Today we've got something pretty amazing planned. It's a visit to the biggest cave system in the world! Today we're going underground to learn about Mammoth Cave! We'd just gone to Diamond Caverns earlier in the week, so I was wondering how much different this would be.
Saturday, August 21, 2021
The Flowers Explore - Mammoth Cave National Park - 2021/07/28
The visitor's center is just a short 12 minute drive from our campsite at Diamond Caverns RV Park.
It's a good thing Theresa is on top of researching all these. Tickets for the Mammoth Cave Guided Tours sell out weeks in advance during the summer. Walk-up tickets just aren't available. When we were there, an electronic sign said there were no guided tour tickets available for the next 8 days! The self-guided tour does let you go down into the caves, but you'll be reading the information from signs.
We'll be doing one of the most popular tours called the Historic Modified Tour. Tickets are $20 for adults, and $15 for kids 6-12 years old. That means Alli is free!
Our tour isn't until 2:30 so we've got about 40 minutes to look around. They've got a Junior Ranger Program here! We had a fun time at Hot Springs National Park and doing the Junior Ranger Program there. Let's do it here too!
While the Junior Ranger program was free at Hot Springs National Park, here is was $2 for each booklet in the gift shop. And since I forgot to bring a pencil, I bought one for each of them. $1 each, but these are color changing pencils. A little heat from your hand and Alli's changes from pink to purple (perfect for her). Ian's goes from yellow to orangish (okay for a boy who likes gold).
We walked through the various exhibits, filling out our junior ranger guide as best as we could. Here's a scale model of the known cave system. There's over 400 miles of passageways through here. That's amazing.
The announcements overhead directed us to make our way to Shelter A to meet our guide.
When we got here, it was very crowded already! Unlike our Diamond Caverns tour a couple days ago that had 20 people, this tour must have 80 people on it!
Here's our guide, Ranger Eric! He's a retired Kentucky school teacher who decided to join the Ranger Service, the same as his father-in-law. He gave us a quick run-down of the do's and don'ts of the cave. Like "Don't touch any of the rocks inside the cave. There's plenty of rocks on the outside of the cave that you can touch. The ones inside the cave feel the same." "Please ask any questions you want. If I know the answer, I'll tell you, but if I don't I'll make up the biggest Kentucky lie and I'll tell you that."
Next we walked as a group downhill towards the entrance of a cave.
Here, Ranger Eric stopped and told us all how this cave was discovered.
"Back in 1797, John Houchin got up early in the morning to go hunting. He came across a squirrel but thought, no, too small. Then he came across a rabbit and thought the same thing. He came upon a deer, but after having deer so many ways already he decided to pass. Finally he came upon a bear. Oh yes. A bear would make for a great meal. He took aim, fired, but only wounded the bear. He chased the wounded bear and the bear ended up taking refuge at the entrance to this cave."
"So remember what I told you before? That if I didn't know something, I'd make it up? I don't actually know if that's how this cave was found. I kinda doubt it though because if John Houchin was a real Kentuckian he would have killed that bear with one shot."
He asked where people were from and had people shout out Kentucky, Tennessee, and Michigan. Ian yelled out California and got special attention, for how long it must have taken us to drive there.
"Who's visited Mammoth Caves before?" A few hands went up.
"Who's first time is it?" A few more hands went up. "It's mine too. Let's go see what's in there." The kids got a real kick out of that.
As we walked up, it was noticeably cold. The ambient temperature is somewhere in the 90s, but as we got to the mouth of the cave, the temperature dropped into the 60s and a wind was gusting from the open cavern.
Just above the entrance, there's a steady little trickle of water. I'm surprised there's not more of it in the cave.
As we were walking through the entry tunnels, I was already amazed at how much larger this cave was than the Diamond Caverns we just saw. Apparently Mammoth Cave is made of two layers of rock. Limestone on the bottom that erodes away, and a sandstone "cap" that has kept it mostly dry. The sandstone doesn't let water easily pass through it, so it forms a nice ceiling as the limestone slows washes away.
