When Sabrina scheduled the Wonderful Weekend of All Caving Tour for her friends from Ohio, we thought her schedule was ambitious. Little did we know that that weekend would be topped by a trip to Rockcastle County, KY and the Great Saltpetre Cave Preserve. Andy Niekamp, from the Dayton Underground Grotto (DUG), invited us to visit and spend the weekend camping and caving with him at GSP near Mt. Vernon, KY. The trip was to be a photo opportunity for Nathan Williams. It was a win-win situation. Mary Gratsch from the Greater Cincinnati Grotto was looking for some current photos of the area and Nathan has never been caving in Kentucky. I went to KY for Karst-O-Rama (KOR), but Jennifer Pinkley and Danielle Nuding had never been caving in KY either. To classify the weekend as ambitious would be an understatement! In roughly 36 hours, we visited 9 caves, 14 cave entrances, 1 water bottling plant, 1 church and 1 cemetery.
Our journey began Friday morning, October 21. Nathan and Danielle arrived at my house shortly after 9:00 am. By 9:15 we were headed north. Traffic was horrible from the start. We hit radar in a couple of places between Stevenson and South Pittsburg, and I-75 through Knoxville was a true test of our driving skills. We got into the west side of the Smoky Mountains above Knoxville (around Jellico) and the fall colors were fabulous! I’ve always wanted to see Autumn in the Smokies. That was a treat! Andy called (of course I had no signal) to say that he had arrived. He was about 2 hours ahead of us. We stopped at a McDonald’s somewhere in TN for lunch. Danielle got a happy meal and in the bag was a toy. The toy was a Madame Alexander doll. The name on the package just said “boy doll.” Boy doll had Mickey Mouse ears, a tail and was wearing poly-pros. Over the course of the weekend we had entirely too much fun with boy doll. Oh yes, boy doll went caving! The Adventures of Boy Doll have begun! Nathan has proof that boy doll was last seen spelunking in the Great Saltpetre Cave. (No helmet, no light, gloves or kneepads, shame, shame!) We caught him coming out of a crawl and the last time we saw him he was doing a bit of rock climbing on one of the walls near Echo Auditorium in the Great Saltpetre Cave. You just never know where boy doll might show up next!
We arrived at GSP at about 2 pm (CST) and Andy was waiting for us at the gate, which was a good thing, as the combination lock proved to be too much for me! He showed us to the campsite and went back to the gate to wait for Jennifer. They were back in no time. We set up camp, loaded ourselves into Andy’s Tahoe and headed off to the King Bottling plant to pick up some Climax water. There is a cave cleanup scheduled for the Sinks of the Roundstone Cave next weekend and the owner of the bottling company was donating some water for the cause. Andy had to be there by 5:00 and we were cutting it close! After a quick tour of Climax, KY (which included a drive by at one of the entrances to Climax Cave) we stopped at the Climax Christian Church for a group photo. From the church, we climbed the hill to see the other entrance to Climax Cave. We poked around inside for a few minutes and headed off again. The destination this time was Goochland Cave. We found the last house on the left and headed down a dirt road to the cave. This is definitely 4-wheel drive country! When we parked the Tahoe, the bottom of the sky fell out and it poured! We made a mad dash to the entrance (we could have walked, we got just as wet). At the entrance we ran into 3 guys from Ohio who were camping at the site. (It felt eerily like a scene from “Deliverance.”) The entrance to Goochland Cave is very scenic. The opening to the cave is large and has a huge overhang. We walked back into the cave as far as the gate with the assistance of Andy’s photon-micro light (yes, we did some spelunking of our own! I must be fair, I had on sandals). The roof of the cave near the gate is covered with some really pretty coral. Nathan took advantage of the opportunity to take some photos. On our way out we stopped by the campsite of the 3 people we’d met on the way in and talked to them for a few minutes. Their campfire felt good! After saying our goodbyes, we headed back in the direction of GSP. Along the way, we stopped and went into Arthur Singleton’s Cave for a quick look around. This cave has a slot entrance right next to a creek. Back in the Tahoe, we drove by and saw the 2 entrances to Mullins Spring Cave. By the time we got back to the campsite, we were all pretty hungry. After a quick dinner consisting of brats, hot dogs and chips we headed up to the Great Saltpetre Cave. From here I have to back up for just a second to the time of our arrival. Shortly after we arrived, a solid white tomcat showed up at our campsite. We had no idea where he came from. Andy thought he belonged to the GSP grounds caretaker, but he wasn’t positive. Nathan named him Bill and Bill attached himself to us. When we headed up to the cave entrance Friday evening, Bill came along. Jennifer was about to be concerned that the cat might get trapped inside the cave if it followed us in when the cat ran between the bars of the gated South entrance. Problem solved! He quickly became “Bill-the Albino Cave Cat.” The cat went through the entire cave with us (meowing the whole time). We had big plans for a photo shoot with Bill on Saturday evening inside the cave and he pulled a no-show on us. We were sorely disappointed! Back to the cave…for those that don’t know, The Great Saltpetre Cave was once a commercial cave. A majority of the cave is lit by electricity and the passages are mostly smooth walking trails. The 2001 NSS Convention was held at GSP. Echo Auditorium was the site of the Howdy Party that year and accommodated approximately 1000 people. The room has a natural stage on one end and is acoustically perfect. We found some side passages along the way and did a little exploring. (I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell? Danielle has a serious aversion to cave crickets!) The walk through the cave gave Nathan the opportunity to figure out what he wanted to shoot upon our return trip on Saturday.
