Caves are cool, they even have their own episode in the Planet Earth series! Even cooler than watching videos about caves though, is trekking through caves with friends. Several years ago I had the chance to explore Lusk Cave in Gatineau Park, part of Canada’s Capital Region, with my friends Justin and Ray.
Lusk Cave began being formed 12,500 years ago when glacial melt waters eroded the soluble marble, leaving behind an intricate outcropping of harder rock. The system stretches for about 150 meters, with a maximum depth 10 meters below the surface. These relatively young caves do not have the impressive stalactites and stalagmites that are typically associated with caves, but they still offer some impressive geological formations.
Lusk Caves are particularly known for their keyhole shape; where the upper portion of the tunnels are wide from the initial heavy glacial melt-water flow, and the lower portion of the tunnels are narrow from the slower stream erosion that is ongoing. Depending on the season, a significant portion of the cave system may be underwater, which can create some exciting (and wet) challenges when making your way through the system. During our trek through Lusk Cave, we largely made it through without getting wet, often taking a difficult high path to avoid the rushing, cold waters below. The immense enjoyment of that small caving trip sparked off a desire to visit more, and larger caves. Enter: Mammoth Cave, KY.
Ray and I planned a stop at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky on our trip to Bonnaroo. Mammoth Cave lives up to its name, it is the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles (643 km) having been explored, with more still being discovered, like these 10 extra miles that were recently discovered. Because of is size, historical, scientific, and cultural importance, Mammoth Cave is a National Park, and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO notes that “the park illustrates a number of stages of the Earth’s evolutionary history and contains ongoing geological processes and unique wildlife. It is renowned for its size and vast network of extremely large horizontal passages and vertical shafts. Nearly every type of cave formation known is within the site, the product of karst topography. The flora and fauna of Mammoth Cave is the richest cave-dwelling wildlife known, with more than 130 species within the cave system“. The importance of Mammoth Cave can been further seen if you look at its impact on the scientific community. Using Google Scholar I created an author profile for Mammoth Cave, and estimated that 2,980 scholarly articles have been written that have a connection to Mammoth Cave. Those articles have been cited 60,437 times, and date back to the 1850’s, which is pretty cool.
On our trip to Mammoth Cave, we took the Wild Cave Tour. But before we could proceed with the tour we needed to suit up. We strip off our outside clothes and don outerwear (gloves, coveralls, helmet) that has been provided by the Park Service, and our boots (self provided) undergo stringent disinfection procedures. These precautions are to minimize the spread of White Nose Syndrome, which is a fungus that is decimating bat populations across the Eastern United States and Canada. Unfortunately, it seems as though these precautions may have just slowed down the spread, as this January the first bats with White Nose Syndrome were discovered at Mammoth Cave.
Once we got on the appropriate attire we began our trek through a small 9.6 km portion of Mammoth Cave. It was a 6 hour long trek that involved climbing, crawling (some passages as tight as 9 inches), and squeezing through narrow tunnels (chest or hip size larger than 42 inches will not fit through crawl spaces), all while battling any fear of heights or claustrophobia.
My palms get clammy and my heart picks up a couple beats just writing about the whole experience. It was a thrilling and awe inspiring adventure that will certainly not be forgotten, or the last.