By Sandra Ardoin
With over 400 miles of explored tunnels, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, one of our national treasures, 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. No spelunker, it was my first experience in a cavern. I walked up to the counter and asked the ranger on duty, “What tours do you have for old people?” (Okay, we’re not old old, but we get closer with each new ache.)
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—see above paragraph) might want to reconsider. Really? Did they think they were dealing with a couple of wimps? Bring on the bus to the cavern!
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.
Over a hundred people took our tour, with hubby and me almost bringing up the rear, so it was slow going as we descended into the abyss. I’ll admit, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if there was an earthquake. Nope. No wimp in that bunny-hop line.
The way was well-lit and the path relatively smooth. No problem, except when we were forced to pause in a tight, low-ceilinged spot. (One of us found out the hard way that you need to watch your head. I won’t say which one, but for once, it wasn’t me.) 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.
At the end of the tour, they bused us back to the visitor’s center where we were required to walk over a bio mat with soapy water to clean our shoes. Unfortunately, a disease called White Nose Syndrome is killing the bats and, of course, they don’t want it spread from cave to cave.
We drove to the ferry that crosses the Green River. While the ferry is no longer made of wood and hauling animals and wagons across the strip of water, it can carry three vehicles and was so smooth I only knew we were moving by watching the scenery.
A little history about the river and the ferry from a park sign:
There’s much more to do in the park than wander tunnels. You can camp or stay in the hotel, hike, bike, and horseback ride. 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!
All right, maybe I can be a little wimpy, but I didn’t ache the next day nearly as much as I expected.
Writing Prompt: I bent almost double, hands on my knees, as ragged gasps erupted from deep inside. The darkness enveloped us, with only the small point of the flashlight to lead our way. How did I get trapped in Mammoth Caves with such an enthusiastic tour guide? Suddenly…
Sandra Ardoin writes inspirational historical romance. She’s the author of The Yuletide Angel and A Reluctant Melody. A wife and mom, she’s also a reader, football fan, NASCAR watcher, garden planter, country music listener, antique store prowler. Visit her at www.sandraardoin.com and on the Seriously Write blog. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, and Pinterest. Join her email community to receive occasional updates and a free short story.