Ranger Eric, "As we go in, once you get to the fork Bear Left."
I responded with "Right Frog!"
Ian asked me what I meant. I told him I'd show him when we got back outside.
Ah, obscure movie references. The Muppet Movie was a favorite growing up.
When Kermit is giving Fozzie directions, he tells him to Bear Left. Fozzie answers with Right Frog!
And now whenever I'm telling Ian to go left, I say Bear Left and he'll respond with Right Frog!
The scale of this place is insane. It's like we're in an auditorium. The ceiling is so high and the space is so massive.
It didn't take long before the kids were wanting to put on their jackets. I think they said it stays pretty close to 54 degrees in here constantly.
Along the walkways there were hollowed out logs that almost looked like pipes. I wonder what those are for?
It didn't take long for our guide to tell us. The year was 1812. America imports many things from Great Britain, including gunpowder. But now America is going to war with Great Britain and they are not so keen on selling us their gunpowder so we need to figure out a way to make our own. Luckily Mammoth Cave was a local resource for saltpeter which is a critical component in the making of gunpowder. It was extracted from the soil here and shipped to the DuPont company up north to make gunpowder. These are the original logs from 1812, so over 200 years old!
"The cold temperature and dry climate is great for preservation. I myself am 160 years old. Too bad it doesn't work on hair." said Ranger Eric as he lifted his hat and showed us his cueball head.
When the war was over and the need for saltpeter was done, all the equipment was left in place and abandoned. It was cheaper to import gunpowder than to manufacture it at home.
This area here is called the Church and the Pulpit. Methodist church services were held here once upon a time and this is where the pastor would climb up and preach to the congregation. And I bet that congregation appreciated the cool temperatures inside the cave when it was summertime and hot outside.
Ian - I do! Why is it called Mammoth Cave?
"That's a great question. Way back in the 1800s, if they would have put a sign out on the side of the road that said 'Really Big Cave' not too many people would want to come see it. But if they said it was gargantuan, humongous, or Mammoth, people would want to stop in and look. Mammoth has been used for 200 years now and they're not going to change it. It doesn't have anything to do with Wooly Mammoths or anything like that."
We walked on to the next part of the cave and here we started to learn a little more about the recent history of the exploration of the cave. There's actually artifacts showing it was used as early as the 10000 years ago by the Native Americans.
One of the most prominent early explorers of the cave was a slave by the name of Stephen Bishop. Franklin Gorin owned the caves around 1838 and wanted to make it a tourist attraction. He had his slaves lead the rich people of the time (because the poor people couldn't afford vacations) on tours of this Mammoth Cave.
With an oil lantern, Stephen led the rich and powerful on tours of the different areas of the cave, and down here, he was treated as an equal.
Ranger Eric asked everyone to turn off all their electronics or anything that made light, then turned off all the electric lighting in the area. It was the blackest of black. You couldn't see your hand an inch in front of your face. After a few moments, a spark! An oil lantern is now the only thing illuminating the cave. It's amazing how much of a difference one little spark can make.
Back in those days, touring the cave was an event and the rich and powerful needed to look the part. They were dressed up in coats and slacks, and the ladies were in dresses. There weren't these nice concrete paths either. They were crawling and climbing over boulders the entire time, and tours would last for hours.
Again I was glad to have my hat. There were a few places where it was a close scrape to get under the overhanging rock. If Ian and Alli have to duck, you know it's low.
If you were to tour the cave with Stephen Bishop or any of those cave guides back in the 1830s, this is the furthest you would go. The Bottomless Pit.
It's here that the tour would end with Stephen tossing a lit piece of paper into the opening and it would go out before it hit the bottom. If a heavier object was dropped, it wouldn't make a sound (landing on a silty bottom 105 feet deep). But then one day a visitor offered him a "fistful of money" to take him someplace no one had been before. Stephen and this visitor brought a cedar plank, a lantern, and a lot of bravery, and crossed over the bottomless pit into an area that was unknown to anyone.
