UPPER EAST SIDE — Some people hit the beach or the bars on summer weekends. Serafin Rivera goes spelunking in underground caves in upstate New York.
"It provides an escape from the everyday life," said Rivera, 51, a police officer with the Sanitation Department Task Force, whose day job includes outing recycling scofflaws and tracking down those responsible for illegal dumping. "I’m not going after people doing illegal stuff — I’m out in the wild."
Rivera, who lives on the Upper East Side, has led about 50 trips in a dozen Albany County caves, some of them 150 feet deep. He is a longtime hiker and got hooked on caving after he stumbled upon Clarksville Cave four years ago.
“I explored it and felt in love with it. I wanted other people to see it,” said Rivera, who then joined the New York City chapter of the National Speleological Society to learn more about caverns. Many of his caving tricks, Rivera said, come from his training as a Boy Scout and then as an officer in the Marines, a position he held for three years before creating a wedding music band in 1984 and then joining the Sanitation Department Task Force about 10 years ago.
Rivera leads free day trips for as many as 15 people to caves in upstate New York. He runs the excursions monthly, posting them several weeks in advance on his Cavers, Adventure Seekers and Hikers group.
Rivera offers tours that range in level of difficulty, with some trips being perfect for first-time spelunkers and others suited to more experienced cave explorers, he said.
The explorers usually leave the city about 6:30 a.m., carpooling to drive the three hours up to the Albany area where there are more than a dozen caves. Participants split the cost of gas and parking.
“Just getting out of the city and inside a cave, so close to earth, and in a place that is completely dark and silent, I find it liberating,” said Elizabeth Caholo, 24, a documentary filmmaker from Queens who filmed her first caving trip with Rivera last August.
Caholo explored Knox Cave, a 5,000-foot-long grotto about 20 miles from Albany. She and the other participants had to traverse a 50-foot-long tunnel that narrows to as little as 14 inches in diameter.
A caving tour usually takes three to four hours and is moderately to extremely intense, Rivera said. Cavers climb, walk and crawl underground for several miles while Rivera talks about the cave formation.
“It’s challenging and it’s fun,” said Angela Ong, a 31-year-old quality assurance manager who took one of Rivera's tours when she lived in Midtown East, before recently moving to California. “Sometimes you are flat on a dirty murky ground and you’re trying to wiggle through a very small space, and sometimes you’re standing with water up to your chest and you have to swim to get to the other side."
Thom Engel of the Northeastern Cave Conservancy, a nonprofit that owns and manages several caverns in Albany and Schoharie counties, said that many caves are open to the public and don't require any formal certification.
Engel, who knows Rivera through his cave explorations, said anyone who wants to explore particularly difficult caves listed on the conservancy's website must get permission in advance.
Criteria for evaluating whether a group can go spelunking safely include the size of the group, the date of the trip and the tour leader's experience level. Engel said officials might redirect the group if the leader doesn't have enough experience.
To go on Rivera's caving trips, explorers need gear, including a helmet, elbow and knee pads, a dry suit and a head lamp, among other items. Rivera can provide newcomers with some of the equipment. Liability varies based on the caves, and experts recommend taking necessary precautions before you go, including checking with your health insurance carrier and reading over the Northeastern Cave Conservancy's liability waiver.
“Exploring a cave makes really great pictures to show all your normal friends what you did on your weekend,” Rivera said.
Check Rivera’s Cavers, Adventure Seekers and Hikers group for upcoming caving trips. He is currently planning a trip for the first week of September.