LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I like to think of myself as a reasonably "in-shape" kind of guy.
I mean, I jog occasionally (usually when my car has run out of gas on the side of the road). And I make it a point to be sure to eat a vegetable every other month or so. (It's all about healthy eating.)
So when I -- along with WDRB weekend morning show reporter Chris Sutter and photojournalist Josh Kidd -- pulled up to the Indiana Caverns welcome center in Corydon Wednesday morning, I was a bit smug. I had this licked.
True, the caving expedition we were about to embark on -- the new "Deep Darnkess" expedition – was not your typical underground walk in the park. True, expedition guide, Indiana Caverns partner, and all-around expert caver Rob Houchens warned us to bring a second set of clothes. True, we were told to expect lots of climbing, scrambling over rocks, knee-deep water -- and mud. Lots and lots of mud.
But I wasn't worried. (Okay, not THAT worried.) I had been caving with Rob before. I have been on the Caverns’ regular tour twice. The first time was as a journalist, a couple of years ago, before it opened, when Rob took me "off-road," so to speak, and we spent hours sliding down rocks, jumping into muddy holes and looking at fossils. (See my previous story: A Cave in the Basement.) The second time was a year or so later, when I went as a regular tourist.
The first time, I came back covered in mud. The second time, I didn't get a speck of dirt on me. I liked the first time better.
So, come what may, I was ready, Wednesday morning, to face whatever Deep Darkness threw at me. I would jump into the experience headlong and come out the other side without even breaking a sweat. Maybe even marching at attention and proudly whistling the theme song to "Bridge on the River Kwai."
Yeah, that fantasy lasted all of about two minutes.
A really, really long ladder…
After we arrived at the welcome center, we were greeted by Rob, and it wasn't long before Chris, Josh and I met up with the other members of our team -- there were nine of us, in total. Then we were introduced to Sarah Blevins, our second expedition guide, and the only female member of our team.
Then of course, came time for us to sign the inevitable waivers -- an ominous ceremony in any extreme sports endeavor. I skimmed through it quickly and vaguely saw the words, "…any and all disability, death, or loss of damage to personal property…" before signing my name.
The formalities out of the way, it was time to get suited up. Already, we could tell from our gear, that this was not a normal cave tour. Helmets were the order of the day, as were kneepads, body harnesses and headlamps. We were now equipped to go to war with the cave.
At that point, Rob and Sarah led our group -- which looked every bit like a cadre of clueless young-to-middle-aged men heading for their first roller-derby without skates -- into the woods. I passed two of our team carrying what appeared to be a large stretcher.
"See that?" I jokingly called to one of our team members. "That's what they're gonna use to carry our bodies out on. HAHAHA! Heh-heh. Heh."
Before long, we came to a small wooden shed, about half the size of a standard garage. I wrote before that the regular Indiana Caverns tour is "A Cave in the Basement," essentially because the entrance to the cave is behind a set of double-doors in the basement of the welcome center. If that's the case, then the extreme "Deep Darkness" tour is "A Hole in a Shed." Because that's exactly what it is. Inside the shed we found two makeshift changing rooms -- but the focal point of the structure was a large metal tube jutting out of the ground, sealed by something like a swinging manhole cover.
Within moments, Sarah had produced a set of keys, opened a lock and swung open the cover.
I’ve never heard a sarcophagus open (frankly, you don’t get that opportunity much here in the Gateway to the South), but I imagine it sounds similar to the sound made when that door opened. Inside the tube was a ladder -- a ladder that extended down, down, down, down into the depths. How far? Who knows? Maybe China.
Actually, Rob knew. It was 93 feet.
Sarah was the first to go down, so she could have things ready for us when we arrived at the bottom. Each person had to climb down the ladder by themselves -- one at a time -- with the back of their harness clipped into a safety rope. With excitement building, we watched as Sarah cheerfully hoisted herself over the lip of the tube, took her place at the top of the ladder, clipped herself in and began climbing down. We leaned over the edge, watching the light from her headlamp fade as she climbed further and further down, until finally we couldn't see her any more.
(A quick note: Before long, we would quickly realize that Sarah is living proof that caving is not just a "guy's" sport. She is Supergirl of the Underworld. Although small in stature, Sarah -- always cheerful and smiling -- rappels down cliffs, hoists ropes and navigates deep waters almost effortlessly, all the while spouting off details about bizarre rock formations and cave wildlife eating habits, or kindly lending a hand to adjust our headlamps. And she has this annoying habit of giggling while all of us macho guys are doing macho things like desperately gasping for breath, fumbling weakly for water bottles, or hallucinating about hot chicken-and-dumpling meals from Cracker Barrel.)
Moments later -- echoing from somewhere deep, deep in the darkness of the hole -- we heard Sarah's muffled voice call: "OFF ROPE!" The signal that it was time for the next person to climb.
Chris Sutter -- our crack morning show reporter -- was up a short time later. Equipped with a Go-Pro camera, he began his own trek down into the depths.
"Nice knowing you Sutter," I called out after him, adding a moment later that, "I think I saw this on 'Dirby Jobs.'"
