March 27, 2013 — For about the first 40 years of its existence as a state park, visitors and local residents went to Carter Caves primarily to see interesting things.
The beauty of those rugged cliffs and forested hillsides and the underground wonder of caves were there for all to see but generally not to touch.
Golf, horseback riding, swimming, picnicking, hiking, camping and fishing were the main hands-on activities.
Greater numbers of visitors were there in the summer with smaller turnouts in the spring and summer. Other than cottage rentals, winter was always slow.
That began to change in the 1980’s with the introduction of the “Crawlathon”, a January weekend devoted to rugged hikes and cave tours that left you cold and muddy but exhilarated.
Longtime park naturalist John Tierney, now retired, realized that some members of the public yearned to do more than just stroll along a lighted, relatively flat and comfortably wide trail inside a cave, see the same sights over and over and listen to a carefully-rehearsed tour narrative.
“Crawlathon” was well named because many of the cave tours involving crawling, climbing, scooting, twisting and other body contortions necessary to navigate cold, dark passages heretofore unexplored by amateurs.
The off-season event grew and grew and brought much-needed winter revenue to the park as hundreds of “cavers” and “spelunkers” began migrating to Carter Caves to test themselves underground.
When we asked the difference between cavers and spelunkers, the answer was that cavers are those individuals who rescue the spelunkers.
In other words, cavers train and prepare and utilize the correct equipment while the other folks are more likely to go into an unlighted cave with a $10 flashlight while wearing shorts and flip-flops.
Regardless of which term you use, exploring these caves apparently was the first “adventure tourism” to be successfully marketed in this part of Kentucky.
Cave exploring appears to provide all three components of adventure tourism – physical activity, cultural exchange and engagement with nature.
By allowing participants to step outside of their personal comfort zone, adventure tourism attractions create excitement with activities that require significant effort and involve some degree of risk, real or perceived.
Over the ensuing 25 years, rock climbing, zip lining, mountain biking, horseback trail riding, and paddle sports (canoeing, kayaking) also emerged, some on an experimental basis, as part of the “mix” of adventures at Carter Caves and the adjoining Tygart State Forest.
Sadly, the “Crawlathon” came to an abrupt end in 2009 when Carter Caves joined the state and national effort to protect endangered bats from the killer disease known as “white nose syndrome”.
White nose syndrome (WNS) was first identified in upstate New York in 2007 but has since spread to 25 states, including Kentucky.
The disease has killed millions of bats in the U.S. and Canada and has no known cure or prevention.
Despite stringent restrictions on cave access and a decontamination protocol for visitors, the deadly fungus was found last month in two of the 20 known caves at Carter Caves.
WNS does not affect humans, livestock or pet animals. It kills only hibernating bats and has obliterated 70 to 100 percent of the bat population in infected caves throughout the Northeast.
“We did all we could to keep it away but the bats themselves apparently brought it into our caves,” said Coy Ainsley, park naturalist, with a hint of sadness in his voice.
If the disease spreads here as it has in other hibernation caves and abandoned mines, bat ecologists fear it could cause the near extinction of the Indiana bat.
Ainsley said Carter Caves once had a winter population of about 100,000 bats but that figure has been reduced over the years to around 30,000 and no doubt will shrink dramatically as WNS spreads.
The WNS fungus kills in a strange way. It causes the bats to awake from hibernation and start foraging for food. That activity uses up their stored fat reserves and the bats actually starve to death or die of exposure before their primary food source – night flying insects – return in mid-spring.
Park Manager Chris Perry says he is concerned about the potential health impact on area residents and on agriculture productivity when the bats are gone or their numbers are substantially reduced.
“Bats are natural predators of mosquitoes and other flying insects that carry human diseases and damage crops,” he observed.
Those of us who have known Carter Caves all of our lives cannot imagine Bat Cave without bats.
(Next: What does the future hold for Carter Caves?)
Keith Kappes can be reached at email@example.com or by telephone at 800-247-6142.