Underground in Mammoth Caves
Sandra Ardoin @SandraArdoin
Are you a spelunker or does the idea of being underground cause you to break out in a cold sweat? Frankly, I’m one of the latter, but was surprised by a visit to the historic Mammoth Cave National Park. Below is a version of a post I wrote last fall for the Writing Prompts blog*. (I chose not to completely reinvent the wheel, but have changed a few things. We writers always want to change something we’ve written. 🙂 )
With over 400 miles of explored tunnels, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is the largest cave system in the world. Its environment changes with the rainwater dripping through the sandstone layers to the underlying limestone, to underground rivers and eventually into the Green River.
The park was established in 1941, but two hundred years after the first formal tour in 1816, hubby and I approached the kiosk outside the Visitor’s Center. It was to be my first experience in a cavern. Honestly, I’m not even sure why I suggested it.
I walked up to the counter and asked the ranger on duty, “What tours do you have for old people?” I’m sure the polite man gave me a mental eye roll before telling us about the one-eighth-mile Frozen Niagara tour to see the stalactites and stalagmites. Then he mentioned the Domes and Dripstones Tour, which encompassed more territory, plus the Frozen Niagara. We’d driven a long way to see a bunch of underground rock, so it was the Domes and Dripstones or bust.
Before the tour began, we were told that those who were claustrophobic (check mark), afraid of heights (check mark), and had knee issues (well, on occasion) might want to reconsider. Really? Did they think they were dealing with a couple of wimps?
As we approached the cement, bunker-type entrance at the bottom of a sink hole, I thought of the TV show Lost and that underground bunker. I didn’t relish being part of a resurrection of the show and hoped we’d eventually find the exit.
The way was well-lit and the path relatively smooth. No problem, except when we were forced to pause in a tight spot with a low ceiling. Occasionally, it seemed the whole ceiling was propped up by one small, well-placed rock.
We spent two hours going down, around, and up, exploring the limestone caverns with their sometimes wet, but mostly, dry walls. I’d come prepared to freeze in what the website said was a constant 54 degrees. About halfway through, I removed my sweater.
Twice, we stopped in large “rooms” with rows of benches to listen to the tour ranger provide more information about the caves. Once, we were in a “dome” room. Unlike the walls with their jagged protrusions, the ceiling was smooth, looking somewhat like stucco with cracks running through it. To me, the dripstones resembled a hanging mud dauber’s nest.
When we stopped in the second room, the ranger explained about the crickets in the cave, one of numerous species of insect and animal life that live there. These aren’t your typical crickets. They’re thin and lighter in color, and they don’t make noise. To show us why they’re silent, she turned the lights off. Yipes! You’ve heard the axiom about it being so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face? I could touch my nose and still not see my hand. I’ve never been in such pitch blackness. But crickets are a bat’s prey, and bats track by …? Yep, sonar. So, the insects don’t sing.
Finally, we reached the Frozen Niagra. Beautiful! Stalactites, stalagmites, and columns of limestone. From there, we were given the option to take a shortcut to the exit and avoid nearly a hundred steps. Phfft! Didn’t I say we weren’t wimps?
Before leaving the underground, we passed walls populated by those crickets I mentioned, and then ducked beneath a bat hanging from the ceiling—the latter much smaller than I’d expected and seemingly unimpressed by a bunch of temporary explorers. As an aside, unfortunately, a disease called White Nose Syndrome is killing the bats, so as a precaution, visitors are made to walk over soapy mats at the end of the tour.
There’s much more to do in the park than wander tunnels. But if being underground is your thing, there are numerous cave tour options, including one in which you can prove how adventurous you are when you “climb, crawl, squeeze, hike and canyon walk” for six hours. Crawl on, but you won’t see me on that one!
They don’t call them Mammoth Caves for grins, so I’ll admit the size of the caverns helped me get through the whole adventure with a smile.
Here are my questions for you. When have you laid your fear on the line to experience something you never thought you would? What type of fear have you conquered, even temporarily?
*To read the original post, see Writing Prompts & Thoughts & Ideas…Oh my!
You wouldn’t catch me on a six-hour underground tour either! Yikes! Last year, we explored a couple lava tubes. I was a bit uneasy at first, but the whole experience wasn’t nearly as frightening as I expected and proved to be very educational. But we never had to crawl…ugh. 🙂
Enjoyed your recap of Mammoth Cave, Sandy. Happy Tuesday!
Lava tubes…Sounds interesting, but I’ll probably pass. 🙂 Thanks! Have a great and productive week.