One-by-one, we took our turns on the ladder. The number of team members left standing in the shed was dwindling -- sort of like the people in that luxury mansion in Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians."
Soon it was my turn, and at Rob's direction, I placed my foot on the rung and began to lower myself down on the lonely trek.
Honestly, I had no trouble with the ladder. (One of our party would admit later -- though not until it was all over -- that he was petrified of ladders, but he didn't have any difficulties either, as far as I could tell.) It is cool and dark, but you have your headlamp to help you. It does take longer than you would expect -- and I was well aware that in every sci-fi movie ever made, this is the point at which the horrible green alien comes scraping through the grimy tunnel so he can surreptitiously eat your face. But that never happened, of course. And we didn't pop out in Beijing either. Instead, I found myself at the bottom of the ladder, in the middle of a dark cavern, joined by the other members of our team, including Chris, Sarah, Josh and -- lastly -- Rob, who came down a few moments later.
I should say at this point that it’s called the "Deep Darkness" tour for a reason. It's NOT a metaphor. It's not some vague, veiled reference to the "deep darkness" of the human soul, or the "darkness" one feels when contemplating the state of world affairs, politics, or the economy. It's called the "Deep Darkness" tour because the cave is deep -- and it's filled with darkness. Trust me: I took dozens of pictures of the darkness with my DSLR camera, so I could take them home and show it to my friends.
Unlike typical cave tours, there are no lights situated along gangways or artificial trails. The only light comes from your headlamp, which has this ominous habit of blinking on and off when the battery is low. (Don't worry – we were never in danger of running out.)
After a brief rest, Rob told us about the next event on our tour: rappelling down a steep 100-foot slope.
"We're 93 feet down, where your feet are," Rob said. “We're going to head down this steep slope, and we’re going to be doing a rappel."
He showed us how to hook our harness into the ropes, and lock it safely in place.
"Here's the key," he explained. "I screw this little blue piece so that it's up and can't come open. Gotta be done. Gotta, gotta be done…we don't want any bowling balls rolling down the hill."
I stared down the hill, which looked more and more to me like a cliff. My bowling average is actually pretty lousy, but with my luck, if I started rolling down the hill, I'd probably hit a strike. I made extra sure my harness was locked appropriately.
There were two ropes, and two-by-two, we each started making our way down opposite sides of the slope. The rappel was disorienting – I'd only been rappelling once or twice before – but exhilarating at the same time. The key, as Rob told us, was to stay toward the center of the slope, rather than doing what the rope wanted you to and slip off to the side – a development that would result in your having to navigate much more difficult rocks.
At one point, halfway down the slope, the ceiling lowers, and you have to duck, crawling almost on your hands and knees to get under, before it opens back up and slopes even steeper.
At the bottom of the 100-foot slope, the two ropes terminate on opposite sides of a roaring waterfall – a premonition of one of the next obstacles to overcome.
As we walked along the dark tunnels, both Rob and Sarah took time to offer various observations about the cave's features – which seemed to spring from another world.
"All the formations form from the dripping rain water that comes through the rock and picks up a lot of minerals, and it drips down into the cave…" Sarah said, pointing at stalactites and stalagmites.
Ever the jokester, I made some facetious comment about how much cave tour guides love it when you take your finger and break some of the small stalactites off. Sarah cheerfully threatened to kill me.
"If you look at the rocks around here, they're black," Rob said, pointing out black markings that looked like tar marring some of the rocks. "That's from the manganese coming in the water. And you sometimes see bones that are turning black."
After rounding a bend, Rob gathered us all together and made an announcement.
"In the next 30-40 feet, you are going to get wet up to your knees. Don't try to avoid it," he said, adding a moment later, "Make sure that if you slip, you can catch yourself."
Actually, we had just wrapped up about five days of rainfall, and the water came almost to waist-level. It was cold -- but not overtly so. I can't remember shivering at any point during the trip, and the physical exertion is enough to keep you warm.
What I can say is that for the next several minutes, we were marching, splashing -- and sometimes stumbling -- through deep, muddy waters. Our steps had to come quickly. The more you delayed, the deeper your boots sank into the muck and the harder it was to take the next step. It wasn't long before we had established a sort of caver's etiquette: whenever your foot encountered an obstacle -- a sharp underwater rock knifing you in the ankle, a slippery slope, an unexpected drop -- you would shout a warning back to those splashing behind you.
Before long, we came to a chamber that was low enough that I had to bend my knees if I wanted to stand upright. That's when Rob brought us to a pile of kayaks.
I have to say, this was the part that had concerned me the most about the trip. I had never been kayaking before. And there was a reason. Kayaks, to me, looked like nothing less than floating death-machines. I had visions of myself floating along atop the dark waters, vacuum-sealed from the waist down into a kayak, when I would lose my balance and silently flip, my body going under without so much as a splash, the kayak continuing to float upside-down, silently down the stream as my teammates argued about which Cracker Barrel menu item was actually the best.
Yeah, the kayak part worried me.
But before I knew it, I was donning a life preserver and jumping into my little craft, which I warmed to immediately. It was sleek. It was mine. I unofficially christened it the "U.S.S. Pawn Sacrifice."
