PROFILE: Examining the Earth inside Carter Caves

Published 11:03 pm Saturday, February 21, 2009

GRAYSON, Ky. – Carter Caves State Resort Park has rightfully earned a reputation of being a fun summer destination.

With its lake, its caves, its miles of trails and natural beauty, the Grayson, Ky., area park is a crown jewel in Kentucky’s park system.

But the fun at Carter Caves isn’t confined solely to warm weather months — just ask the hundreds of people who show up each year in the dead of winter.

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One weekend each January, the park hosts its annual Crawlathon, meant to bring caving enthusiasts — and those who would like to be —together for a series of expeditions.

Park Naturalist Coy Ainsley said his predecessor, John Tierney, was looking for ways to bring people to the park during the slowest time of the year for visitors and was inspired by the very nature of the one thing for which the park is best known.

“Since caves have a warmer temperature than the outside air he thought a caving event would be a good idea,” Ainsley explained. That first Crawlathon 28 years ago had a half a dozen guides and attracted 35 participants. The reputation of the Grayson event grew. Nearly 590 people had signed up to come this year.

Ainsley said the event brings out people from all walks of life and all levels of caving experience, from newbies who have high hopes and little experience to seasoned cavers with stories to tell. More than half of the people who come each year have attended Crawlathon in the past.

One of those veteran cavers is Larry Matiz, of Portsmouth, who has taken part in Crawlathon for more than two decades and now is a volunteer staff member. He is also a member of the Eastern States Speleological Society (ESSO) grotto based in Flatwoods, Ky. He said his love of caving dates back to his youth and is something he handed down to his own kids who are now grown and still into caving.

“As a young person, I might have gone with a church group or a family member might have taken me, but when I got my license and could drive, my involvement in caving really grew and most of the time it was in Carter County,” he said.

What is it that lures him underground, into those dark corners?

“The unknown,” he said simply. “A lot of times, you don’t know what’s around the next corner. It’s an adventure. There are not too many places on earth you can find where someone else has not been but every once in a while you go in a cave and you can still find a virgin passage.”

What to do

Participants have the option of seeing part of Bat Cave, though the area of the cave where the bats winter is off limits. Cascade Cave, X Cave, Horn Hollow and Rimstone are all of the list of can-see sites, as well as some of the area’s private caves.

Matiz said Crawlathon offers so many different aspects of caving, from caving photography, cave lighting, history and even science.

Crawlathon is open to people 6 years of age and older and the participants come from all over, Ainsley said.

“We get people from Florida, from Indiana, Colorado, Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama, just a little bit of everywhere,” he said.

“It’s a neat event that is family-oriented. It’s a fun adventure weekend. You can go off and explore caves alongside great leaders. Some people have been coming for 20 years. And for those who come, it’s not just the trips, it’s the socialization.”

Ainsley invited newcomers to experience the joys of Crawlathon but warned, “You’ll be hooked.”

What’s your level?

Participants can choose from level 1 (are you afraid of the dark?) to level 4 (just how claustrophobic are you?) the most strenuous of the offerings that requires special equipment and skills.

“It has rappelling into pits, no horizontal passages and everything in between,” Ainsley said.

“Crawlathon is unique because it teaches young people who have never been (caving) to experience it the right way,” Matiz said. “From a beginner’s standpoint it’s a good place to observe how people cave, what equipment they have and where to get really good equipment. Most caving events are for seasons cavers, not for new beginners.”

A bit of bad news

This year’s Crawlathon was canceled due to something entirely beyond anyone’s control: the threat of illness.

Kentucky State Parks Commissioner Gerry van der Meer said there was a “significant threat of the introduction to Kentucky of white-nose syndrome, a disease that is fatal to hibernating bats and has been found in caves in Northeastern states. In recent days and weeks, this disease has spread to other states.”

Carter Caves is home to 65 percent of the state’s hibernating population of Indiana bats, a federally endangered species.

Profile 2009 is The Tribune’s annual section about the people, places and issues of Lawrence County and the surrounding area.