Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Echo River, Mammoth Cave

Note: After the trip on July 16, I went home and transcribed my notes and experiences. This is just my reaction to this amazing trip, which I've supplemented with minimal research. Some parts are missing and I'll try to fill in the gaps.

Tonight was a life-changing experience. I hope it was as meaningful to the fantastic people with whom I got to share this adventure.

Tonight, Chuck DeCroix and Jackie Wheet led many of us newbies on an after-hours trip to Echo River. The tour party consisted of myself, Brooke Armstrong, Celia Baker, Dontae Beams, Jacob Bolton, Joe Brown, Shouta Brown, Daniel Asriel, Alissa Hampton, Amanda Hardemann, Mike Johnson, David Kem, Ethan Mefford, Gabe Russell, Thomas Slaughter, and Logan Steenbergen.

Having met at the Guide Lounge and obtaining helmets and head lamps, we carpooled to the Carmichael Entrance. Ethan, Daniel, and Jackie drove over to the Elevator Shaft and left Ethan and Daniel's trucks there and shuttled back to Carmichael. We entered the cave around 7:30 or so after taking a group photo. (Thankfully, unlike on the Great Onyx Cave trip, it only took a few tries. :))

Once we made it to the Rocky Mountains, Chuck showed a photograph from the early tour days. Of course we noted that the Carmichael Entrance really came into a part of the cave that took about 8 hours to get to if visitors were on the all-day tour. The photograph was of a wooden walkway with visitors walking over breakdown. Chuck had determined that this was the location of the walkway and that evidently the CCC boys tore it down when they made trails in the cave.

We proceeded to walk off-trail and very carefully ascended the Rocky Mountains up some slick breakdown. Jackie reminded us of the importance of safety, given that it was an after-hours trip. At the top we found signature rocks, a piece from the heel of a woman's shoe, and a lot of signatures, large and small, written in smoke, pencil, and even paint.

The highlight of this stop was the Maelstrom, a 120-foot-deep hole. Chuck reiterated the story of Matt Bransford having had to yell at a visitor to stop away from the steel railing. The visitor was on an unsafe ledge where the rock was quite thin. The visitor was upset until Matt showed him where he was standing and the precarious nature of the ledge. Chuck also discussed the practice of leaving calling cards and business cards around some of the formations at Croghan's Hall. This was of course not the only location to do this, but definitely quite an effort.

Upon carefully descending, Jackie Wheet reminded us of just how special these trips are. He reminded us that going on after-hours trips was a privilege--one that could easily be taken away. Apparently there had been a moratorium on after-hours trips after guides took advantage of being in the cave away from visitors. I think we do have a tendency to sometimes think the rules don't apply to us, perhaps even touching the walls, except when we are on tour and have to set the example for visitors.

We took off down Dismal Hollow into Cleaveland Avenue. I had just been in this section of the cave a few hours before when I led the Snowball tour, but I was seeing it in a new light with our expert guides. I tried to stay close to the front of the tour throughout, so I wouldn't miss anything they might have to tell us.

Stereograph image of a gypsum flower at Cleaveland's Cabinet from the New York Public Library digital collections. "View of Mammoth Cave and Vicinity."

Stopping at the Post Office, Chuck explained the origin of the name and explained that hole where water drips down. That is the Drill Hole, drilled in 1931. It was drilled down 267 feet, the same depth as the Snowball Room. Chuck showed us a photograph of a tour group at the Post Office. The picture included Hovey, white guide John Nelson, his wife, Orpha, Josh Wilson, a black guide, and others. Interestingly, they were carrying luggage of some sorts that might have contained lunch, but we're not entirely sure. The photograph was taken around 1904, long before the Drill Hole existed. The Drill Hole was used to bring electrical wiring down into the cave to light up Cleaveland Avenue.

Continuing on the lengthy phreatic tube that is Cleaveland Avenue, we passed by a Stephen Bishop signature that included Charlotte's name.

