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Camping and Caving in Mammoth Cave National Park
Adaptability is Key
November 7-10, 2008
A Diary Of Special Days

      A few months back, I made plans with my camping group to do a camping and caving trip in Mammoth Caves National Park. Three of us were planning to attend. The itinerary called for driving to Grandma and Grandpa's house in Bowling Green KY to drop off the kids on Friday, then driving to the park and hiking in Saturday afternoon and setting up camp, hiking from camp to the visitor's center on Sunday morning to go on the Wild Cave tour -- the 6.5 hour belly-crawling off-trail spelunking trip -- and back to camp that evening, then pack up and hike out Monday morning. This is not what happened.

      Jim, my primary camping buddy, had family conflicts that came up just two weeks before the trip, and had to drop out. Erica called me on Thursday, the day before I was to drive down to Kentucky, and told me she was falling ill and would not be able to attend. I had already promised the folks time with their grandkids, so I was going to KY regardless. I decided that I was eager enough to do this trip that I was going out anyway, with or without company.

      On Saturday, after lunch, I headed up to the park. When I got to the Visitor's Center, I quickly discovered that the tour I wanted to take was already sold out. This actually worked out to be a good thing in terms of time, as further adventures (keep reading) would leave me unable to get back to the center before 10:00, and this tour started at 9:30. I thought I'd wait and see what the camping situation was before I decided whether to take a different tour or just skip the whole thing. Next came the campsite dilemma. The park allows camping in three areas: either car camping on the group campgrounds, or backcountry camping in one of 12 designated campsites or on the islands and banks of the Green River. On speaking with the rangers, I discovered that the backcountry sites were full -- which wasn't a problem as I hadn't planned on using a pre-laid site, 'cause as far as I'm concerned, that's not backcountry camping. However, you aren't allowed to hike off-trail, which means that, for riverside camping, you must have a boat. Well, I hadn't planned on a boat, but at this point I've already packed and driven up here, and a canoe trip did sound like fun. OK, I'm camping, dammit! So I asked where one could go for canoe rentals.

      Turns out there are a couple of local outfitters just outside the park boundaries. I headed back into town. First, I stopped at a gas station in Park City (just outside the park) and asked where to find these outfitters. The station attendant told me that outfitter A was the one to go with, but I had to head about 5 miles up the highway to find them. So 5 miles up the highway, I pull off and turn into Cave City (also just outside the park.) At the visitor's center there, they tell me I have to go OUT of Cave City proper to a rural address. Gah! So I turn around and head down another road that leads back into the park. This one passes outfitter B, but I now had 2 recommendations for outfitter A, so I kept going.

      A few miles later, I came upon this really freaky old shack of a place. I mean really spooky, like this cabin is the inspiration for Evil Dead kind of spooky. The door is closed and locked by padlock. Empty vodka bottles are stuffed in the holes in the cinderblocks holding up the corner of the shack. It backs up into the edge of the woods. The whole thing is like being in Deliverance. (Before the worst bit.)

      I called the number on the door, and a pleasant voice answered, "Mammoth Caves Canoe Rental and Hotel!" "Oh, so you're across the street," I replied. Across from this freaky shack is a pleasant little colonial-style country inn, very welcoming. "No," she replied, "I'm out of state. We're closed until March."

      So I ended up going back down the road to outfitter B, where I encounter no problems whatsoever. He had lots of boats available, and he was just about to take a group out. He explained the process to me, which caused further amendments to my plan.

      I had wanted to launch from the Green River ferry parking lot near the Visitor's Center, head only half a mile or so up or down stream, and make a quick camp. The way this thing works, though, is thus: you park where you plan on leaving the river, and the van picks you up and takes you to the Dennison Ferry boat launch, in my case 8 miles upriver. Not a difficult trip, unless you are working with the particular set of conditions I was working with, to wit:

  1. By the time all of this was settled, I would be hitting the water at around 3:00 pm.
  2. The season is mid-fall, just after Daylight Savings Time has ended.
  3. Mammoth Cave Park is at the extreme eastern edge of the central time zone.
  4. The Green River has carved itself into the bottom of a ravine.
  5. he tour I have my eye on starts at 10:45 AM, which requires that I be at the Visitor's Center by 10:30.

