A Wild Caving Weekend

By Cindy Ross
Photographs by Walter P. Calahan

The colorful caverns of a state park, Kentucky Scouts discover a fascinating subterranean world.

It's movie night at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Kentucky.

For the Scouts of Troop 361, Stanton, Ky., the film—a thriller about cave explorers threatened by deadly underground creatures—seems even more frightening because the Scouts are watching it inside an actual cave.

Guided by experienced staff on excursions through tight passageways and dark openings, Alvin Faulkner and the other Scouts of Troop 361 were able to explore several of the more than 20 caverns in Kentucky's Carter Caves State Resort Park.

When the movie's explorers suddenly encounter the hostile creatures, the Scouts sitting in the front row jump in alarm. Seconds later, the fear factor goes up another notch when a big drop of water falls from the limestone ceiling and lands squarely on the head of a startled Scout. Then everyone looks up and sees...a live bat darting through the air in front of the movie screen!

Scary, yes, but the Scouts agree the underground show is a great way to kick off a weekend caving adventure.

Network of caves

Limestone-rich eastern Kentucky is riddled with a vast network of caves, and Carter County alone has about 200 caverns. Most of these are gated and locked on private property, but in the state resort park's more than 20 caverns, visitors can discover and enjoy the exciting sport of caving (also known as spelunking).

Husband and wife Rick and Faye Stamper serve as Scoutmaster and assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 361, which is chartered to the Shiloh United Methodist Church in Stanton. Because only a few of their Scouts had ever been in a cave, the two leaders decided caving would be a great weekend activity and Carter Caves an ideal location.

Some of the park's caves offer educational programs and include easy-to-walk paths with handrails. Others, however, provide an atmosphere of exploring a new or "wild" cave, either with a staff guide or on a self-guided tour.

The Scouts began their weekend of subterranean visits with a guided tour on which they learned about the fascinating variety of colorfully named mineral formations found in caves.

While viewing a scary movie about cave explorers, the Scouts also watch out for any stray bats flying through the subterranean theater.

They marveled at translucent "cave bacon," hollow, dripping "soda straws"; and layers of flowstone that look like milk frozen in place while pouring over a surface. They saw stalagmites rising from the floor, stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and giant columns formed where the two have grown together.

They learned how calcium carbonate dripped through cracks on the earth's surface and slowly ate away the world below. They gazed at calcified sea creatures that, many millions of years ago, in the same location, were at the bottom of the ocean.

In addition to natural history, the Scouts also learned how humans have used caves. Touring restored Salt Petre Cave, they heard how miners extracted saltpeter, a major ingredient in gunpowder, during the War of 1812. Walking through dusty tunnels made by miners, the troop viewed remnants of gnarled wooden braces, sieving troughs, and even a "time tunnel" where the miners had used burnt sticks to write their names on the wall.

And at Bat Cave, which is gated during the winter, the Scouts were able to catch a glimpse of thousands of hibernating Indiana bats, an endangered species.

Crawling and climbing

Then it was time for the Scouts' wild caving adventure. In preparation for crawling through mud and water and squeezing through narrow openings, they donned gloves, kneepads, and helmets fitted with headlamps.

They were told to always be aware of those in front and behind, because staying close to the person ahead helps each person determine the best way to climb over a slab, angle his hips to get through a tight crawl space, drop down a chute, or climb upward through a narrow passage called a "chimney."

Some Scouts acknowledged that they were nervous approaching tight or dark spaces, while others confronted such challenges with enthusiasm. But through every tunnel and passageway, each Scout was ready to extend a hand to the Scout behind him, give a boost to the one ahead, and offer encouragement to all.

In addition to hiking through caverns, the boys visited fascinating formations aboveground. The park's hiking trails go through box canyons, along massive sandstone bluffs, and in and around great blocks of fallen rock. The routes also include the park's five natural bridges, such as Smokey Bridge, which is 220 feet long, 45 feet wide, and 90 feet high.

On their own

The highlight of the caving adventure occurred on the second day when the Scouts learned they had qualified as having enough experience to receive the required permit to explore both Horn Hollow Cave and Laurel Cave on their own.

Jadon Barron examines a cave's variety of fascinating mineral formations.

While the caves' straightforward passageways make getting lost on a self-guided tour virtually impossible, the Scouts enjoyed the sense of freedom and the thrill of exploring on their own.

Laurel Cave looks like a sculpted underground Utah, with rippled rock curving sinuously and deep stone pools and a gutter-like trough where a narrow creek cuts through the limestone.

Troop 361's visit to the fascinating underground world allowed the Scouts to appreciate and understand the earth as never before, said Scoutmaster Stamper.

"The boys learned vocabulary and gained knowledge about caves and other interesting things about their state," he said. "And they were able to practice their Scouting and leadership skills."

The troop agreed with Scout Keith Caudill when he described the weekend as "the experience of a lifetime."

The adventure had been both valuable and unforgettable, the 13-year-old concluded. "If we can crawl through these tight, muddy passageways, we can do anything!"

A frequent contributor to Scouting magazine, Cindy Ross also wrote "Where Riding Works Wonders," in the October 2006 issue.

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