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Travel Mammoth Cave Tours Reveal Subterranean Wonders


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Blasts of cool air offered a welcome reprieve from the scorching summer as a tour group descended into the depths of the world’s longest-known cave. Some visitors donned light jackets for the long hike past panoramic scenes of subterranean wonders.

Heading underground at Mammoth Cave National Park is a sure way to escape the dog days of August. The celebrated cave that has lured the curious for thousands of years remains a temperate 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) year-round.

“It’s the first time I’ve been cool in I don’t know how long,” said Sarah Hyatt, who travelled from Maryland to marvel at the massive limestone formations with her parents and her 8-year-old daughter.

Each year, about 700,000 people take the short trip off Interstate 65 to visit Mammoth Cave, with the peak time coming in summer. In winter, the cave’s temperate climate gives it a balmy feel, said park spokeswoman Vickie Carson.

Tours cater to a range of visitors, from hardy adventurers to those looking for less-strenuous outings.

One tour suited for small children, the elderly and others who can’t walk long distances covers a quarter-mile (400 meters) and includes just a dozen stairs. Other tours cover four to five miles (6 1/2 to 8 kilometres) and put participants through vigorous workouts.

On the popular “Historic Tour,” visitors take a winding two-mile (3.2-kilometer) hike that leads them some 310 feet (95 meters) below the surface.

It’s not a stroll in the park. Participants have to chug up and down 440 stairs. Wide walkways leading into expansive “rooms” give way to belly-scraping paths that take a serpentine route through the rock.

For adults, there’s stooping to manoeuvre past low rock ceilings and sideway squeezing to slip through a narrow passage in a part of the cave known as “Fat Man’s Misery.” There’s a steep climb up a stairway at a majestic part of the cave known as Mammoth Dome.

“How are those hour-long aerobic workouts working for you now,” Hyatt asked her mother as visitors huffed their way upward.

Dim lighting woven along points in the cave revealed a fascinating look at the tapestry of rock formations during the two-hour excursion.

At one point, tour guide Nick Asher let visitors experience the cave in its purest form.

He told them that on the count of three, they would be enveloped in darkness. On count one, they should close their eyes, he coached them. On count two, he would cut off his lantern. On count three, they should open their eyes.

“And if you’re afraid of the dark, just skip count three,” Asher advised.

When the group opened their eyes, the only audible responses were “wow.”

“This is total and complete darkness we’re feeling down here,” Asher said as visitors soaked in the feeling of being completely cut off from the world above. “And the cave is one of the only places on earth where you can experience total silence.”

After a few moments, he flicked a small lighter that illuminated the walls and ceiling.

Asher said that faint light was enough to get them back to the surface.

“Now when I say we, I mean Ranger Joe and I,” he joked, referring to his sidekick, long-time tour guide Joe Duvall. “But we would surely send someone back to get you all later.”

The experience was a highlight for Cameron Moreland, who fulfilled his boyhood dream with his visit to Mammoth Cave.

“That’s exactly the kind of experience we wanted to get out of it,” said Moreland, who took the tour with his wife and their three children from Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The excursion was a big hit with his children -- including the youngest, 6-year-old Cole.

“It was like a little boy’s dream come true,” the boy’s father said of the adventure.

While the underground tours are the main attraction, there’s plenty to do on the surface as well. The park also offers boating, fishing, horseback riding, camping and walking trails amid the scenic rolling hills of south-central Kentucky.

The park is about 90 miles (145 kilometres) from both Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee.

There are some 400 caves underneath the park, but Mammoth Cave is by far the best known and longest -- some 392 miles (631 kilometres) of passageways have been mapped and surveyed.

Besides the underground sights, the visit reveals a fascinating look at the layers of human history in a place that Asher calls a “time capsule,” thanks to the temperate conditions that help keep things preserved.

“All the artifacts we’re seeing are the originals,” he said. “There are no reproductions down here.”

Evidence indicates that the area’s indigenous peoples ventured into the cave as far back as 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, apparently to scrape gypsum and other minerals off walls, said Carson, the park spokeswoman.

It wasn’t until the 1790s that Mammoth Cave was found by white settlers. As the story goes, she said, a hunter shot at a bear that lumbered into the cave, with the man in hot pursuit.

For a time, the cave served as a valuable source of saltpeter, an ingredient for gunpowder. Mammoth Cave played a key role in supplying saltpeter for the young nation’s military during the War of 1812. The remnants of saltpeter mining are still on display in the cave.

The first tours started in 1816, as the cave attracted wealthy visitors from the Eastern U.S. and Europe.

Nearly two centuries later, the cave still fascinates throngs of sightseers making the trek to Kentucky.

