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PHOTOS AND STORY BY: Travis K. Kircher
CORYDON, Ind. (WDRB) -- Most people have some pretty mundane things in their basements: a water heater, laundry appliances, or maybe that old, moldy pair of Nikes the dog ripped to shreds.
But the folks at 1267 Green Acres Drive SW in Corydon, Ind., have something different in their basement.
They have a cave.
You wouldn't know it when you pull into their address on a country road, just west of the intersection of S. State Road 135 and Shiloh Road SW. The Indiana Caverns welcome center is still under construction. There's no sign yet. No visible cave entrance. Only a pleasantly modern, nondescript building – in the middle of what used to be a wheat field – with several large picture windows, yellow wooden siding and a decent-sized parking lot. A handful of construction workers stand around several neatly stacked bricks, soon to be the building blocks that will form the welcome center's outside layer.
It doesn't look like a cave entrance. It looks more like a post office. Anyone on the lookout for a 36-mile cave – currently the 11th largest cave system in the U.S. and going for the 10th – would probably drive right past it.
And that's exactly what I did on the morning of Friday, May 10, 2013, just after 8:30.
I drove back of course, when I realized the address on the mailbox matched the one I was looking for. The skies were overcast when I pulled my 2005 Saturn Ion into the parking lot (we were expecting a hard rain, with a chance of severe weather), and immediately I was greeted by a tall, beefy man with a t-shirt, a helmet equipped with a mounted headlamp, and blue jeans that weren't really blue anymore, but were instead encrusted with a thick layer of mud-brown.
It was Rob Houchens, the CPA-turned-caver and partner with the group that is working to open Indiana Caverns to the public by the end of May.
"Ready to get muddy?" he asked, smiling from ear-to-ear.
Ready to get muddy? Of course I was. I had read the recent news accounts of Indiana Caverns – about the treasure trove of prehistoric bones that had recently been discovered in its depths, about how it stretched 36-plus miles into the bowels of Indiana, and how much of that area was still untouched and unexplored. I liked caves. I had a thing for caves. Moreover, he was talking to the "mud-magnet" – the man who, as a boy, was chastised by his parents for being the only kid to come back dirty and bruised while exploring the woods by my aunt's farm.
As I closed and locked my car, I noticed the change of clothes lying neatly in the back seat. Yeah, I was ready to get muddy.
It wasn't long before I was given a hardhat with my own ultra-cool headlamp that switched on and off, like you see in the movies. Houchens quickly introduced me to Mary, the gift shop manager, and asked her to give me a quick tour of the welcome center, while he went downstairs.
Still in construction, the welcome center is already shaping up nicely. Immediately after walking in, my nostrils were greeted by the sharp scent of cedar, a welcome by-product of the cedar ceilings already partially in place. There's a gift shop, sporting glow-in-the-dark t-shirts with a skeleton of a bear on the front, along with the words, "Wild to the Bones." Another shirt – this one for children – depicts a smiley face wearing a hard hat with the caption, "Happy Caver." There's a playroom for kids, along with a movie room, where visitors will likely be shown videos about the cave and spelunking in general.
But that wasn't what I wanted to see. I wanted to see the cave – and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out where it was. I hadn't seen any entrance in the field outside. But my curiosity didn't last for long. Moments later, Mary took me around a corner, where I once again met up with Houchens.
Houchens didn't waste any time. Leaving Mary where she was, he took me through some double doors and down a long ramp – effectively into the basement. We then walked through another short hallway. I repositioned my backpack. At the end of that hallway, was one more set of double doors.
That's when I realized: Houchens has a cave in the basement.
That final set of double doors – metal doors with glass windows, smeared with mud – might as well have been the doors of C.S. Lewis' magic wardrobe, because what I saw on the other side amounted to another world. Walls of concrete vanished, replaced by walls and ceilings of layered rock. I was in a small tunnel that sloped downward, the concrete floor ending where metal grating began.
It's a cave alright. Stalactites sprout from the ceiling like bizarre, upside-down castles. Water occasionally drips onto the back of my neck. There's that damp, musty, cave smell.
Houchens calls it the "undiscovered country."
My camera was out in an instant. As I stand in place snapping pictures, Houchens is patient, but eager to move on.
"If you like this, you're gonna love what we're about to see," he said. "This was all blasted out just months ago."
We moved further in, and I suddenly realize that Houchens is right. As we walk along the muddy grating, the tunnel opens up into an enormous chamber.
