Photo by Ron Simmons

Roger Brucker's Speleology Class 2002

By Earl Suitor, NSS # 50640
NSS News, September 2002

[Ed. Each year in June, the Western Kentucky University's Center for Cave and Karst Studies offers a series of classes at Mammoth Cave. Earl's article provides an overview of the activities in Roger's course, which was one of six courses offered this year. These courses can be taken for credit or simply for one's own educational enrichment. Some involve considerable time underground. Look for the course announcements each spring in the NSS News.]

On Saturday the 15th of June I flew to Louisville, KY and rented a car and drove the 100 miles south to Cave City, KY. I stocked up on supplies at the "E-Town" Wal Mart because I was told once we got started on the class there would be little time to go out for supplies-and they were right.

That evening I went over to Mammoth Cave National Park and had a look around, because the class didn't start until Sunday. For those of you who haven't been to Mammoth Cave National Park, it is a caver's dream come true. The place is roughly the size of Walt Disney World in Florida. It is huge, at around 37,000 acres. It is mostly mature forest, and hot and muggy in the summer, with plenty of bugs! The Visitor Center has a bookstore, sells tour tickets, and has displays on the park. Next door, across a cement bridge, is the Mammoth Cave Hotel. The hotel is not very attractive and reminds me more of a 70s office building; it is not what I expect when I think of a Park Service Lodge. Just down the road is a campground, and service center with groceries, showers, and gasoline. I walked down the path under the bridge to the Great Historic Entrance. As I walked down and turned to the right I was hit in the face by a blast of cold air. As I looked down into the gloomy opening with a small water-fall from the top of the sink, I could not help but think of all the years of history behind it. I thought especially of Stephen Bishop, the slave guide of the 1830s and 40s who was the greatest cave explorer of his day, and who should be a source of great pride to all who share a similar heritage. I then went up to the Old Guides Cemetery behind the hotel and visited Stephen's grave.

To the southeast of the park is a fairly flat area called the Great Sinkhole Plain. This area is very large and has the towns of Cave City, Horse Cave, and Park City on it, and is mostly farmland. It is covered with thousands of sinkholes. The water draining into these sinkholes flows northwest into the park. The conditions are perfect for forming long cave passages in the cracked limestone in the park. The Park is mostly covered by a sandstone layer, which forms the Mammoth Cave Plateau. There are also areas of exposed limestone in the park, and many collapsed areas. Eventually the water exits the cave system into the Green River by way of some pretty famous little underground rivers with names like River Styx and Echo River.

Sunday rolled around and I went over to the Maple Springs Research Center and checked in. You have to cross the Green River by way of a 3-car ferry to get there.

The class had a whopping 19 students, from all over the country. It is the 22nd year that Roger has taught this class. We got settled into our bunkhouse, and Roger and his wife arrived. We got class textbooks that covered everything from survey (CRF style) to geology, to cave biology and more. We were introduced to the university staff, the M.C.N.P staff, and each other. Right away everyone knew Roger Brucker was not only a very knowledgeable instructor, but also a hell of a nice guy, with a great sense of humor! It was going to be a good week.

Monday morning started out early with an almost expedition-like feel to the thing. Everyone was "loading for bear." We packed up and headed out in our two white Western Kentucky University vans to Flint Ridge Road. We went down into the Houchins Valley and Roger pointed out that while most valleys have a stream, this one doesn't, as all the water's underground! At the top of the ridge we passed the old Mammoth Cave Baptist Church and graveyard where Floyd Collins is now buried. We turned into a dirt lane on the left. After a while we came to two old buildings; one was the former ticket office to Floyd Collins Crystal Cave and the other was Floyd's house! Parking a bit beyond, we hiked down to the Austin Entrance of Mammoth Cave.

We unlocked the steel doors to the man-made Austin Entrance and went in, then down a chute and climb-down. Down to Pohl Ave, up to Davis Attic, we went down (Pg 81, The Longest Cave). A long hike and crawl led down to Cowpiss Falls, and the first connection reported in the book. On we went, down the Lower Crouchway to Brucker Breakdown, a formidable loose breakdown pile at about a 60-degree slope. Scaling that took us to Turner Avenue, which has many gypsum deposits of every variety: flowers, cotton, beards. Dave Bunnell (the renowned cave photographer and editor of the NSS News) was a classmate and stopped to get many good shots of the formations. This part of the cave is not often visited and we got to see Old Granddad (Pg 74-75, The Longest Cave), a broad column containing active wet formations on the right and dry gypsum formations on the left side. We continued on to Mather Avenue, and Swinnerton Avenue. Beyond we climbed a steel ladder to get up to the upper level, eventually arriving at our lunch site at Argo Junction. Roger said fewer people have seen Argo junction than have been to the top of Everest! There was a lot of practice reading the scallops for flow indications. We retraced our steps and after the 12-hour trip slept soundly that night (despite the damn whippoorwills hooting all night!).