I like how they've made this section of the bridge see-through so you really know it's really a deep pit that you're crossing.
Because he was the first into these sections, Stephen was able to name many of them. Our guide told us about these next two areas coming up called Fat Man's Misery and Tall Man's Misery.
Originally these passageways were filled with silt, and Stephen would have had to crawl through on his belly. He helped clear them out, which led to these narrow passageways through the rocks. Here we were allowed to touch them.
It was a tight squeeze to get through this short section of the cave.
Fat Man's Misery was followed by Tall Man's Misery. You take a step up and the ceiling gets even lower. I was hunched over all through this area.
Once you make it through you end up in Great Relief Hall, so named by Stephen Bishop because he was so relieved to finally make it through those last sections. Here we see some of what is called 'Historical Graffiti'. Stephen and the other guides were allowed to make money on their tours, and if you gave them a nickel you were allowed to write your name on the walls in candle smoke.
Being the first in these sections of the caves, Stephen made a number of "firsts" in his discoveries. In an underground lake, he found fish and crayfish that had no eyes and were a translucent white. Scientists of the time had never seen anything like that before.
At our deepest point on the tour, we were over 300 feet below the surface! It's time to start climbing back up.
Here we came to one of the most spectacular sections of the cave. Again discovered by Stephen Bishop in his explorations, this was named Gorin's Dome, also called Mammoth Dome. A 200 foot tall, 60 foot wide chamber.
A stairway leading back to the higher chambers and more tunnels has been constructed more recently. Our guide gave us the suggestion that if you get tired, all you have to do is stop and point at anywhere in the cave.
Many of the areas we've seen have been dry, with no possibilities for stalactites or stalagmites. This area though was a little wetter. There's a feature called butterscotch pudding on the walls here.
Starting our climb up the stairs, I'm glad we've been making the kids go on some longer walks and build up their endurance. There were no requests to "carry me" or complaints about how much we were walking. We've covered over 2 miles underground and had 540 stairs to climb.
Another view of Mammoth Dome but midway up the staircase. You can see the tiny people at the bottom of the frame.
Here our tour started to come to an end. Stephen Bishop continued exploring the cave even after he was freed as a slave. His wife and son had tried to get him to move away, but there was always one more section of the cave that he wanted to go explore. Stephen died at the age of 36, and is buried on the surface in the Old Guides' Cemetery. The headstone reads "Stephen Bishop, First Guide and Explorer of the Mammoth Cave".
Since that time, over 412 miles of this cave have been surveyed, making it the longest cave system in the world. It's certainly been an impressive tour.
I'll finish up the tour with the brief 5 minute video of Ranger Eric and his closing remarks.
Unlike Diamond Caverns, this tour does not make you backtrack over the areas you've gone already. Only in a short span by the entrance (where we had to Bear Left) do we walk by things we've seen before. And before you know it, we were back at the entrance and can see daylight again.
Oh yeah, that's what happens when something that has cooled down suddenly warms back up. My DSLR fogged right up as soon as we got to the surface.
My iPhone camera does just fine though. It's been about 2 hours since we all met up at Shelter A to start the tour. We had a great time! It was a really incredible natural place to experience.
Once we got back to the main visitor's center and into the air conditioning, the kids completed their junior ranger activities, now armed with the knowledge they'd gained from their cave tour.
And here's a look at their badge. I see spelunkers with lights on their helmets doing some exploring. This badge is a little different than the one from Hot Springs National Park. This one is made out of plastic instead of wood. Interesting.
Congratulations Junior Rangers!
We had a fun time visiting Mammoth Cave. I was really glad we did both Mammoth Cave and Diamond Caverns. Both were unique and showed some interesting differences in what can happen over millions of years.
And the kids' thoughts?
Alli - Mamith cavs - Fat mans misry was fuy. Tol mans misrey was fuy. And we wact and wact.