      Put this all together, and it means that I had about an hour before I would be out of light. I had to make plenty of miles, find an island or a flat bit of shore, and pitch camp, all before it got too dark to see. THEN I had to get up early enough to have breakfast, break camp, pack up and get the rest of the way downriver before the tour started. Not too bad, I figured. I should be able to make that happen easily enough. I drove BACK to the Visitor's Center and bought a ticket for the 4.5 hour Grand Avenue tour, then I drove down to the Green River ferry and got my gear ready for the shuttle van. While I waited, I watched the ferry go back and forth a few times. It looked like fun; I want to bring the car in from the other direction next time, so I can try it.

      The van came, loaded with college kids all going together for a canoe and kayak trip, and the outfitter's two small kids. I spend the ride up to the launch chatting with the little boy about such diverse topics as what one packs in a backpack, what kind of pirate he wanted to be, and how his magic key could turn him into a dinosaur.

      We got to the launch easily enough, and I got in the water without incident, too. The whole thing seemed to be going quite well. I was learning a lot about canoes in a short period of time. First, I learned that switching a canoe paddle constantly from hand to hand is sort of irritating, but if you don't you end up going in circles. I also learned that, when I get my own canoe, I want one with a bit of a keel on it. Keeps it straighter in the water.

      The river was absolutely beautiful. The hillsides were covered in fall colors, and leaves were drifting down everywhere. They had, in places, completely covered the surface of the water. The water was so calm I could hear the leaves scraping against the side of the canoe as I pushed through. Here and there, limestone bluffs pushed out from the hillsides. At one point I saw a group of turkeys perched high up in the treetops. You don't picture turkeys as fliers or treetop perchers, but they are, when they're getting ready for nightfall. They all leapt from thier tree at my approach and flew across the river. A turkey in flight is a funny-looking bird. He's heavy at the hips, instead of across the breast. He looks sort of like a goose with his body turned backwards and his neck shortened.

      This switching the paddle from hand to hand constantly was starting to bug me at this point, so I started to wonder if it might be easier to control the boat from the bow seat, instead of the stern seat. I stood up (carefully) and started walking toward the front of the boat, and really I wasn't having any problems. Until, quite suddenly, I found the canoe leaning heavily to the left. The more I tried to lean to the right to correct the situation, the more the boat went the wrong way. Turns out it's really hard to make a boat tip the way you want it to tip. I ended up going for a swim.

      Fortunately, the river was only about 4 feet deep here, so even though the boat overturned and all of my gear fell out, at least I able to turn the boat back over, grab everything, and toss it all back in. Of course, the boat was still full of water, but at least the stuff wasn't floating away.

      At this point, I'd like to stress that I was actually fairly well prepared. I had strapped everything down tightly to either the pack or to my clothes. I had intended to go hiking, after all, and I didn't want stuff falling out all over the trail. I just hadn't planned on being on the water at all, so I wasn't waterproofed. The backpack is actually pretty well water resistant, and the sleeping bag was packed inside a couple of different layers of protection, so most of my gear wasn't too badly damaged, if at all. Even the books, in the exterior pockets of the pack, weren't hit that hard. However, one of the first principles of backpacking is that you wear all of your clothing, keeping only the bare minimum -- a couple of changes of socks and underwear -- in your pack. Also, this stuff, being the lightest weight stuff, is packed on top of everything else in the pack, making it the closest to the least water-resistant part of the whole thing, the opening. Every article of clothing I had with me was soaked.

      Everything in my pockets was also soaked. And what wasn't soaked completely at first had a chance to sit in a pocket full of water after I finally got out of the river. This included my wallet and phone, which were due for replacement anyway, and, very securely protected in a cargo pocket with the extra buttons closed to keep it from falling out, my new camera. (This is the point in my trip where the photo documentation ended.)

      I got to shore without too much trouble, got the canoe emptied of water and turned upright again, then reloaded. I actually sort of enjoyed the experience. It was a real-life adventure, just me and the river. You don't realize, living in a house in a city or suburb somewhere, how removed from even the possibility of real adventure you are. Out here on the river, still 6 miles from the nearest human contact, soaking wet with night falling and temperatures dropping, there's noone around to help. You get yourself out of it on your own. Having saved all of my stuff and gotten myself back on track without help, I was kinda proud.