"Mrs. Charlotte Bishop/Stephen Bishop, Guide" in Cleaveland Ave. Photo by David Kem.
This was easily accessible to show from the trail and should add to my Snowball tour--if I can remember where it was! Between that and the Last Rose of Summer, it's hard to remember just exactly where everything is in Cleaveland. Stopping at the Snowball Room, we had the opportunity to actually photograph the "To Nick, the Guide" signature that Chuck had shown in his "The Writing On the Walls" presentation during training, in addition to using the facilities and grabbing a drink before continuing on.

"To Nick, the Guide." Nick Bransford was one of the first cave guides at Mammoth Cave. He was a slave whom Frank Gorin leased. I stole this photo from Flickr, but David Kem took a great one, too.

We kept walking until we got to Mary's Vineyard, which Hovey colorfully described: "Nodules and globules simulate clusters on clusters of luscious grapes, gleaming with parti-colored tints through dripping dew." At the top of the Vineyard is a wooden beam with a chain wrapped around it. Jackie told us that at the end of the season, the guides would have to carry the boats for two miles out of the Pass of El Ghor and Silliman Avenue. They hoisted the boats up to hang from the beams in case a flood struck the underground rivers. To make the job slightly easier, they sectioned the boats in half. Still, what a load to carry! David Kem reminded us that the boats live on at Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, where they are named Echo of Lost River 1 and 2.

In the Pass of El Ghor we saw the Black Hole of Calcutta, named for the brutal prison that held British soldiers in India during the Seven Years' War. Near the top of the passageway here were signatures from Pete Hanson and the Young-Hunt expedition from having crawled into a passageway and finding their way up. Jackie also pointed out yellow handwriting on the walls which were from the 1936 survey of the cave, known as the Walker Survey. This was the same group that put the USGS medallions throughout the cave. They stamped the medallions before bringing them into the cave, and recorded elevation in a register rather than on the medallions themselves. We also passed a formation known as Queen Victoria's Crown.

Ole Bull (1810-1880), the famous Norwegian violinist.
Entering into Ole Bull's Concert Hall, Chuck told us about the famous violinist, Ole Bull, who visited the cave in 1845. Stephen Bishop guided him through the cave. Upon reaching this spot, Bull began to play and the melody filled the cave. Stephen Bishop then named that room in Bull's honor. After Ole Bull's Concert Hall, the passage changes names from El Ghor to Silliman Avenue.

Silliman Avenue was named for Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), a chemistry professor at Yale and the first man to distill petroleum. [Note: The elder Benjamin Silliman also had a son named Benjamin Silliman, who studied caves in Pennsylvania. He might be the one it was named for, I need to double-check].

Not far after entering Silliman Avenue we came across the Stern of the Great Western. According to the editors of Wikipedia, Great Western was a transatlantic ship. It crossed the Atlantic from England to the States at least forty-five times in eight years. Sadly, "in 1847 she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and used on the West Indies run. Later, after serving as a troopship in the Crimean War, in 1856 she was broken up at Castles' Yard, Millbank on the Thames."

The Great Western, not in a cave.

Along the way, Chuck and Jackie pointed out how to get to Rhoda's Arcade and the Jesup domes--named by Max Kämper for Lucy, Olivia, and Julia Jesup. Julia's Dome connects with Specimen Avenue or Roger's Dome. Just another example of how this cave is full of so many interconnecting passages. It really is like a bowl of spaghetti, weaving in and out and over each other.

Lantern in the Pass of El Ghor. Thanks to David Kem for this shot.
Eventually we neared closer and closer to the rivers. All along this route, volunteers from the National Speleological Society have been breaking up a cement block at the river and then transporting the rocks. They'll also remove a lot of the transformers. Transformer #12 has a bit of history as it shows the 1984 flood. This is the same flood that filled up River Hall to the yellow line.

Looking up, we saw Pluto's Dome and on the left hand side of the cave was the Bleeding Heart Spring or Dripping Spring. They let us know that we are almost to Cascade Hall, where water freely flows downward on its epic journey below. Jackie pointed out that Cascade Hall leads to Stephenson Avenue, named for the visitor from Georgetown, Kentucky, who crossed the Bottomless Pit with Stephen Bishop. Jackie pointed out our location in relation to anything else in the cave, and we were around the Cataracts on the Violet City Lantern Tour.

