TITLE: A Weekend in the Caves AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 31, 2005 1:56 PM DESC: I took a break this weekend by exploring one of the great geological features of the world -- the Mammoth Cave region of south-central Kentucky. ----- BODY: The family inside Mammoth Cave My family's weekend at the caves was a great success, both for family and relaxation. This is a completely personal entry, so feel free to move on if you are looking professional content... South-central Kentucky in the US is one of the most cavernous terrains in the world. My wife, my two daughters, my mom, and four nieces and nephews met there for a long weekend of vacation. In our two days in the area, we visited three different cave systems, all within five miles of one another. First up was the magnet that drew us to the area, Mammoth Cave National Park. At over 350 miles, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. On our first day together, we took the relatively easy hour-long "discovery tour" of Mammoth Cave, followed by a few hours of hiking the national park trails. The discovery tour introduces visitors to the history and geology of the cave via a gentle walk. Next time, I'll sign up for the longer, more strenuous Frozen Niagara tour. If you are a real spelunker, or want to be one, you can take specific tours that explore deeper and less accessible portions of the cave. Leaving Hidden River Cave On our second day, we visited two other caves in the area. Hidden River Cave has the second-largest cave opening in the world -- only Carlsbad Caverns' is larger. It is also one of only two river cave tours in the US. The river is small but steady, with crystal water. You enter the cave by descending through an old sinkhole located right on Main Street in the town of Horse Cave. I was amazed to find this cave site while running through town that morning -- it is stunning. The picture at the right shows the view as members of my tour were leaving the cave; I couldn't do justice to the mouth of the cave from above. The cave site also hosts a museum that is worth an hour or so. On both the cave tour and museum visit, you learn that Hidden River Cave is one of the great environmental reclamation successes of the last half century. This cave was a popular tourist attraction from 1916 through 1943, when it had to close due to pollution. The residents of the region had been disposing of their garbage and sewage by throwing it all into the many sinkholes that pockmark the area. These sinkholes feed the underwater river that flows through the Hidden River Cave. By the mid-1980s, the cave was such a polluted mess that the town above nearly died. The clean-up has been remarkable. Through education, folks stopped the dumping, and Mother Nature repaired herself. The river itself is clean now, and the cave is clean and pleasant. We ended our caving with a visit to Diamond Caverns, which is the best "formation cave" in the area. A formation cave is distinguished by the quantity and quality of its stalactites and stalagmites, the features most folks think of when they think of caves. Diamond Caverns' formations have spectacular shapes and colors. On this tour, I learned about The Cave Wars waged in the first decades of the 1900s by the owners of the commercial cave tours in the Mammoth Cave region. The owners tried to increase their own profits by damaging the other caves. As the most beautiful cave in the region, Diamond Caverns was a frequent target, and it suffered extensive damage to some of its chambers. Even still, it was worth a visit. For the runners among you: I did manage to work in a short long run on Sunday, an 11-mile out-and-back jaunt between our hotel in Cave City and the eastern edge of Horse Cave. The two towns are connected by old U.S. 31, a two-lane highway. The motorists I encountered were not malicious, but they didn't seem to think they should change their behavior to account for a runner in their midst. Fortunately, I ran 5:30-7:00 AM, and the road had sidewalks and grassy shoulders. This was the first break I'd taken from work since at least March, and my mind enjoyed it. Now, it's back to work -- with slack built into my schedule for summer. -----