Columnist Stephen McClanahan is retired from P&G and now active in environmental advocacy, search/rescue and emergency medical/disaster response.

In younger days, when my body didn’t complain as often or loudly, I was into caving, along with a few of my friends. Amateur spelunkers with no formal training and homemade, improvised equipment. A dangerous combination for sure, but the allure of exploring dark, foreboding holes in the ground proved overwhelming and so caution was thrown to the wind. We all grew up in Kentucky and thanks to its geology, caves are in abundance, particularly across the southern part of the state. Whenever the opportunity arose, we’d grab our gear and head out, camping and caving for 2 or 3 days at a time. For a few years running, we found ourselves on such adventures between Christmas and New Year’s. Of course, it’s frequently cold during that time of year and so, we’d end up camping inside the cave since it’s

Mr. Ranger invited us into the back of his cruiser, gave us a free ride to the county seat and showed us a nice little room to sit.

considerably warmer there. We once made the ill-advised choice of executing such a strategy at Carter Caves State Park. It turns out that Park Rangers frown on camping inside their caves, even when there’s no one else around; who knew? When we exited the caves, Mr. Ranger invited us into the back of his cruiser, gave us a free ride to the county seat and showed us a nice little room to sit. Fortunately for us, cooler heads prevailed and after a few hours, we were asked to leave…quickly.  I think we hitch hiked (also sort of illegal) back to our camp before packing for home. Ah, the indiscretions of youth.

It’s highly unlikely to collapse when you’re inside.

But I digress. I really want to tell you about caves and caving. If you can put up with the crawling, climbing, wiggling, wading and all manner of body contortions needed to navigate what nature has made, you are in for some truly amazing experiences. Of course, you need to get beyond the notion that the earth is going to fall on you; nature has taken a long, long time to build the cave and it’s highly unlikely to collapse when you’re inside. In my experiences, caves come in all shapes and sizes; some consist of a single passage way, others have more branches than you can count (and you had better pay attention on the way in, so you can find your way out). Some are easy; most are not. Some are almost dry; others require you to wade or crawl through water if you want to keep going. Some come to abrupt ends; some seem to go on forever. Some have large passageways; others make you squeeze if you want through. All are dark, really, really dark.

There are a few safety rules you just don’t want to break.

There are a few safety rules you just don’t want to break. The first is to let someone know you’re inside and it’s your intention to come out. The second is to carry lots of sources of light. Cell phones don’t count. I grew up using carbide lamps (the kind miners used) but today’s LED headlamps are far superior. The third is never go in alone; caving is a team affair. And just ask the boys from Thailand, don’t go into a cave if it’s raining somewhere close by as mother nature likes to use them for drainage. One of pleasant surprises you’ll likely encounter if you join a caving group is the spirit-de-corps that ensues from the adventure; there’s a coziness that comes from everyone stripping out of their wet, muddy clothes into something dry and warm at the end of a trip that’s hard to beat.

I vividly recall once crawling into a small chamber, maybe 18 inches high (I remember being on my belly) and several feet wide, only to find literally hundreds of highly crystalline, pencil-thin, delicate, sparkling white columns spanning floor to ceiling within the entire chamber.

One of many enjoyments of caving is experiencing various rock formations that exist in these environments. Variety and creativity are abundant. Not to get too much in the weeds, but caves in Kentucky form in limestones underneath sandstones. The sandstones are largely resistant to water whereas the limestone is not. Over time, bit by infinitesimally small bit, limestones can dissolve, leaving behind what we call a cave. But limestones are dynamic; they can also reform mineral when calcium carbonate is precipitated. A slow drip can form a crystalline mineral that emerges from the ceiling (a stalactite) or can grow one from the floor onto which it is falling (stalagmite). Lots of other formations occur, such as flowstones, large columns, deep pits, waterfalls and more. Many of these formations are brilliantly white and reflect light like a diamond. I vividly recall once crawling into a small chamber, maybe 18 inches high (I remember being on my belly) and several feet wide, only to find literally hundreds of highly crystalline, pencil-thin, delicate, sparkling white columns spanning floor to ceiling within the entire chamber. What I was seeing had taken millions of years to form. Not many people experience that kind of treat.

Did I mention that some caves are large? I’ve had personal experience with at least one of these that is somewhere in southeastern Kentucky (and I’m not referring to Mammoth Cave). My friends and I made a couple of attempts to penetrate this one, but it got the better of us each time. I remember the first long section was easy, requiring only a crawl for a quarter of a mile or so. Kind a singular tube, nothing too special. But then, the crawl tube abruptly emptied into an enormous

It was like a giant sports stadium deep inside the earth, only pitch dark with the haunting echoes of water falling somewhere.

chamber, wide and deep. It was like a giant sports stadium deep inside the earth, only pitch dark with the haunting echoes of water falling somewhere. And to make it far more challenging, our passage way entered this chamber at least 100 feet off its floor (remember the old trick of tossing a small rock and counting the time for it to strike bottom, then trying to remember your high school physics so you can

Otherwise we’d probably still be there.

calculate the distance it traveled?). We foolishly attempted to drop ropes and descend, but fortunately we lacked the needed length to even reach bottom, otherwise we’d probably still be there. We really hadn’t given much thought to ascending, only descending (maybe that ought to be added to the set of rules above).

My son is a caver and, as part of the hydrogeology department of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and sometimes gives guided tours through parts of Mammoth Cave to various geology field teams. I tagged along on one of these recently, for old times’ sake.  I had not been in a cave in many years, but the spirit of adventure and exploration instantly returned. It’s an enchanted world down under and I highly recommend getting in on the action.  And it’s still really, really dark.



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