On Tuesday the class spent time looking at the surface aspects of cave formation. We examined an interesting sinkhole, which had been bisected by a road cut, so you could see a sinkhole in cross section! We were near the edge of the sandstone cap so Roger said there would be many pits here, underground, along the edge where the water runs off the sandstone and cuts into vertical cracks in the limestone. We saw Bell's Tavern, which was a famous waypoint enroute to Mammoth Cave in the 1800s. We toured a dairy farm that had state-of-the-art cow waste reclaim facilities for fertilizer, a USDA-sponsored project. Mostly farmers used to shovel it down their sinkholes and polluted the caves. We had lunch at Little Sinking Creek, a point where a creek shoots down into a crack in the rocks and goes underground. Then it was off to the Green River to look at some resurgences. We saw Sandhouse Cave and The Echo River Rise, which divers once connected to the Echo River in Mammoth Cave. During the dive they found old submerged boats from the 1800s.

That evening after dinner we got our cave gear and went to Great Onyx Cave, which is off Flint Ridge Road and is beautifully decorated. This major Flint Ridge Cave has never been connected into the overall system. We mostly learned about cave photography that evening. This was not especially of great interest to me so I climbed down into a really interesting and actively forming pit. The walls were light gray and fluted and very wet. Water was coming down in a light shower. The bottom of the pit was loaded with highly polished, marble-like stones of every variety-very pretty. I wanted to check out the theory that pit drains can go places. So I got down there and looked around, and lo-and-behold, there was a slot off behind my feet. I peeked in-more cave! I slid in, feet first. It was a little tight, not very, just enough to make it fun. Once in, there was a little chamber that I looked over, then off to the left a hole and another pit, this one a bit more interesting. I peered down to the bottom about 20 feet and saw another drain. A big one! I was having fun and learning stuff so I went back and said "Hey who wants to see this great pit that I found?" My classmate Doug Magale of Valley City, OH climbed down and was just as enthusiastic as I to see this. I climbed into the second pit and traversed the small ledge along the side to the other side. Finding no further leads there, I tried to climb down into it. It was very undercut and about 20 feet across and had no footholds down in it. Not having a rope, I decided I could get down but not necessarily back up-drat! If this was in my back yard I would have come back with a rope! I'm sure that pit has been explored MANY times; I was just having fun and learning.

Wednesday we had a big trip-a "two-meal trip." This was to make two connections des-cribed in The Longest Cave, supposedly about a 14-hour trip. Lynn Brucker, Rogers's wife, led. The basic route: in the Colossal Cave entrance, through The Wild Goose Chase, to Colossal River, to Dyer Shaft, through the connection to Lehrberger Avenue, to the Lower Crawlway in Unknown Cave to Pohl Ave, and out the Austin Entrance. Lynn told the class that the long connection crawlway out of Lehrberger Avenue was one that you'd remember "for the rest of your life." While the rest of the class did this, Roger, Pam Carpenter of Kettering, OH, Lee Jay Graves of Austin, TX, and I went in the Austin Entrance and down Pohl Ave again to the Lower Crouchway and attempted to locate the fabled but never found "Handshake Passage." At a pre-arranged time we began pounding in the hopes that the rest of the class would hear us on the other side and we could locate this shortcut. We found several leads in a shaft at the "end" but could not climb up to examine them because of crumbling shelves that we attempted to use for purchase. Lee Jay and I found a virgin passage blocked by a 600-pound block and used a scissor jack to crank it out of the way. Out it came with a bang onto the pile of breakdown we were standing on. We climbed in and dug on the walls for two hours to make it bigger. We made progress, but the tiny, dry, sinuous passage lined with coralloids was tough going. We did get down it about 40 feet. The Handshake Passage may exist but it will be for a future trip. That evening we all met back at the Cave Research Foundation facility for spaghetti. This is truly the Taj Mahal of fieldhouses!