      I went ahead, now that I had the chance to do so safely, and switched to the bow seat of the canoe. Not 50 yards later, I figured out why people don't do this. From the stern seat, if you paddle for too long on one side of the craft, you'll start to go in a circle. From the bow seat, if you touch the paddle, even just with a fingertip while it sits there not even touching the water, the boat gets mad and starts spinning like a top. It took me 10 minutes to struggle 100 feet to shore. I switched seats again, shoved off, and looked up to see night falling.

      At this point, I had hoped to be at least two or three miles downstream, but this swimming adventure had kept me at the one-mile mark (actually the 204-mile mark. Dennison Ferry Launch is at mile 205, and Green River Ferry is at mark 197) for much longer than I expected. I hurried to make as much distance as possible before I was forced to stop for the night. I also hurried to find any sort of place at all I COULD leave the water. Park rules said I could only camp on islands and flood plains -- flat bits along the shoreline -- and those were scarce on this stretch of water. A mile later I came upon the first opportunity at all, and by that point I was glad to take anything. I'd found a steep little island with a small patch of trees on it, which should have sufficient wood for a fire and a nice place to hang a hammock.

      Well, it ended up having only one spot for a hammock. Everywhere else, the trees were too far apart, too close together, or hanging way out over the water. This dictated my campsite, which was not the one I would have picked in other circumstances, as the ground here was covered in clumps of 3-foot-tall river grass. I set to ripping out grass clumps to clear a space.

      Setting up camp wasn't difficult. I've done it often enough by now that the whole thing was quick and painless. I tied up a clothesline, set everything out to dry, made some dinner and got ready to turn in. I then realized how cold it really was. With no extra layers of clothing I could put on, I was forced to climb in to the sleeping bag dressed for a balmy 55-degree night, but what I had to deal with was a frigid 35 degrees. I ended up spending the entire night curled up in the bottom of the bag, with the top tucked underneath to keep the cold air out, reading a book by flashlight.

      Well into the night, I heard two creatures of some sort rustling around on the opposite shore. By the sounds they were making and with what I know of the local wildlife, they were probably just a family of raccoons, but in the pitch blackness, when you're alone wearing one pair of underwear and you're freezing cold, every noise is made by a pissed-off bear.

      Really, from this point on, the adventures were pretty much over. Breaking camp next morning was a quick and simple procedure. Getting back in the boat and on the river also went smoothly. I saw a group of blue jays yelling at each other on an island, and once a wood duck jumped out of the river and flew away at my approach. I made good time, although the morning breeze was making it hard to keep the canoe going straight. It kept wanting to blow me onto the right bank, which was especially irritating because I needed to pull the boat out on the left bank. Still, I got to the landing without difficulty, got the boat in the storage area for the outfitter to pick up later, and got up to the Visitor's Center just in time to catch my tour. Really. I had no way of telling time after my phone took a bath, so I just went as fast as I could, and I ended up getting to the tour bus 10 minutes before it loaded and left.

      The Grand Avenue tour is a 4-hour hike that starts at the Carmichael Sinkhole entrance and winds its way through narrow canyons and over underground hills to the Frozen Niagara entrance, 4.5 miles later, with a stop for lunch at the Snowball room cafeteria. (Click the Carmichael Entrance picture to see the cave map.) It was an entertaining hike, but something about the whole thing made it feel like I wasn't in a cave at all. The trails in there are old -- mapped in the 1860's or something, then semi-paved in the 1930's and well maintained since -- so they're like sidewalks more than natural cave floor. And there's a freakin' cafeteria down there. Still, it's beautiful and fascinating. This cave was part of the underground railroad for a while, so there's a lot of history associated with it. Various places in the caves are marked with names and dates, written in candle soot, and going back to 1857. And it does feature some really beautiful formations. The last bit of the Grand Avenue tour is the same as the Frozen Niagara tour, where the water is still dripping and the formative forces are still in play. Underground lakes, pillars and stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone and drapery formations, and of course cave spiders and cave crickets. There are several places where great multi-ton rocks seem to be balanced precariously above your head, but nothing has moved in these caves for hundreds of years. I'm hugely looking forward to an opportunity to take the Wild Cave tour, which goes off-trail. I'm hoping that will make it feel more like a cave, instead of a funky building.

      I left after the cave tour, 'cause one night of freezing sleeplessness was enough. But it was still a fun trip. Next time I'll know what to expect.