“This is my idea of a vacation,” Hyatt said as her tour group left the cave’s natural air conditioning for the steamy temperatures on the surface. “It’s something out of the ordinary. I went ... underground and got to see stuff that’s been there for thousands of years.”



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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Here is some more content for the story above. Mammoth Cave has been home to indigenous peoples for centuries before the white man arrived in North American.

Mammoth undertaking

Researcher inventories thousands of cave artifacts

By Deb Aronson
Conducting an archaeological project in a cave has its pros and cons. On the one hand, artifacts are right out in the open, so no back-breaking digging is required. In addition, the constant humidity and temperature (about 54° F) and protection from the elements mean that archaeological remains in caves are exceptionally well preserved. On the down side, archaeologists have to work in almost complete darkness and in tight quarters. This activity is not recommended for the claustrophobic.

Washington University anthropology research associate George Crothers, Ph.D., must not be claustrophobic: He has spent the last seven years in Kentucky's dark, chilly Mammoth Cave, inventorying the contents of a three-mile portion of the cavern's 350-mile reach. The project has yielded a treasure trove of native American artifacts, from tools to textiles to pictographs and more.

Mammoth Cave, located in the south-central part of the state, is the longest cave system in the world. Native Americans explored and used the cave as early as 4,800 years ago. During the Early Woodland period -- 3,000 to 2,200 years ago -- they mined the cave for gypsum (perhaps to use as plaster or white paint) and mirabalite (known for its laxative effect).

"Many other caves were also entered and explored prehistorically -- hundreds by a conservative estimate," said Patty Jo Watson, Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences and consultant on the project. "But the fairly intensive mineral mining in Mammoth and Salts Cave [also in Kentucky] is unusual. Most caves were probably used as mortuary places, or places to contact the supernatural world below the Earth's surface. Caves were special places for the prehistoric people who went into them. They did not enter the dark zone casually or in a workaday mode."

Mammoth Cave has been a national park since 1941, and the project has been conducted under the auspices of the National Park Service. Park managers had wanted to inventory the cave for some time. Robert Ward, park historian and co-principal investigator on the project, explained that by knowing what and where everything in the cave is, the park service is better able to preserve the cave's cultural and natural heritage.

Volunteers from Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization that connects amateur volunteers with scientific researchers all around the world, have provided key help.

"The stars really lined up for this project," Ward said. "We needed help, but we realized it would be very labor intensive and expensive. Hooking up with Earthwatch gave us a predictable way to do this project and provides us with a unique source of helpers."

Ward said working with Crothers is "one of the things that has made this project such a pleasure. He has a very dry, wry sense of humor, and yet he is very nurturing, supportive and collegial."

Crothers, also a co-principal investigator, has led the project for all but the first year. (Mary Kennedy, then a graduate student in anthropology here, first established it.) Charles Swedlund, of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, is the third co-principal investigator.

The project's three-mile stretch, known as the Upper Trunk, is one of the largest and widest passageways and includes the only natural entrance used on cave tours. It is heavily traveled -- about 150,000 people visit annually.

Throughout the project, two crews of 10 Earthwatch vol-unteers work each summer and two more each fall for 10 days each. Each crew is divided into three groups. The first searches for artifacts, marking them with flags; the second group photographs, sketches and describes the items and their locations; and the last group uses a digital theodolite with infrared light to record the exact location of each artifact.

To date more than 8,000 artifacts have been documented. These include digging sticks, mussel shell scrapers, gourd containers, remnants from torches, cordage, twined slippers and fragments of other twined textiles which may have been pouches or bags.

Several pictographs also have been found. Most are simple geometric designs -- spirals, cross hatching and wavy lines. By far the largest artifact category is paleofeces, which have provided detailed information on ancient diet, including evidence that Native Americans were eating such domesticated plants as sunflower, sumpweed, goosefoot and maygrass. Hormonal analyses have been conducted on 12 paleofecal samples to determine the gender of the cave users -- all male so far. Efforts to recover DNA information are being undertaken now.

Work in the Upper Trunk will be finished this year or next. Then the systematic analysis starts. "All this data has been collected and compiled, but not edited yet," Crothers said.

The next stage will be time consuming. Ward said with only slight exaggeration that the team could be "crunching data now till the end of our lives."

Said Watson: "The quantity and quality of both historic and especially prehistoric material in the main tourist areas of the cave definitely surprised us. Because of the fine scale of the documentation and the long-term nature of the project, George is able to produce quite detailed maps of hundreds of items revealing distributional patterns that cannot be detected without just this kind of pain-staking, methodical recording."




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