Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mammoth Cave Below Ground

We decided to do the general tour today, the Mammoth Passage Tour....It's the easiest and shortest one. five dollars a person, a little over one hour, and a 3/4 of a mile walk on a paved path. It was the perfect and short visit to the cave's largest and most visited entrance area. We wanted to check out the Corvette Factory tour this afternoon, so we didn't have time to wait for the later tours of Mammoth. There are LOTS of tours more challenging and strenuous to choose from, if you desire.  Our tour guide, Joel, did a wonderful job of giving us some cultural and historical background of the cave. He was humorous at times, making jokes about if there should be a cave in, he knew of at least ten other ways out of the cave...Of course, we'd have to swim a river and it might take three or four days for us to get out, and if we didn't die of hypothermia, most of us would make it, but we should have confidence in him! Often a tour guide makes or breaks an interesting or boring tour. We've had the wonderful experience over time of having the rangers be 90% interesting, funny, and very caring about their jobs and protecting their national park treasures. Ranger Joel was no exception. He was terrific at explaining just how important it is to treasure our national resources, to take care of them, and to protect them for future generations. He talked about how rangers use to throw a burning torch down a dark passageway for drama, then realizing later that the torches were destroying native artifacts.

We were just a little disappointed in the cave itself. After having seen Carlsbad Caverns earlier this year, it's VERY different and not as impressive. It's a dry cave---no stalactites or stalagmites, popcorn formations or much of anything, just a cavernous place with lots of history behind it. It was interesting to learn that the cave used to provide mining opportunities for calcium carbonate (the stuff Tums is made of), and saltpeter for gunpowder. The phrase "all petered out" came from the days of saltpeter economic growth diminishing as the economic boom for it virtually dried up once gunpowder was no longer in demand. There were lots of artifacts in the cave--wagons, pipes, mining equipment and other evidence that people had been coming there for thousands of years. Early people collected crystals and salts. There was grafitti on the walls from over a hundred years ago. The artifacts are very well preserved inside the cave because of the dry environment. We learned some more interesting facts about Mammoth Cave.

It's the longest cave system in the world. Over 365 miles of the cave's passages have been surveyed. Geologists think there might be another 600 miles of yet to be discovered passages-wow!...Before the War of 1812, slaves mined the saltpeter....Around 1816, people started to visit the cave....About 130 forms of life can be found in Mammoth Cave, most of it very, very small. And there was lots more...

One of the most interesting things about today's tour, was the ranger explained how culturally Mammoth Cave came to be such an important place to preserve. In the first 100 years of our country's history, the wealthy were always looking to keep up with their wealthy neighbors. What did you do in those days for entertainment if you had a lot of money? Travel to Europe, then come back home and brag about what you had seen--the pyramids, the temples....People with less money had to find other ways to "compete with the Jones's"...Places like caves, dark and mysterious, more places where others had never been...Places to hike remotely, see waterfalls, canyons, mountains, places where others had only heard about, this is what drew Americans to their own country's marvels....Wonders of nature were our greatest treasures. "Big was beautiful"...and they started coming.....

It's pretty tough to get a good photo of Mammoth Cave on the inside...So here are some word pictures for you....I'll get you started....
Doesn't look like much from the front!
"Walking down the stairs into the darkness, you ready yourself to enter the 'underworld'....You see water dripping down the hillside in front of the cave as you enter. The ranger unlocks the gate, then locks it behind you. The ranger talks about panic attacks and how some people get claustrophobia. You wonder how narrow the path is going to be and if you will feel a little panicky the deeper you go into the cave. It gets darker and darker until the ranger flicks the switch to gently illuminate the side walls of the cave and the stone path in front of you. You can see piles of rock where cave walls have eroded and crashed down...The rock walls are grey and deeper shades of gray. Everything seems to be covered in dust.You see dusty tools left from a hundred years ago along with pipes buried in the ground that use to carry the minerals to the surface over 400 feet above you. The huge round main cave room is a giant rotunda. It's so high you can't believe it! You look at it in awe, feeling like you are in a completely different world. You are AMAZED that this world exists, it feels like what it might be like being on another planet. The passage continues in front of you, but you can see other trails leading off in other directions, almost like one of those underground subway maps with arms flailing out in all directions. The cave is eerily silent except for when the ranger is talking about all the history that preceded you in this cave. You look at the lighted exhibits that show artifacts from native Americans' visits to the cave among other things. You hear that people have died and been buried here, people have been married here....After a short trail and a long talk, you turn around to head back to the entrance.  You wonder just how big this cave is, really?! And as you head towards the light streaming in at the entrance of the cave, you marvel at how diverse this environment is, the one above you and the one below you, and you wonder how long it will survive......"

The fragile ecosystem of the cave is being disturbed by the agricultural run off and other pollutants from the groundwater above....The cave is a part of the regional groundwater systems in the Green River basin. Water quality and air quality is seriously affecting the Mammoth Cave National Park ecosystems. In 1990, the park became an International Biosphere Reserve. This gives it SOME protection from future damage, but much remains to be done to protect it for future generations....Right now, the caves trustees are worried about the White-Nose Bat Syndrome, a disease that was first seen in New York in 2006. It has spread rapidly and caretakers of our nation's caves believe that one of the causes of the alarming, quick death rate of the bats is due in part to humans inadvertently carrying in spores on their clothing or equipment. If you come to visit Mammoth Cave, they ask that you let them know if you have visited any other caverns or caves in the past 5 years, and if you have, they ask that you wear different shoes, and disinfect your personal belongings. A Lysol type foaming agent is impregnated on a rubber mat as you come out of Mammoth cave to disinfect your shoes.....

The importance of bats is a whole other topic, but needless to say, bats play critical roles in plant pollination, seed dispersing, cave ecosystems and insect control. Losing the bats could result in agricultural damage as high as 53 BILLION dollars a year! Bats have played a big role in science and medicine--sonar, vaccine development, artificial insemination (!) and more.....No wonder the scientists are alarmed! (Wow! Sparky are you done yet? Some people want to know about the Corvette tour! says E., tugging on Sparky's sleeve.) Yeah, ok, whew! That was a lot of information! Maybe too much! It's those darn Cokes again--two today and I was on a role!  Gotta save the Corvette tour for tomorrow! And I'll tell you right now--no photos allowed NOR camera phones. Rats!  See you at the Corvette factory tomorrow......


  1. When we got to that area, our camphost asked if we were going to the cave. We said, yes. She said have you been to Carlsbad Caverns. Again...yes. She said don't go; you will be disappointed. So we didn't make it to the cave. We did love the area though.

  2. I haven't been to Mammoth Cave in over 40 years, and I'm betting it hasn't changed much. :)

  3. I have been in a lot of caverns, but not Carlsbad. I always loved Mammoth Cave. There are so many different tours you can take, and I think we walked the kids through a lot of them.

  4. Wow is that interesting. I've seen both stalactites and stalagmites at Mammoth. I even have pictures - SOMEWHERE.

    Did you go into the drapery room?

    Just found this on the internet

    "Celebrated caverns that owe much of their beauty to their stalactites and stalagmites are Mammoth Cave, Ky.; the Luray Caverns, Va.; and the Carlsbad Caverns, N.Mex".

    Maybe you should take another tour and talk to another guide. I'm suspicious. Pretty positive Mammoth is not a dry cave unless just in that one "historic" section.

  5. I agree. . .the drapery room was beautiful. We did the photography tour. . .didn't have the fancy mat to clean our shoes. . .they sprayed the bottom of our feet with lysol when we came out. . .loved the history of the area!