goodness, there-might-be-bears-in-here, there-are-definitely-bats dry caves? Even natives have doubts.
"These are some of Florida’s precious resources," said Booth, 59. "They should be shared. It’s like hiding the beach."
He has adopted them as his own, graffiti and all. Restoring and promoting the caves has become his mission. No matter the friction with government agencies. No matter the nearly-ruinous personal cost.
"This is a lifetime commitment," he said. "I’m not letting go."
• • •
Booth’s first trip beneath Florida’s surface came in 1980, while working as a guide in a summer program for troubled youths near Floral City. He quite literally stumbled across one of the caves while leading a group hike.
"We didn’t have flashlights or anything, so we found a stump of a lighter pine and we made torches and went through the caves like Huckleberry Finn."
Caves can be dangerous places, of course, as the boys soccer team trapped in northern Thailand for nearly two weeks this year can attest. But the threats have never stopped Booth.
After that first descent, he came back to the caves again and again, while working as an exceptional education teacher. But it wasn’t until 2008 that Booth finally found his way into a Ph.D. program at the University of South Florida, studying what he has loved all along. He was nearly 50. The degree took seven years.
Booth revisited Citrus County’s caves with a new doctorate in geography and environmental science. And he did not like what he saw.
"In 1980, the caves were freaking beautiful. There was a little graffiti, but the caves were 8 feet deeper. Now, sediment has washed in. There hadn’t been any caretaking."
For years, the Peace-Dames complex was stuck in a strange purgatory.
It was a traditional spot for locals to take their families. Teenagers partied there on the weekends. But the caves sit within Florida Forest Service land. And the agency was not keen on folks going into the rocky, slippery, extremely un-childproofed caves.
"They did not want the caves open. That was their policy," Booth said. "They don’t want to deal with people. They’re forest rangers, not park rangers."
Withlacoochee center manager Keith Mousel said the agency does not have the manpower to supervise the caves, with around 200,000 acres in the forest to watch over.
"We don’t necessarily want to bring attention to it," said Mousel. "You know in the Field of Dreams, ‘If you build it, they will come’? Well, that’s what we’re worried about."
State officials posted foreboding signs and put heavy iron grates over the cave openings. None lasted long.
"It’s amazing what teenagers with four-wheel-drives can do," Booth said.
Soon, the state gave in to the fact that people would come no matter what.
"If you find ‘em, they’re at your own risk," Mousel said.
But Booth wanted more than wary tolerance. He wanted stewardship, maintenance, education. He wanted the wider world to be able to see what he saw, revere these caves the way he did.
In 2017, Booth started an eco-tourism agency to ferry people from Tampa an hour north to the caves, hoping to increase visitation, and therefore make the site a priority for the forest service. He started a non-profit organization to advocate for the site.
But none of it was working because the forest service was unwilling to commit to improving the cave site.
One day, after an especially unproductive meeting with the agency, he went out into the woods. He screamed.
"Give me these caves, God. These are my caves."
The forest service has not always been open to Booth’s mission. But he has earned their begrudging respect over the course of many meetings. They have been impressed by his proposal of a karst educational center at the caves.
"His knowledge benefits the agency immensely," said Mousel.
"I don’t know of anyone with his background or education on the cave system," said Mark Lewis, a coordinator with the forest service. "I’ve never met anyone like him."
• • •
Out at the Withlacoochee State Forest, Booth tends to greet fellow hikers with a cheerful "Happy New Year," no matter the season.
"The correct response is Merry Christmas," he said on a sweltering August afternoon. A pink plastic necklace hanging in his eco-tour van read "Happy Easter." He keeps a Santa hat on his car-seat headrest.
But his cheerfulness masks a pugnacious streak. Booth has a history of unpopular causes and uphill battles. In 2016, he worked to open a shelter for homeless USF students, an issue he took on after he met several who were sleeping on campus. But he butted heads with the university, he said, and got only tepid support. Eventually, the shelter closed.
His 2015 doctoral defense was a battle in itself. He tangled with some faculty members over speleogenesis, the formation of caves. It almost cost him the Ph.D. he’d spent seven years sweating over.
"People were shouting, yelling," he said. "It lasted for three hours."
"It definitely was interesting," said Jennifer Collins, his USF colleague. "There are ones that are less interesting, I’ll say that."
Booth has had legal battles, too. In 1991, he witnessed a black man being attacked by police in downtown Orlando. Angered, he began protesting against a squad of Orlando police officers informally known as the "Duke Boys." Booth, and news reports from the time, said the undercover narcotics unit waged a campaign of violence and intimidation.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that during his protest, Booth was arrested for wearing a mask — on Halloween. With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, he sued the police department for false arrest and won.
The settlement money quickly disappeared into various attorneys’ pockets. But money has never really interested Booth. There’s not much of it in any of his pursuits.
Not in his academic career: "Turns out there are no jobs for cave scientists. Who knew?"
Not in substitute teaching, where he said he currently earns about $75 a day.
Not in his eco-tourism company, which folded in August, taking almost $40,000 of Booth’s savings with it.
"I’m down to my last $7,000," he said with a shrug.
The shuttering of his cave tour company may seem like a tough break. But Booth doesn’t see it that way.
"It accomplished what I set out to do," he said.
There is now an actual parking area at the Peace-Dames Caves site. Signs welcome visitors, rather than telling them to keep out. Glossy new pamphlets announce the Withlacoochee State Forest Caves, the same caves the agency has sometimes been reluctant to admit were there.
Visitation is up, Booth notes. And the forest service is considering adding a day-use center at the caves. It’s a plan that Booth proposed with endless emails and presentations to the agency.
"This was a fight I didn’t fail," he said. "It worked."
But Booth isn’t stopping there. He pictures the educational center where people can come from all over to learn about Florida’s karst geology. There would be learning stations, classrooms, a botanical trail.
"I’m always tilting at windmills," he said.
The Don Quixote of Florida’s caves seems to like it that way.
Contact James Chapin at [email protected]