On our way down to Echo River, we discussed the Hunt-Hanson expedition in 1938. They discovered the New Discovery in crossing the Echo to the Roaring River. Some people say that with the end of the manned space program that we don't have new frontiers to conquer, but having learned more and more about this place, I have to disagree. Going towards Roaring River, we passed by several cave crawfish and eyeless fish, much to the delight of those who had not seen them before. They were much smaller than I remember them being.

At last, we reached Echo River. We crossed a bridge and railing that the 1972 expedition saw from a passage in the water known as Hanson's Lost River. They came out of the Flint Ridge system and one member saw the railing. Seeing that railing confirmed that the Flint Ridge and Mammoth Cave systems were connected to make this the longest cave in the world. Some took turns shouting things downriver to hear the reverberations along the walls. We saw a sculpin and another cave crawfish, as well as a cave cricket walking on water like a water skimmer. Chuck pointed out the stairs down to Echo River and showed us some photographs of early tours on the Echo River, such as this:
Echo River boat tour, 1915
The boat tour might last 40-45 minutes if the water was at a good level. Chuck showed us the difference in water level with the addition of a dam in the cave. [I have something about the Echo Chamber but I don't recollect what that is.]

It's hard to describe the feeling of being in the same place as someone else, knowing exactly where they were and when. Looking at the photographs, matching the landmark rocks, piecing the clues together, brought me personally so much closer to this amazing place. The names--the hundreds of names--that we passed on the journey here were just more evidence of how small we really are. Thousands of people have come before us to Mammoth Cave, each seeking something from the cave. Maybe they were just curious about the natural formations, or maybe they just wanted a cool place to visit as a respite from the heat. But maybe this cave meant something more to them.

Horace Carter Hovey describes the ringing of the bells in his 1909 handbook, the "Practical Guide" to Mammoth Cave's tour routes.

One of the highlights of being at Echo River (which Stephen Bishop initially called River Jordan) was the "ringing of the bells." Chuck and Jackie knelt down on either side of the small peninsular bank at river's edge and waved their hands back and forth through the crystal-clear water for several seconds, maybe half a minute. We turned off our headlamps, sat in the absolute darkness, and listened for several minutes as the waves and ripples entered small archways and cavities along the walls,  to give distinct sounds not unlike ringing bells. The ripples traveled up and down the river, causing short, quick, high notes, and longer, deeper notes as the water glub-glubbed down the walls. I don't know about the others, but I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face as if I were hearing sound for the first time. The novelty of something as simple as water striking the cave walls blew my mind.

While we were in the dark stillness, Chuck asked for volunteers to sing. No one immediately took him up on the offer, but soon Joe Brown, our resident bluegrass musician, began to belt out a song in French, as well as "Proud Mary," and "O, Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Thomas joined in near the end with a hymn of some sorts. Celia tried to shore up the female voices with a Catholic school song meant to be sung in a round, but no one knew it aside from her. Such are the products of public schools.

Before we left Echo River, Chuck discussed how the tours worked and the story of an infamous incident that could have led to a disaster. John Nelson was guiding a tour in the 1920s, and they reached a part of the tour where they had to push on the ceiling in order to get the boat down far enough to move around. Evidently they pushed too far and the boat started to sink. Lanterns went out except for Nelson's. Aware of the disaster at hand, Nelson lifted his lantern above water level, but was mobbed by his passengers trying to get a hold of him. A Senator spoke up that they had to un-handle their guide and follow his instructions if they wanted to survive. Nelson took the chain of the boat and dragged it back to where they were supposed to have come back. The incident lived with him forever, the boat's chain having crushed his hand as he rescued the stranded tourists.

On our return trip, we passed Welcome Avenue, where Jackie told us about how it eventually connects back to the Wooden Bowl Room, if you're willing do walk bent over for quite a while. Chuck estimated that at a good clip, one might be able to make it in an hour-and-a-half. It's two miles of passageways, though.  Still, connecting to Ganter Avenue to the Wooden Bowl Room (similar to where Trog enters/exits) might be important in case the river was flooded.

