by Brian Derby
I spent part of the summer of 1978 working in Nashville, Tennessee. At that time I had only a partial interest in caving, but I managed to meet some members of the Nashville Grotto, who took me on a couple of trips to caves on the Tennesee/Alabama/Georgia border. Although this area has one of the largest caves in North America (Cumberland Caverns), I was lured by the magical name of Mammoth Caves. These are in Kentucky, just over the border and only about 150 miles from Nashville. As I had just come from San Francisco by bus I found the idea of a 300 mile bus trip a good one for a Sunday out. So, packing my caving gear (a scruffy pair of jeans and a 'make it with metals' T-shirt), I made my way through the early morning streets to the Greyhound station.
After taking the wrong bus and having to persuade the driver that he really wanted to stop in Cave City, I hitched the rest of the way there. Mammoth Ridge and Flint Ridge, in which the system occurs, are a National Park and the service runs various show trips. They did run a 'wild cave' trip in hard hats so I tried to get on it. It was booked up, but I got a cancellation.
Donning shiny U.S. government hard hats and dry cell lamps, we moved off into the park by bus. The entrance we used was one of the old commercial entrances, dug in the 'thirties, when the cave was very popular due to the death of Floyd Collins. The trip we were on was through about 6km of passage, mostly walking and through dry phreatic cave. The system does not have much in the way of formations, apart from the 'Niagara' flowstone curtains in the main tourist parts. However the cave is not famous for this, but for its length and complexity. This was demonstrated by our guide, who led us around a warren of passages which seemed to connect any two points by any number of ways. At the halfway point of our trip, after a particularly nasty squeeze, we arrived in a restaurant (this was America) 300 feet underground, connected by a lift to the surface. It was then revealed that the squeeze was generated by earlier cavers using a convenient hole as a rubbish dump.
After lunch we were given an express tour of some of the system which used to be show cave about 50 years ago. The impression given was of the hardiness (or stupidity) of tourists then, for the passages were narrow and distinctly damp vadose canyons with almost nothing worth seeing, until at last we reached one of the attractions; a series of six avens with passages leading off them at many levels. Here there was a small stream with some cave life - insects and blind fish. There were also a few formations including some tuned stalactites on which our guide gave a fairly mangled rendition of 'The Star spangled Banner'. We went along some more crawl way to the real show cave and then out, having seen some 2% of the cave by current estimates in a trip of about five hours duration.
As Mammoth is Government owned they are a bit pararoid about safety, so access is restricted to wardens and members of the cave research organisation. Unless you go through a few miles of red tape, the system is rather difficult to get in to, even though there are 350km of it. however, the 'wild cave' trip is a good way to get a glimpse, but remember to book ahead, as the waiting list is three months long in the summer.