It was hotter than hot–over 90 degrees with a thick southern humidity that hits you like a bus when you step outside. As I pulled on my long sleeve shirt, I chuckled at the thought of wearing it on the surface, 250 feet above my current location. It was 55 degrees where I stood and boy was it fabulous.
With 405 miles of mapped cavities and some unknown distance of unmapped offshoots, Mammoth caves in Kentucky is the longest cave system in the world. I experienced a mere few miles of this wonder, with at least a couple of those miles intertwining and overlapping each other like spaghetti in a bowl. However little distance walked, crawled, & climbed, it was undoubtedly one of the coolest adventures of my life–both figuratively and literally.
The surface area above Mammoth caves is pock-marked with sink holes, like a gambler with pocket aces and no poker face, unknowingly revealing its hidden treasure. Below ground is a thin layer of sandstone followed by the obligatory limestone in which water flowed for millions of years creating an underground maze of passageways and chemical rock formations.
Some passageways are too small for humans, roads for small animals and bugs only. Some can be squeezed through like the key hole opening I managed to wriggle on my belly in and out of on the Intro to Caving tour. While some are gigantic chambers big enough to fit hundreds of people (wedding reception, anyone?). Some passageways are wide and short, while others are deep and narrow. Given the right tour, even the claustrophobic and acrophobic (afraid of heights) can enjoy Mammoth caves. Luckily, I’m neither and I marveled at both the largest chambers and the smallest nooks I found myself.
The formations in Mammoth caves encompass all the ones you’ve seen on tv including stalactites hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites defying gravity to grow up from the ground, and columns attaching the two. The frozen Niagara formation is a flowstone that actually resembles frozen water in curvature resembling the namesake waterfall. Cave popcorn lined areas of cave walls, gypsum crystals sparkled in the light of our headlamps, and dark patches of soot on the ceilings and walls created whatever cloud-like figures your imagination could conjure.
The star chamber room had a particularly large patch of black ceiling with clearly demarcated cave walls that gave the illusion of an opening to the outside world. Adding to the deception when our lanterns were taken away was an array of white sparkles in the darkness above as if we were gazing up into the night sky.
The primary guided passageways are all lighted, bright enough that you can see where you’re going, but not so bright as to allow you to forget you are underground. When those lights are turned off, as occurred (on purpose) on all 3 tours I embarked, the darkness was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. So dark that even this writer cannot find the words to describe it. Darker than night. Darker than the basement in my childhood home, at night, with the lights off. Simply, eerily, black. Blind?
Which brings me to the animals in Mammoth caves. There are said to be bats, eyeless fish, crayfish, shrimp, & salamanders, and crickets. I saw some crickets and although no bats were glimpsed, they were on everyones’ minds. A major issue in cave ecology today is the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that causes white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than 5 million bats in the eastern U.S. over the last 10 years. It’s not a pathogen that affects humans, but it can be carried from one infested cave to another through human traffic. So after each tour, we trudged through a thick mat of oolite detergent–apparently harsh enough to kill the fungus, but not damage our boots.
No flash photography was permitted in the caves and we could only really take pictures outside and during the lighted (not lantern nor headlamp) tours, of which I went on just one – the Domes and Dripstones tour. But the images in my mind sit right next to night kayaking in the bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico, gazing into the crystal-clear hot springs in Yellowstone, and standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. And when I look back on such memories I am reminded that I am so fortunate for the opportunity to experience even just a few of the natural wonders of our world.
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful,
we must carry it with us or we find it not.
Ralph Waldo Emerson