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Bigfork’s Elliot Sanford carries love of caves to college

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | June 8, 2022 12:00 AM

Whether it be in the sunshine or snow, Bigfork High School senior Elliot Sanford enjoys exploring places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness, strenuous hiking and then of course the main attraction of his endeavor — exploring a cave.

“Then there’s the caves, which is just something that’s so strange and beyond anything I thought I would be doing. Like, we’re repelling into caves and crawling through tiny, muddy passages and finding these mineral formations,” Sanford said.

Sanford is a member of the Bigfork High Cave Club, which allows students to get real life experience mapping and exploring caves. In fact, he’s proved himself to be a leader in the group, compiling more conservation and management reports for public agencies like the U.S. Forest Service than other current members of the club.

“It’s a lot of work,” Sanford said. “It’s definitely not just a two or three person job to map a cave.”

Sandford graduates with the Bigfork Class of 2022 on Saturday, June 4.

Cave Club Adviser Hans Bodenhamer said Sanford is one of the more quiet members of the club, but it hasn’t stopped him from making an impact.

“In the cave club Elliot takes a lot of ribbing for being so quiet, yet all of the club members look up to him and seek him out for advice,” Bodenhamer said. “He has driven the club to greater safety standards by teaching club members, including me, new ways to tie knots and rig rope.”

Don’t mistake his quiet demeanor for having a lack of adventure, either, said Bodenhamer. Sanford is also “intense on an individual level,” willing to get outside his comfort zone when exploring and researching in caves.

“In caves he has an insatiable zeal for adventure. On one trip, he solo surveyed over 500 feet of passage that was so tight in order to move forward he had to let all of the air out of his lungs and wiggle to push himself through, which is really saying something, because Elliot is slim,” Bodenhamer said.

Sanford said one of his favorite memories with the club included a two week trip to the Bob Marshall where the clubmates and another group of “cavers” mapped caves and collected data. He recalls there was one cave on the trip that was particularly challenging for his team to map out. On a grueling day in the Bob, their attention was turned toward the middle of Sunray Cave, which has a bottom and a top entrance.

Sanford said they spent their time that day focusing on the middle of the cave.

“That day we were in there mapping that section was one of the longest, coldest days ever. But, after getting out, all the plans we draw up get put on a program that sketches them out digitally, they are revised and all the different parts are stitched together. Seeing that map afterwards was pretty cool,” Sanford said

Sanford was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, but his family moved around a lot during his childhood. From Colorado to Wisconsin, then New Mexico, Florida, Oklahoma and Nebraska before settling in Montana right before his freshman year.

“I really enjoyed moving, I’m the kind of person who gets restless after a while. So, moving has always been a part of my family’s lives, and coming to Montana was a big change but I absolutely love it here. Being near the mountains, the rivers and being around people who have those same interests has been really great,” Sanford said.

CAVES ARE just part of Sanford’s love for the outdoors. He enjoys hiking, camping and fishing among other activities.There are a few spots in the Swan Valley that he and his family return to when they want to enjoy the outdoors. He said he has a connection to one spot in particular, a place he camped with his father before the school year started.

“Cross-country practice started before school started and my dad and I were just camping in the Swan Valley for about a week. So, everyday we’d drive into Bigfork and I’d run in the morning with the team and then we’d go back. We had a campsite by the Swan River and we’d just spend the rest of the day fishing and hanging out,” Sanford said.

Sanford also found a home in track and cross-country at Bigfork High running the mile, two-mile and competing in the high jump.

“Running is something I love so much on its own, the amount of commitment it takes to run in college is something not that I’m not willing to do, but goes outside the scope of what I enjoy running for,” Sanford said.

Following the trend of exercising his leadership skills, Sanford said his time on the cross-country team has inspired him to coach the sport one day. Two years ago when the team got a new coach, he said he felt like he had an opportunity to step-up and become a leader for the team.

“That kind of unlocked a bit of what I think is an opportunity going forward,” he said. “When there is a situation where there isn’t leadership, I find it easy to step up and kind of organize people, just because I like things to flow smoothly and be efficient. I’ve learned so much from my coaches and mentors, passing that knowledge on feels like an obligation.”

After graduation, Sanford plans on attending the University of Montana to major in geosciences, geology and hydrology.

He’s hoping one day he will be able to continue his work in caves, doing research or management work for an agency like the forest service.

Bigfork High School will hold its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2022 on Saturday, June 4. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m. at the football field with 78 students set to graduate.

In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will move to the high school gym. The school is located at 600 Commerce St., Bigfork.