Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 27, 2013

A winter weekend of adventure

Caving is back at Carter Caves

Mike James
The Independent

OLIVE HILL — Voices rang out in the dark, the first clue that crickets and bats weren’t alone in the cave.

The tramp of booted feet followed, and soon the tired but excited faces of a troop of Boy Scouts glowed in the light filtering from the cave entrance.

The scouts, along with their leaders and some miscellaneous tourists, were among the first non-official humans to venture through Cascade Cave in several years.

Along with the rest of the caverns in Carter Caves State Resort Park, it had been closed to the public to retard the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has been killing bats and for which science hasn’t yet found a cure.

But it and a select number of other caves in the park were open Saturday and are open again today for the fourth annual Winter Adventure Weekend, the park’s yearly blowout of hibernal sports and pastimes.

It took the place of the Crawlathon, an immensely popular — among cave enthusiasts — weekend of exploring the miles of underground passages in the park. When access to caves was restricted, the Crawlathon was discontinued and park officials created the adventure weekend to take its place.

Limited reopening of the caves made sense this year because experts have developed guidelines to prevent the spread by humans of white-nose syndrome, said park naturalist Coy Ainsley. The disease is spread mostly by the bats themselves, but people can transfer it from one cave to another on their clothes or shoes.

So when the scouts exited the cave, they went straight up the hill to the parking area where a decontamination station was set up. It consisted of a set of stiff brushes mounted at ground level for scraping the bulk of mud from the tops and sides of shoes, an abrasive carpet to clean the soles, and a thick, spongy pad impregnated with a disinfectant agent to kill spores before they spread.

In addition, visitors were required to wear coveralls or another outer layer they could remove and bag for washing, and to swab down solid gear such as helmets with disinfectant wipes. Visitors were only allowed one cave trip for the weekend.

There were dozens of activities to choose from — ziplining, mountain biking, tree-climbing, canoeing, rappelling, horseback riding and winter survival among them — but reopening the caves is bringing visitors back to the park, Ainsley said. “About 60 or 65 percent of preregistrations are for the wild cave tours,” he said.

Most of the scouts in Troop 175 out of Louisville said caving was the big draw of the weekend. “We don’t get to do it much so when we have the opportunity we jump at the chance,” said 15-year-old Collin McGlone.

Shayna Follett of West Union, W.Va., and Emily Caldwell of Franklin Furnace, Ohio, trekked through snow and ice to the park to meet up for the Cascade trip. Follett drove four hours through a snowstorm for her first visit to Carter Caves and her first foray underground. “I’ve been wanting to go caving for a long time now,” she said.

“We got to crawl and get muddy. It’s a good thing we’re not claustrophobic,” Caldwell said.

The old college friends were planning on sampling the rest of the weekend’s activities too. “It’s a hard deal to pass up, all that stuff for less than a hundred bucks,” Follett said.

Volunteers for the weekend, some of whom have been attending since the early Crawlathon days, are glad to see caving come back to the event.

Karen and Gary Walker of Racine, Ohio, were tour guides for the Cascade trip. They love caving so much they were married in one.

When newbies come to the caves, experienced cavers see it as a chance to educate a new generation of enthusiasts. The Walkers don’t settle for showing visitors the route through the rocks. Instead, they keep the information flowing: cave safety, rock formations, wildlife, geology and so on.

“We want people to be aware that you can enjoy this, but to do it right,” Gary Walker said.

The Winter Adventure Weekend continues today until about 1 p.m., and visitors may register on site for most activities starting at 8 a.m. in the lobby of the lodge. There is a fee for registration and some trips have additional fees.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.