It turns out that the part of the trip I worried about the most turned out to be the most relaxing. Cave kayaking is almost therapeutic. Unlike the rest of the cave tour, it takes little-to-no physical exertion. What's amazing about the experience is that the ceiling gets lower and lower, until finally I had to lie down in the kayak and the ceiling was little more than six or eight inches from my nose. At this point, you can simply use your fingers to push yourself off the ceiling and navigate the chamber. Oddly enough, I imagine it’s a bit like being in space. If you can really do a number on yourself, and mentally flip the image of floating horizontally to floating vertically, you can almost imagine you're weightless and the slightest push "up" can cause you to float "up" the side of a muddy wall.
If you're reading this account, it may be because you saw the broadcast report by my colleague, Chris Sutter. (If you haven't yet, you really, really should. Chris and Josh did an excellent job on it, and you can watch it by clicking on the video player above.)
In it, Chris mentioned a point during the trip in which I got "stuck in a hole."
I have to take issue with Chris' characterization of what happened. I did NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, get "stuck" in a "hole." Yes, I had some difficulties getting my bearings. Yes, I was in an enclosed space. Yes, I doubted briefly whether I would make it out to see dumplings on my plate at the old C.B. before closing time. And yes, from Chris' vantage point, I imagine it did have hole-like qualities…
Okay, I got stuck in a hole.
But only briefly. And I didn't panic. What happened was this:
Sometime after we got out of a kayaks, Rob uttered one of his favorite phrases:
"Hey guys, you wanna see a tight space?"
Some did. Some didn't. So Rob took three of us, including me, while Sarah led the "easy" group around to climb a hill where they would eventually meet up with us when we crawled out of the aforementioned "tight space" Rob was going to show us.
Rob eventually led the three of us into a cavern, with a series of rocks that led up to a "hole" in the ceiling. We waited there a few minutes, as it would take some time for Sarah to get her group to where they would meet us when we emerged up above.
Impatient, Rob called up, but go no response. He said (I'm paraphrasing), "I don't know where they're at. I'll tell you what, guys. I'm going to crawl up there to see if I can find out what happened to them. I'll be right back."
I was trying to decide which horror movie that line came from, and then I remembered: all of them. As the three of us watched Rob's legs disappear up the shaft, we tried to forget the fact that, if this really was a horror movie -- any horror movie -- Rob would quickly be eaten by some carnivorous cave creature, and we would be left alone down below to fend for our lives.
Several moments went by. We called up to Rob. No answer.
"I'll tell you what, guys," said another of our team (I'm paraphrasing again.) "I'm gonna crawl up there and see what happened to Rob."
He was voted down immediately, but it wasn't necessary. Rob shouted down to us. He had already reconnected with Sarah and the rest of the team, and now it was time for us to crawl up to them through the "tight squeeze" above us.
Being somewhat slim, I thought this would be an easy endeavor, but it wasn't – at least not for me. When I finally crawled in and saw the zig-zag mesh of rocks I had to get though, it looked impossible. Stretch Armstrong couldn't get through those rocks. Gumby couldn’t get through. How was I going to make it?
Halfway through the ordeal -- about the time my harness got caught and my helmet had slid down sideways over my eyes -- I briefly considered turning back, but there was already someone behind me. Ultimately, with a lot of encouragement from the rest of my team, with Rocky's "Gonna Fly Now" playing in the back of my mind, and a lot more grunting and gasping than I would like to admit, I pulled my sorry behind out of the cleft. With a little blood, sweat and tears – and a great sense of accomplishment.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We went back the way we came. Back through the water. Back up the cliff. Back up the ladder.
We arrived at Indiana Caverns at 9:30 a.m. By 4 p.m., we had managed to crawl back up the ladder and into the shed.
When I climbed out, I was exhausted, but happy. I gasped for air. Chris Sutter was sitting in a chair with a shell-shocked expression. Sarah giggled.
What was my assessment of the trip?
It was a blast. Go, by any means. It’s totally worth it.
"Deep Darkness is a high-adventure kind of experience," Rob told Chris during an interview afterward. "It's the kind of thing where you're going to be able to go 20 stories below the surface. You're going to be able to go down a 93-foot ladder into a big, giant, open room. You're going to rappel down a great big steep hill. You're going to go through some tight squeezes and you're going to be able to kayak 20 stories below the surface, in some places only using your hands on the ceiling to get your way through."
Is it safe?
"I would say that, on something like this, as long as you are in a physical enough fit that you can go up and down a hill, then you can come and do this," Rob said. "We've got all the safety gear, everything in place so that there’s really not a dangerous spot. When you're in the kayaks, you're wearing a life jacket. When you're going down the hill, you're on a safety line. So it's the kind of thing where you get the adventure, but you get to do it in a safe way."
"I just recently saw someone post on Facebook that they added this to their bucket list of things they want to do," he added.
Justin Mosier, one of our team members who went on the tour for the first time, says he had a blast.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I will be back."
Anyone interested in going on the Deep Darkness expedition should call ahead to get reservations at (812) 734-1200. Rob says the cost is $95 per person.
Copyright 2015 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.