Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mammoth Cave - An Introduction to Caving

A few months ago, I had the chance to do something that I had wanted to attempt for years.  I took the Introduction to Caving Tour at Mammoth Cave National Park.  Mammoth Cave National Park has over 400 miles of explored caves and is the longest cave system in the world. I remember the days when there were only 350 odd miles of cave! (Geez, I sound old.)

First, let me say that I have been to Mammoth Cave every year of my life... for real. Both sets of my grandparents live in the area and my parents ended up moving 30 minutes down the road, so it has become one of my favorite national parks. Favorite doesn't begin to describe it - it has become a second home. After moving away multiple times in my life I am always pulled back to this place! My ancestors have had a strong connection to the cave, my great grandfather helped in the attempted rescue of Floyd Collins, my grandfather worked in the cave as a young man, and my grandmother was even on a popular postcard back in the day! I worked a summer job at the Mammoth Cave Hotel and would happily roll my eyes at families checking in that expected hot tubs, pools, and five star resort services. I would always let these families know that in order to preserve the integrity of the cave system we could not have a pool (something I may have made up) and that it was either this or they could camp. 

Sure, there are parts of the park that I have yet to explore and trails I have yet to hike, but I feel so comfortable there and have pretty much gone on every tour they offer. Except for the Wild Cave Tour. That made me uncomfortable. Not because I am afraid of small spaces or anything, it is more that I have an overactive imagination.  I pictured us plunging into the cave carrying torches and rope, crawling over rocks, and repelling into deep chasms! I thought that maybe I would fall and break both legs and yell to the rest of the group, "Go, save your self. Tell my family that I love them!" But hey, I am a romantic.

So I thought, instead of starting with the Wild Cave Tour (5 miles), I would start with the Introduction to Caving Tour (only 1 mile). Here are a few of the things you need to know before taking the tour:
  • You need proper footwear. They will turn you away if you show up in anything less than sturdy boots with tread.
  • No personal caving gear allowed.
  • Cave is at a constant 50 degree temperature.
  • Your hip/chest measurements cannot be over 42 inches. If you are over that you will get stuck! 
  • If you are claustrophobic, this isn't for you.
  • This tour takes 3.5 hours.
  • They provide coveralls and helmet with light. (I was sad we didn't get torches!)
  • You crawl, a lot.
  • We clean off all of our gear and shoes after the tour to prevent White Nose Syndrome (WNS). This is something new that the park system has been doing over the last few years to help increase the bat population. WNS is a fungal disease that kills millions of bats. For more information about go to http://www.nps.gov/maca/parknews/nr-wnsinparkbats.htm or https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org
I get to the park, check in, get suited up and we are off! The funniest part for me was that in the very beginning. The guides make every one climb through the first small passage in the cave. After, they ask if anyone couldn't handle it. We sat there for about five minutes as the group leader stressed the importance of being honest with yourself - this was the last chance to turn around if you were claustrophobic. No one in my group seemed scared, so we pressed on!  We spent the next 3 to 4 hours on our knees, Army crawling, learning about the caves history, and sliding through small openings to other passages. It was a blast! 

I am 100% confident in taking the Wild Cave Tour next year, and encourage you to do the same! They even have a version of this tour for kids 8-12 years old called the Trog Tour.  

For more information on any tour at Mammoth Cave go to there website: http://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm 

Final thought. I am trying to get out of my comfort zone, branch out, and experience new things. I feel that mixing it up and trying something - even in a place that feels like home - can be a good thing. At first, I was apprehensive about going and doing something new alone. What was the result? Nothing but fun.   Here are some photos from that day:

Before 

Group in front of me. How low can you go!?

After