How enormous? Houchens tells me that the chamber is 60 feet tall. Let's put it this way: it's big. Really big. Soon we're descending a spiral staircase that leads down, down, down to the rock floor below. At the bottom, a metal grating provides the winding path that will eventually lead tourists through the depths of Indiana Caverns.
But it's not done yet. As you look down the cave, the rock walls begin to reflect an eerie white glow, and smoke drifts lazily through the chamber. Somewhere around the corner, several men are feverishly welding, trying to get things ready by the end of May. A zipline continues on down the passage, their lifeline that delivers necessary equipment.
We walk on the grated path for some time. But Houchens doesn't like paths.
Before long, we've abandoned the comfortable, grated walkway and are taking the "road less traveled," so to speak. Really, there is no road. It's just a matter of scrambling across boulders and leaping from rock to rock. Gone are the comfortable electric lights from above, bathing the cave in a soft, orange glow. We're now relying on the garish, white LED lights from our helmets. Lights that jerk about as we turn our heads, illuminating nooks and crannies as we scramble onward.
Houchens – a seasoned caver who knows the chambers well – scrambles better than I do, and pauses to issue a cautious warning.
"You're gonna see 60 to 80 feet drops off to the side," he says.
60 to 80 foot drops. Heh. Heh.
Houchens' excitement is palpable. While the majestic scenery and expansive vistas are eye opening, the real secret of Indiana Caverns is the treasure trove of bones Houchens and others have discovered there.
"We found over a dozen different animals so far," he said. "The latest one that we found was a giant porcupine. Now, why was a giant porcupine down here? You're asking the wrong guy that one."
Bison. Bears. Rodents. Name an animal and there's a decent chance it has a skeleton somewhere in Indiana Caverns. The mystery is, how did they get down there? Houchens' theory is that the cave once had an entrance that collapsed, trapping the animals inside. After the animals died, nature ran its course.
"This operated as a giant refrigerator for tens of thousands of years, potentially," he said. "It had a perfect environment: stable, high humidity, and a constant temperature. So the bones have been well preserved. While they're soft, because of the high humidity, they can easily, with time, effort and money, be preserved."
Before long, Houchens and I are crouched in the darkness, the beams from our headlamps illuminating the first specimen I am to see: the skeleton of a long-dead bison.
The skull is gone, but much of the bones are clearly visible. A small flag marks the bones' location, planted by a paleontologist, and orange tape forms a boundary around the bones to protect them from careless travelers. Still, I am able to get less than a foot away to shoot pictures.
"This is the back end of the legs," Houchens says, pointing. "In that center section you can see some of the decomposed matter that was inside of the animal. You can see great big vertebrae."
One thing to note: we're looking at bones. NOT fossils. Actual BONES preserved by the cave. Houchens believes they came from the Pleistocene era, dating all the way back to prehistoric times.
He disappears around a corner and, moments later, emerges beaming from ear-to-ear, holding what appears to be a giant tooth in his hand.
What kind of tooth is it?
"You know, you're outside of my expertise," he shrugs. "It's a bison tooth, that's all I can tell you. This is where the skull was, and the cave kind of dripped on it and ruined it. The teeth are more durable."
Lord of the Flies
There's just something about cave exploring. I've been on guided group tours through Mammoth Cave, and Marengo Cave, but there's something about getting off the beaten path and striking out on your own. You never know what you're going to find. After some time, the cool darkness starts to play tricks on you. At any moment, I'm half expecting one of J.R.R. Tolkein's dwarfs to come waddling around the corner. Or – if literature isn't your thing – it reminded me of playing those old 90's PC adventure games like "Myst" or "The Dig."
Before long, Houchens is eager to show me one of the other hidden secrets of Indiana Caverns: a perfectly preserved skull at the bottom of a narrow chasm.
And it's not easy to get to.
"It's a challenge, physically, to get back over here," Houchens warns. "You have to be very careful, and all that kind of stuff."
Careful. Heh. Heh.
Before long, my boots are not-so-firmly planted on a sloped rock, slick with mud. I'm stretched across a 10-foot drop, and my hands are pressing hard across the opposing wall. I waddle across, nervously.
"Oh, this is not as easy as I thought it'd be!" All the while, I'm trying very hard not to let my gulping, gasping and skeleton-white knuckles betray my cool exterior.
"You're the first person I've taken back here," Houchens says, excitedly.
I make it safely, thanks to Houchens' guidance, and soon I'm peering into a crevice where the object of Houchens' excitement can be seen lodged in the middle. It's a skull alright – the skull of some kind of animal, the pale white eye sockets peering through a layer of clay and mud.