Rather than completely doubling back, we detoured at the Valley Wayside Cut. Chuck noted that Keven Neff had told him that they used to store boats up there. As we walked over more breakdown, including gypsum, Thomas, Amanda, and I called it "teeter-totter avenue" since one person would step on the far end of the rock as the next person stepped on the near end, pushing the other one up or down.

A similar RC Cola can as what can be found in the Pass of El Ghor.
The number of smoke signatures was incredible. So many people left their names and dates on the wall. [In 1847, one Philadelphia, Mississippi, resident, J.B.P. Poole, who I will have to investigate back in the Magnolia State, left his mark in several places.] On the one hand it is incredibly overwhelming, the sheer number. On the other, it almost hurts to see the damage to the cave. These people probably didn't think about it as ecologically damaging. They had just written their names in a big old cave and wanted people to know they had been there. Their trash told us they had been there--a torn page of the Tennesseean American, which I estimated to be from the 1920s [note: further research shows it to be from 1910-11], was spread on a rock. Historic trash was everywhere in the cave--from chicken bones and wine bottles, to a number of Royal Crown Cola cans.

One of the highlights of this passageway was the board laid across two rocks that was the dedicated latrine area, which had a bucket of lime and alcohol bottles to aid in the smell and decomposition of matter. Of course, eventually those buckets had to be emptied--I wonder who did that?

We slid down the Valley Wayside Cut at the end into Silleman and eventually El Ghor. The cave always looks different when you're going the opposite way. Had Chuck not been there, I'm not sure I would have been completely confident on which way was out. The walk back was a lot of fun as I got to learn more about the cave and about the man himself. We made it back to the Snowball Room no problem, waited for a restroom break, and then walked to the Elevator. This was an exciting trip in itself because in training we were instructed that it was verboten for people to use the Elevator. Some rules were meant to be broken, I suppose, so we wouldn't have to walk another mile and climb 180 stairs out Carmichael. Chuck showed us the way up the elevator shaft, which was also cool. It took almost exactly a minute to reach the surface. When we did, the elevator gave a few rumbles and opened the door. I pushed the button to open the garage door, and we became the first ones out of the cave around 12:30 a.m. The worst part was that it was over.

We piled into the two trucks, loaded front and back, Chuck barely hanging on to Thomas as Ethan sped down the road. The night sky opened up above the trees and the stars shone down on us. I mentioned that if they ever made a movie about my life, this would definitely be a part of it. Jackie noted that if there were a movie made, this scene would show a shooting star. Of course it would!

We made it back to the Carmichael Entrance and disembarked from the trucks, piling back into the carpool vehicles. To be sure to "cleanse our souls" and help save the bat population, we pulled into the bus loop at the Visitor Center and walked across the White Nose Syndrome mats before dropping our helmets and headlamps at the Guide Lounge and thanking Chuck and Jackie on an excellent trip.

Upon getting back to Seasonal Quarters, I immediately began to try piecing together the trip. I promised Chuck to transcribe my notes for his report and in doing so I had to look up a few things here and there, including in Hovey's writings, for a few details I had not written down. As I skimmed through the Echo River section, I came across a few brief sentences which I think can sum up my impression of this truly amazing section of cave:

"The aquatic excursion was more to our taste than any thing we had seen, and never can the impression it made be obliterated from our memories."

This is why Mammoth Cave matters. Different people visiting the same section of cave with more than a hundred years separating their experiences can share the same sense of awe, wonder, mystery, sublime, fascination, and appreciation of this hauntingly beautiful cavern. As far as I'm concerned, tonight will go down as one of those memories I cherish forever. It's right up there with seeing the sunset reveal unheard-of colors of Grand Canyon, feeling the gusts of wind rising over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harpers Ferry, or feeling goosebumps as modern-day 101st Airborne members escorted the Little Rock Nine to a program honoring their quiet courage in the face of absolute hatred. I've been fortunate enough to work in six national parks. Mammoth Cave National Park tops them all.

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