Monday, July 12, 2010

My Mammoth Vacation, Day 1

I got to spend last week with my boys, just the three of us. This year, we went on a camping excursion to Mammoth Cave National Park.

It wouldn't be a vacation with me if I didn't forget something. This year, it was my camera. I'm not a huge shutterbug, but I do like to snap a few shots every now and then to mark the occasion. I was forced to purchase a single-use camera at the camp store. A single use film camera. I hadn't realized it had been so long since I'd used a film camera, and I had forgotten the joy and, for some reason, anxiety that comes along with spinning that little clicking knob after taking a shot. I missed my digitial camera.

As I said, I'm not a huge shutterbug, so I didn't get many pictures — not enough to fill the camera. Eventually, I'll fill the camera, get some digital prints, and post some of them here. But for now, this'll be mostly unillustrated.

So anyway, we left Monday morning after breakfast. We lunched in Seymour and had a quick rest stop just south of Louisville. As we journeyed deeper into Kentucky, we combed over the handful of tourist brochures I had snagged at the rest stop. The Mammoth Cave schedule said that there was something called a "River Styx Tour" at 3:30. Both the boys have been reading Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, so Greek mythology is at the forefront of their minds. It looked like the gods of time might be with us, and we could make it there just in time to get on the tour.

We pulled into a parking spot just a few minutes after 3:30 and rushed into the visitors' center, where two things happened in quick succession. First, we learned that Kentucky is on Central Time, so it was actually just after 2:30 there. A whole hour before the tour started! (Time zones have never made a great deal of sense to me, and this makes it even worse.) Second, a quick trip through the ticket line revealed that the River Styx Tour was completely sold out.

Through Sunday.

So let this be a lesson if you're planning a visit to Mammoth Cave during peak vacation season: Buy your tickets early online. I, for one, am not a big planner when it comes to vacations, but I do hear that there are some people who schedule every waking second of a vacation. I assume that the River Styx tour that we missed included quite a few of this latter type of vacationer.

But no matter. I got us three tickets to the Discovery tour, the only self-guided cave tour. We checked in with the ranger, got ourselves a camp site, and set up the tent before returning to the mouth of the cave.

A snapshot of our camp site will eventually go here.

The neatest thing about Mammoth Cave in the summer — and caving in general — is the natural air conditioning underground. It was in the mid-nineties above ground, a steady mid-fifties below. A wonderful summer respite.

The Discovery Tour doesn't go very deeply into the cave, sticking to wider areas of the caverns. What's more, it's the starting and ending points of some of the longer, guided tours. The moral: Don't buy tickets for the Discovery Tour if you're going to buy tickets to one of the other tours that goes through there.

For my younger son, this was a first experience with caves. He was rather nervous, as I probably was the first time I went into a cave. My elder son, though, is now a Boy Scout. He's been dirty-kneed, head-lamped spelunking a couple times before, so this cool, dark, open space was a little tame for him. I was just happy to be out of the heat and finally having some vacation-time fun with my boys.

One of the other things that we found in our brochures was Lost River Cave. I had gone to Mammoth Cave on a family trip when I was younger. I remember that Mammoth Cave Nat'l Park had offered underground boat tours, but at the time, the water level was too high and the boat tour was closed.

Mammoth Cave doesn't offer boat tours anymore, so we hopped in the vacation-mobile and shot down to nearby Bowling Green, where we just managed to get tickets to the final boat tour of the day.

Vacationers: If you're looking for a souvenir or gift to take back with you, the gift shop at the Lost River Cave is a great place to go. They do have some kitschy stuff, but they also have some really wonderful keepsakes at prices you don't usually see in a gift shop. I was tempted to spend a lot of money here.

The boat tour itself was pretty cool, and at least one of my boys thought it was the best part of the vacation. For an adult, the history behind the cave is as interesting as the tour itself. You can find out more on their Web site, but the really interesting part doesn't start until the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy" section.

While we were on this tour, we found out why Mammoth Cave doesn't offer boat tours anymore. It seems that a rare species of blind cave shrimp was discovered in those caves. To protect the species, boat tours were discontinued. All of Mammoth Cave's boats were then sold to the Lost River Cave people, who now use them.

After that, it was a late dinner at The Olive Garden (love their new dishes, hate their new prices), firebuilding at the campsite, s'mores, and sleep. Well-earned sleep.

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