"That right there is an articulated skull," Houchens says. "You see the front there is the teeth connected. The lower jaw has been broken by probably a rock that fell at some point. Because you see it's covered over by clay, that could have happened thousands of years ago."
"We've not cleaned it. We've not touched it. No one has touched that. But if you want to – but you're gonna get extremely muddy – you can climb down there to take a picture," he points to a small opening in the floor, leading down the chamber where the skull is. "No one has climbed down there except me."
What? Would I like to climb down into that tiny chamber and be all alone with the skull? Of course! Because, you know, THAT'S not creepy.
And sure enough, I found myself crawling down into the pit. Something gurgled in the darkness around me and I held my breath – but it turned out to be my boots sinking inches into the mud below. I was in a space about half the size of a bathtub – and a few feet in front of me, lodged in the crevice a little lower than eye level, was the skull.
I stared at it through the camera lens, and it just stared right back. It was my own little "Lord of the Flies" moment. Like the character in the book, I was face-to-face with a skull. Unlike the events portrayed in the William Golding novel, the skull didn't talk – and it's a darn good thing, too.
Houchens took me over 100 feet below the surface, but he only showed me a morsel of the 36-mile-long expanse that is Indiana Caverns. Along the way, we waded through ankle deep water to the spot where his team is building three boats that will ferry visitors through water passages. (Incidentally, I was extremely grateful for my gortex-lined, waterproof Vasque hiking boots, which I can now highly recommend.)
At one point, Houchens unexpectedly stops, makes an exclamation and peers into a small hole in the cave wall.
"That is so cool!" he exclaims. "I just found a bone I didn't even know was there. There's a hole right here, and you can see back in there there's rodent bones."
As we travel onward, Houchens explains how he teamed up with Gary Roberson in 2010 -- a man he describes as "an explorer and entrepreneur…wrapped into one" – to develop Indiana Caverns as a tourist attraction.
Houchens is a CPA who often helps startup companies – well – start up. He said Roberson approached him in 2010, asking for help with the business venture of opening the cave to the public. Roberson had roughly 20 years of experience running Marengo Cave, and wanted to get back in the business.
"I saw what I thought was a great opportunity and said, 'Okay. Instead of paying me, make me a partner,'" Houchens said. Thus Indiana Caverns was born.
But, Houchens says, they had no idea the cave would prove to be a goldmine of prehistoric bones.
"We knew there were some," he said. "But we had no idea that there was this kind of bone record. No idea."
How common are bones in Indiana Caverns? Houchens recalled an incident when they came across an 80-foot drop and decided to investigate.
"We had a guy climb all the way down in there, and he came up with a bear tooth and a rabbit tooth from the bottom," he said. "So we know there are additional remains down there. We just haven't had time to explore it."
On our way back to the surface, a familiar sound greets our ears: running water.
"Oh – it's raining outside. You hear it?" Houchens says. "Yep – it's coming down in here. There's always a delayed reaction."
Sure enough. We run into Roberson on the way up. He's shining his lamp high up at the ceiling, and we can see small streams of water pouring onto the gangplank below. The rainfall we were expecting must have started.
By the time I emerged from the cave, it was nearing 11 a.m. I was tired, covered with mud over every square inch of my clothes – and totally elated.
As I write this, it's Sunday night. I'm clean, dry, munching on pistachios, and I've just finished listening to the 2-hour-15-minute audio recording of the trip, the means by which I re-lived the tour in order to write this story.
A couple of final thoughts: Rob Houchens and Gary Roberson are not just good businessmen. They're cave enthusiasts. No – "explorers" would be a better word. They're still caught up in the wonder of it all – and those are the best kinds of people to bring Indiana Caverns to the masses. Throughout the trip, Houchens was all smiles. And who can blame him? He has a poltergeist house with a cave in the basement.
Second: I'm no scientist, but from what I saw down there, there's a lot of stuff in Indiana Caverns that should keep paleontologists from across the nation salivating for a long, long time. And most of it hasn't even been found yet. Don't be surprised if it's garnering national attention from the scientific community before long.
Lastly: You really, really need to check out Indiana Caverns when it opens -- hopefully by the end of May. Seriously. Don't worry about the mud. You won't need a change of clothes. By the time it opens, the walkways will be built, and ferries will be ready to take you across the water cleanly and efficiently. Because that's what 95 percent of the people want.
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But part of me is hoping that Rob and Gary offer something on the side for the other 5 percent – the "mud magnets" who enjoy scrambling over boulders, squeezing through crevices and scraping their knees once in a while.
There's something to be said for going off-road.
TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is a Web producer for WDRB News.