Thursday we spent the entire day and evening working on the one thing I most wanted to learn from this class: how to survey. We went over to Flint Ridge again and took the same dirt road as before to Floyd Collin's place, but this time we stopped at the house and ticket office. We would make a map of part of Floyd Collin's Crystal Cave! Ever since seeing the photos of Floyd's coffin and tombstone in the Grand Canyon part of the cave, I had wanted to go there. Back in the 50s on long cave trips starting there you would call out to Floyd as you passed by the casket: "Come along Floyd!" And Floyd could sometimes be heard following along, if you were lucky.... After a brief historical lecture by Roger and a once-over of Floyd's house and ticket office, we headed down along the old overgrown trail, once the commercial route to "Kentucky's Most Beautiful Cave." It was a hot and muggy morning. Down the hill and into the sink and just inside the door you see Floyd's old metal casket, now old and rusted. The first thing we did was look over the cave. The old commercial part is roughly x-shaped and this is the part we would survey. The ceiling in the Grand Canyon is about 70 feet up and is the center of the "x." Beyond and above the Grand Canyon is the helictite passage, once a long crawlway that Floyd's family had transformed into a barely-walking-height passage through many hours of backbreaking labor. Here we saw some damage caused by vandals who'd broken into the cave a few years ago, but there were still some nice intact clusters of helictites.

Back at the main junction we followed a pleasant canyon with many gypsum crusts and small flowers. At the end of this is a hole in the floor called "The Trap." It is not that obvious, and would be overlooked by tourists as merely a little rat hole. This is the beginning of most of the "good" cave (by this I mean for those who like a challenge). Roger let us go down and look a bit. You slide down through several holes in the red dirt, one after the other. Eventually you get to a small canyon that is about 8 foot high and 1 foot wide. It goes left to "Left of the Trap" and right to Floyd's Lost Passage. Several of us went down to the right a ways but we couldn't take much time just exploring as we had to return to continue the class. I wished I'd had about two more days to just explore there!

We split into survey parties of four and surveyed our respective areas. I mostly read instruments or minded the tape. When we returned later that evening, after dinner we set upon the task of making the map. Lynn Brucker put the data into her laptop and printed out the line plots. We stayed up past midnight working on it. I drew up the final map. It was not perfect, but considering that most of us had not done this before, it wasn't too bad. Friday we went to Sand Cave off Old Mammoth Cave Rd. This is where Floyd Collins was looking for a cave to commercialize that would be closer to the tourist route than his cave way back in the woods. While digging there one day in 1925 he became hopelessly trapped, and eventually died. It is a very interesting story. It was an international story at the time and the world held its breath as they tried to rescue him. We got to actually look down into the small opening, and Roger (who has been down in there) showed us how the tiny passage goes and where the rescue shaft was, and told the whole story right there where it happened.

Then it was lunch and off to Salts Cave. Salts also connects to Mammoth and is a part of the 370+ mile long system. The gate to Salts is down in a big wet sink, and its gate is in a cage made of heavy angle iron. Salts is a cave with huge canyons, and black walls and ceilings from the soot of aboriginal torches. There was a lot of "pre-Indian" use of this cave, perhaps 3000 years ago. There is a lot of evidence still there to see of this, including reed faggot fragments, human paleo-feces, shell and stone tools, and scrape marks. Much archeological work has been done here, and many artifacts from Salts Cave are in museums now. I found it especially interesting that in the vestibule of Salts strong evidence of human cannibalism was found: chopped human bones mixed in with chopped bone of deer, and other animals. Chopped in such a way as to suggest butchering. Also cooked, and scorched, and all together. Ah, stew!

We went back in Salts and found out why it's called Salts. Lining many walls are deposits of minerals such as those found in Milk of Magnesia. This may account for the large number of feces. It is possible and probable that the early peoples used the salts for medicines, including laxatives. We continued on past an area called Tom Wilson's Accident, down a slope, and on to Dismal Valley. All of our activities were limited to Upper Salts-except where I had to climb down in the bottom of Dismal Valley to have a look at what was down through the crawly hole leading to lower Salts. (Pg 67, Archaeology of the Mammoth Cave Area by Patty Jo Watson). That night we went back to the CRF fieldhouse for a barbecue and saw some slide shows by Roger Brucker and Dave Bunnell. We also got to meet Pat Kambesis' cartography class, and see the fruits of their week's labor on map making. Wow, what beautiful maps! [Ed. Pat's class was another one offered through Western Kentucky University.]

On Saturday we had our practical final exam, and went to the Carmichael Entrance of Mammoth Cave. Roger had us split into two groups and we were given an area of the cave, a part of Franklin Avenue, and Sandstone Avenue, and told to come back in 90 minutes with a report on as much as we could tell him about the cave. I think we all reached the same conclusions and those were the generally accepted ones, so I guess we did learn something! In conclusion I wish to say simply that, if you like caves and caving and this class is offered again, take it! You will be delighted. It will unquestionably be a highlight of your life, to remember always-and that is strong praise.

I will leave you with some of Roger's wisdom concerning how to find new cave:

  1. Follow the water.
  2. Follow the air.
  3. Be alert to changes in the cave.
  4. Learn the pattern; look for what's missing.

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