Sunday, June 26, 2005

Mammoth Cave NP, KY

From Chattanooga, we went to Mammoth Cave Natl Park for five nights. We had scheduled a tour in advance to be sure we wouldn't miss out...the Adventure Tour! We got there the afternoon before and checked out the Visitor's Center and did the brief Discovery Tour just to get a feel for Mammoth Cave. Mammoth has 365 miles of mapped tunnels, but they believe it is over 600 miles long. Not in one long line, but in a criss-crossing, multi-level maze of tunnels. It is mostly a dry cave, with 95% of it dry limestone rock formations. In some areas where the protective sandstone cap cracked you will find stalactites and stalagmites, but not many. The history surrounding the cave is interesting: an attempt at nitrate-mining inside the cave, the first tuberculosis hospital was built inside the cave, a trapped-caver story involving a circus of bystanders leading to Mammoth later becoming a National Park and stories of some of the first cave guides who were 17 yr old black slaves. We had taken four tours total and feel that we only saw a small portion of Mammoth Cave.

But we did get to see a portion of the Cave that not many visitors see. The Adventure Tour was six hours of crawling on hands and knees, squirming on bellies, straddling gaps in rocks, and just getting dirty. We wore helmets with headlamps, kneepads, and work gloves. The cave averages 54 degrees, but we still worked up a sweat. We kept our longsleeves on to help protect us from scraping on the rocks. Visibility was reduced due to the use of headlamps only, and since Andy and I agreed to be the "trailers" we had some kicked-up dust to contend with. As "trailers", we were responsible for making sure that everyone else got out of each tunnel ahead of us, and no one was left behind. There were 2 NPS Rangers with our party of 10 amateur speleunkers. Paula was our lead guide, and Eric followed behind or slunk thru holes only to reappear in other areas where help might be needed. Being a maze of tunnels allowed the park rangers to pick and choose the tour depending on our capabilities. It also allowed for "Plan B" if someone couldn't fit through the tunnel of choice - which did happen twice on our tour.

We crawled through places with the names like "Hell's Hole", "Kathleen's Crawl", and "No Name Pass" (no 'clean' name could be agreed upon for this tunnel, because it was worse than Hell's Hole!). Many of these tunnels were about 1 1/2' to 2' high making it difficult to use anything more than elbows, forearms, and toes to propel yourself forward. Surprisingly these tunnels were also quite long - 80 feet or so - meaning you were propeling yourself like a worm for what seemed like eternity. Some entrance or exit holes were so tight that you had to position your helmet just so in order to squeeze through. Prior to entering a new challenge, Paula would brief us on what to expect - height, length, best attack method. After one such briefing she rolls over from her sitting position and disappears into a crack. None of us knew the entry to the hole was right there. We all started to look at cracks and crevices more closely after that..."where does that hole go?".

There was only four who dared to enter the Mole Hole, however. Eric thought only 2 of the guys with us could do it this hole is so small. Eric did not think Andy should attempt it, that's how small the hole is. Andy may be 6'1", but he's built for speed and is a slim 165lbs (same weight as in high school, the bugger). But, Andy had to try it of course! Wish I could say he got stuck, because that would make for a funny story...but he didn't. The four of them got in and out safely. I'm just thankful we all weren't asked to attempt it.

Around the 5th hour of this why-did-we-pay-for-this excursion, I realized that my body was about to quit. Just pure and total physical exhaustion including, toes, lower back, elbows, triceps, you name it. But this is what we wanted and, boy, were we surprised that the NPS would actually offer such a life-risking tour. We now have even more respect for our NPS and the Rangers. This is what exploring our parks and wildernesses should be like...not always behind railings and in a safe-zone, but doing something with some risk and with some fear. There's a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction in doing something that's challenging - either physically, mentally, or both.
Wild Cave Tour Photo Gallery - click here for pictures! (Some of the photos were taken without the flash for two reasons: 1. the dust particles in the area are highly reflective, and 2. I wanted to capture the essence of this tour by showing the darkness and headlamps-only lighting. The drawback is blur from people moving about.)

The day-after was pay-day. We could barely move our arms because our under-used triceps were so sore. The skin on our elbows had been rubbed off - you heard me right, not cut, no abrasions, just missing skin from the constant rubbing on earth or rocks. We had bruises on elbows, forearms, rib cages, knees, you name it. Andy's mom just can't comprehend how we consider this "fun", but we do. The price was worth it.

Mammoth Cave NP isn't just about the cave, either. We enjoyed some topside activities, too. On Friday we kayaked the Green River. Since we were too cheap to pay $40 for a shuttle service at a local kayak shop, we made it an out-and-back paddle from Green River Ferry. The current wasn't too strong so we made it 6 miles upstream (using our GPS to gauge distance and speed), then decided to turn around for the 'float' home. Well, since the current wasn't too strong, we had a 6-mile paddle downstream. Just like at home when the wind is in our face both ways! A nice paddle though thru forest with limestone banks, islands, and birds providing musical entertainment the whole way. And, only 6 other people were seen the entire day.

On Saturday we took a horse-back riding trip with Double-J Stables. They're located on the northern border of the Park. The ride takes you into the forest of Mammoth and along one of the many myriad trails throughout that section. Very peaceful. But we've decided...we don't like trotting. Ouch! The abuse on your lower half is awful. Or maybe we just need lessons?

Here's a pastoral scene...we watched the sunset near our campsite.


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