Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Hard Day's Night

     The scouts of Troop 50 sank to new depths this past weekend as we entered the underground domain of Cumberland Caverns outside McMinnville, Tennessee. This trip marks the third time that our scouts have turned into spelunkers and troglodytes as we walked, crawled, climbed, and slithered through the cave before stretching out across the hard, rocky floor for a well deserved sleep. The group was split almost evenly between veterans who had made the trip in prior years and newbies who were experiencing caving for the first time. Regardless of their status, all of the scouts seemed to relish their time in the underworld.

The troop pauses among the cave formations for a group photo.
     With everyone packed aboard the church bus, we departed Auburn about 9:30 on Saturday morning for the long trip to Tennessee. After an unusual lunch stop and a longer than anticipated search for a working gas station, we arrived at the cave around 3:30 PM. Everyone changed out of their scout uniform into clothing more suitable for the dirt/mud and the 56 degree temperature of the cave. Scouts passed the time before dinner by crawling through a wooden maze, an activity that quickly degenerated into attempts to snatch each other's shoes as they squeezed through the small spaces.

Will manages to escape the maze with someone's shoe. 

Trey attempts (unsuccessfully) to hold onto his shoes. 

     We soon fired up the charcoal chimneys and mixed up a dinner of baked beans, ground beef, and biscuits in our dutch ovens. This fairly simple cooking method allowed everyone to have a hot meal before beginning our overnight adventure. Soon after, we met our cave guide, gathered our gear and began the trek into the depths.

Entering the door to the underworld. 
     Cumberland Caverns is one of many caves that abound in this region of Tennessee and Kentucky. The cave was ostensibly discovered in 1810 by surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham who explored the cave by torchlight before losing the torch and spending three days trapped in complete darkness before he was rescued. It is said that his hair turned completely white during those three days in the cave (something we hoped to avoid). The current cave configuration was originally believed to be two separate caves, which were named Henshaw and Higgenbotham caves. A connection between the caves was discovered in 1953 and it was renamed Cumberland Caverns when it opened to public tours in 1955. Today, over 32 miles of the cave are part of various tours and adventure programs. These activities include daily walking tours for the general public, overnight stays in the cave, spelunking trips through unimproved sections, and music festivals such as their popular Bluegrass Underground venue. They even hold weddings in there. 

     After we dropped off our gear in the 10-acre room where we would spend the night, it was off on the daily walking tour. We visited a moonshine still and a saltpeter mining operation in the original Henshaw part of the cave, passed through the Volcano Room with its crystal chandelier (rescued from a NYC opera house), had our photo taken in the Boneyard, and climbed the 354 stairs across the Hall of the Mountain King. The last stop on the tour was the light show that highlights Aaron Higgenbotham's discovery of the cave and his three days of seclusion.

Checking out the water feature in front of a formation known
as Moby Dick (due to its resemblance to a whale, or so they say).
     Once we were finished with the walking tour it was time for the crawling tour. We geared up with helmets (aka brain buckets) and headlamps before making a test crawl through a 19x33 inch box. This insured that each of us would be able to fit through the tightest portions of the route without getting stuck. It was a tight fit for some but all managed to qualify.

Camp, Rusty, Jacob, and Miles model the latest in protective headwear and illumination.

Boone and Miles calculate their chances of making it through the box. 

Connor negotiates a ladder at the start of the tour. 
     After a short walk to the end of the 10-acre room, we found ourselves beyond the protective glow of electric lighting. From that point forward we were dependent on the narrow beams of light from our helmet mounted flashlights. With a quick warning to avoid getting kicked in the face by the person preceding you, we were off on a two hour slither through the un-improved section of the cave. Some of the route involved climbing ladders while other points found us flat on our bellies squeezing through the afore-referenced 19x33 inch spaces. Some points widened enough for us to stand or to gather as a group. Our guide took these opportunities to tell us about previous explorers who had met with misfortune in the cave. The further we got along the way, the wetter and muddier it became, and the wetter and muddier we became. While dirt and mud has rarely impeded our scout's ability to have fun, they were glad when the tour ended at a set of sinks where they could wash up.   

Jacob follows Rusty through a tight spot
while trying to avoid getting kicked. 
Boone seems happy to take a rest stop in the mud.  
Michael, Joe, and Samuel revel in the chance to wash the mud from their hands. 

     The exertions of the evening had differing effects on the scouts. Some headed to the cave's snack bar to renew their energy with a good dose of nachos while others wanted little more than to crawl deep into their sleeping bags for the chance to dream about the comforts of home. However, by midnight, all were safely ensconced in the realm of Morpheus (that is, they were asleep).

The troop's designated camping area among the rocks. 
      Dawn (the lights being turned on) came at 7:00 AM and we were soon packed up and ready for breakfast in the Volcano Room. The menu consisted of two pancakes and two strips of bacon sliced so thin as to be almost translucent. However, any form of sustenance was welcome at that point. By 8:00 we were on our way into the sunshine of a beautiful Tennessee mountain morning and by 9:00 the cave was but a fast shrinking spot in the rearview mirror of the bus.

     Monday's PLC meeting gave the troop's youth leadership the chance to reflect upon the positives and negatives of the trip. All agreed that the chance to try something different from our regular campout venues was good. They also praised our cave guide and the adventure tour. The food got high marks, although it was generally agreed that more food at breakfast would have been better. While the trip was multifaceted, the scoutmaster's wife put the best description on it by saying, "You went to a hole in the ground and you had fun. What more can you say than that?"

     Be sure to check out the other photos in the online photo album.