After consuming at least 3 pots of coffee and some scrambled eggs, the 5 of us set out the next morning on our ambitious quest to visit as many sites as possible in one day. We drove to the back field at GSP and hiked to the lower entrance of Crooked Creek Ice Cave (CCIC). We had only walked a short distance into the cave when we came upon a ladder that has been set to make the access easier to the lower passage (about 20 ft). CCIC has some really nice passages. Nathan got more pictures, one really nice one of Danielle on the ladder. From the lower entrance, we hiked a short distance up the hill to the upper entrance, which is about a 30 ft pit. None of us had any vertical gear, so look was all we did. A short distance from where Andy had parked the Tahoe was the entrance to Lloyd Mullins Cave. The cave is set in the hillside overlooking the preserve. Talk about a room with a view! The entrance is an almost perfect arch and has a short crawl to another entrance, probably the shortest through trip on record. I would like to have spent a little more time there, but we were on a mission. Another time…Next we visited Champ Mullins Cemetery, located on a hillside inside the preserve opposite Lloyd Mullins Cave. Champ Mullins died in 1898 and the tombstone is still legible. Here is a website for the Champ Mullins Cemetery. Andy’s Tahoe was acting up, so we left it near the cemetery and hiked back to the campsite. I picked up some buckeyes on the way back (which are sitting on my coffee table right now). As we neared our camp, who should be waiting on us but Bill, the Albino Cave Cat. He was sitting on the bank across the creek like our welcoming committee, meowing like crazy! I think he was feeling abandoned. While we were eating lunch, Nathan pulled up some of the photos he had taken for our viewing. General lunacy broke out at the campsite and we danced around the campfire to the tune of Dueling Banjo’s from Deliverance. (Sleep deprivation causes spontaneous outbreaks of mayhem.) We left Bill crashed on my sleeping bag and headed off in Jennifer’s car for the Sinks of the Roundstone to do some real caving! I really like the entrances to this cave. We did the through trip. We hiked the tracks to the railroad entrance and came out the natural entrance. Because the water was low inside, Nathan, Danielle and Andy decided to explore the stream passage in the log room. Jennifer and I wimped out. They came back wet above their chests. Of course, Andy had to lead us around in a big circle and make us do the crawl and the mud twice. The second time through the mud pit, a serious mud fight broke out between Nathan, Andy and Danielle. Poor Danielle will probably be digging mud out of her ears for weeks to come! We poked around in SOR for a couple of hours and had a good time. After changing clothes we headed for Mt. Vernon to pick up motor oil, ice and batteries (not necessarily in that order and Andy was really looking for butter oil). On our way we visited the entrance to Pine Hill Cave. As we were leaving, we passed 4 spelunkers on their way in. Four people, one helmet, three flashlights, no gloves or kneepads and they were planning to go back to the waterfall. The waterfall is over ½ mile into the cave and includes some stream walking and stream crawling. Just not smart! (They were from Lexington, KY.) With supplies in hand (supplies that included essentials such as 1-Scream mask, 1-afro wig and 1-clown wig), we headed back to the campground for dinner. When we arrived at the campsite, there was a note on the door from Pat & Jo Hutson inviting us to their cabin for a visit. Our first priority was food! Jennifer had a big pot of vegetable soup and some cornbread calling our names! Nathan and Andy went to get Andy’s Tahoe and Jennifer and I headed to the kitchen to warm up dinner. Dinner was wonderful! Thank you Jennifer (from all of us)! After dinner we walked the short hike to the Great Saltpeter Cave for Nathan’s photo shoot. (Bill was nowhere to be seen.) Just as we were entering the cave, Jerry Brandenburg pulled up looking for Andy. Apparently, we had just been missing him for most of the day. Pat, Jo and Jerry were concerned about Andy, as they had not seen him and knew he was there. Jerry was the posse. He stayed with us while Nathan took some shots just inside the entrance. After Jerry left we moved on to Echo Auditorium. Nathan got some really good shots of the big room! Mary didn’t specify exactly what it was she wanted, but I think she’ll be happy with what Nathan took. We spent a long time inside the cave taking pictures. Jennifer got really tired, so she and I walked back to camp while Nathan, Danielle and Andy finished shooting. They got back to camp about 2 am (don’t know if that was central or eastern time, I just know it was late and we were tired). None of us had any trouble sleeping Saturday night.
Sunday morning, of course was beautiful. Why is it that the day you have to go home always has the best weather? We took our time packing, drank coffee and enjoyed what was left of our fire. Putting out the fire was most entertaining! Andy kept pouring water and poking around for hot spots. He created many, many ash geysers putting out that fire! Good fun! Just as we were about to leave, Jo, Pat and Jerry came to visit. We sat and talked to them for a while. Good visit! The folks from the Huntsville Grotto are looking forward to the joint Dayton Underground/Huntsville Grotto cave/campout in April. We said goodbye to our visitors and headed to Jean’s Restaurant for lunch. If you’re ever at Jean’s, make sure that you sign the Caver’s log located at the register. We said our farewells in the parking lot and the five of us headed off in three different directions. I hated to see the weekend end and dreaded the drive home.
The trip home was relatively uneventful. Traffic was as heavy going home as it was coming up. We got lucky with the construction both ways, which was a blessing! I arrived home about 7:30 (CST). Andy called when he was just about home, and when he called we were just north of the Chattanooga city limits (still 2 good hours from home-you rat, rub it in!). I had a really good time this weekend as I think we all did. Good friends are hard to come by, good people aren’t easy to find and saying goodbye for any length of time is hard. My undying thanks to our ever-gracious host, Andy, for taking the time to show us around and spend time with us (and for the use of his electric blanket). We’ll do it again, sooner then later, I hope. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Bill, the Albino Cave cat, be watching for the further adventures of boy doll, cave softly, kill nothing but cave vandals and we’ll CUBELO!
October 24, 2005
(Left to right from front) Jennifer, Danielle, Michelle, Andy, Nathan
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