My spelunking adventure

In February 2008, not long after my oldest son, Barron, turned 7, the two of us went with our Cub Scout pack to Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee.

The excursion included a walking tour, an adventure tour, spending the night in the cave, and eating breakfast underground the next morning. It was Barron’s first overnight trip with scouts, and my first spelunking experience.

Boy with a headlamp helmet on carrying a flashlight in a cave
Barron, age 7, navigated the cracks and crevices way better than his old man.

We made the Saturday drive up to McMinnville, and it was dark when we arrived. The weather was cold and nasty, with scattered accumulations of snow. We parked in a large, roped-off field, gathered our gear and hiked the few hundred yards to the rendezvous point in front of the cave. The cave entrance was large and inviting, and as a host of Cub Scouts and their families gathered, we had nothing at all to be afraid of. The temperature inside the cave was a consistently cool 56 degrees year-round, so even with freezing conditions above ground, a sweatshirt and light jacket was enough to keep me comfortable. Barron felt fine in long sleeves and a jacket.

There were about 50 of us from Pack 502 who made the trip, and we had a designated sleeping area inside the cave for our group. The caverns’ staff directed us to our place, an open stretch of cave with a 10-foot ceiling at its apex that gradually sloped to the floor on both sides. We found a spot that didn’t feel too confined, and Barron helped me lay out our tarp, foam pads and sleeping bags. In just a few minutes, we were ready for the tour to begin.

A guide led our group on the introductory walking tour of the spacious rooms not far from the entrance. Electric lights illuminated the paths and the rooms, and a glass chandelier and disco ball adorned the ballroom-like “Ten Acre Room,” which our guide explained was rented out for special occasions such as weddings and concerts. It was easy walking with no climbing or crawling. There was nothing to be afraid of.

They extinguished the lights for a full minute to demonstrate the sensation of total darkness. In the dark, the guide told us the story of surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham who discovered the cave in 1810. He was alone, and his torch went out while he was perched on a high ledge. He was trapped in the cave for three days before a rescue party found him. According to local legend, his hair had turned white, and he acted strange for the rest of his life. The story gave me my first shudder, and when the lights came back on, I breathed a sigh of relief and checked my flashlight batteries.

We learned about stalactites and stalagmites, why we shouldn’t touch the mineral deposits and rock formations, and the rule of three: “Always tell three friends where you are going, carry three sources of light, and always have three points of contact when climbing.” The tour demystified the cave, and it felt less intimidating the longer we spent in the more commercial spaces of the tour. Despite the darkness demonstration, I was lulled into thinking caving was no big deal. After a couple of hours, we were ready for the “adventure tour.”

It was about 10 p.m. when they called the more intrepid of our group together, and those not wanting to explore the more challenging areas of the cave were free to relax or go to bed early. The rest of us were lined up to crawl through a wooden box that was 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide to prove we could fit through some of the tighter squeezes in the tunnels. I easily squirmed through the box, a little full of myself for being physically fit, unlike some of the parents who were not able to go on the tour because they couldn’t fit through the box. One of the larger scout dads asked me to take his son in our group because he couldn’t fit, and I happily obliged.

The tour started easily enough with a few climbs, crawls and tight spaces. We were near the back of the group, but we all had our flashlights and could hear our female guide’s reassuring voice. About a half hour into the tour, however, the adventure really began. A fissure with an indistinguishably long drop required us to climb a series of metal ladders embedded in the rock. Barron and his friend with the too-big-for-the-box dad easily scampered up the rungs and waited for me on the other side. I made it without a problem but the final people in our party, a family of three completely decked out in obviously new and expensive REI spelunking gear, struggled to get across. Ever the good scout, I did my “good turn” by helping them across. When we were safely on the other side, we were confronted with two passageways and no sign or sound of the group or our guide. I thought I heard voices to the left, so I led our little band that direction and crawled on.

In just a few minutes, the need for an 18-by-24 test box became evident. Not wearing a helmet, I had to carefully maneuver so as not hit my head, trying to aim my flashlight in front of me while I pulled myself along with my forearms and knees. I was initially encouraged by our progress and was convinced that this was just a short tunnel. Doubt creeped into my mind the longer I crawled without seeing or hearing anyone in front of me. I tried to keep this disconcerting fact from the two seven-year-olds in my care and the REI family.

“It’s just a little farther,” I called back to them trying to reassure myself just as much as my followers.

But the cramped crawl space continued.  After what seemed like an eternity but what was only about 20 minutes, the son of the big dad started repeating, “We’re lost… we’re going to die.”

I held panic at bay and kept us crawling forward. It was clear my expectation of encountering one or two tight spots the size of the box was a miscalculation. We had been crawling on our bellies for a half hour, and it had been even longer since I had seen someone in front of me. I regretted taking the left-hand path back at the fork, and the refrain of “We’re lost… we’re going to die” eroded my thin veneer of calm.

“Listen, we are not going to die,” I finally said emphatically.

We pushed on into the darkness, and my limited, panic-influenced vision created the sensation that the crawlspace was narrowing the further we went. I could not imagine hitting a dead end and having to reverse course.

Just when I was convinced I had led us the wrong way, I heard voices in front of me.

“They’re up ahead, guys. We’re almost through,” I said to our group.

Less than a minute later, we emerged into a large room and were greeted by our guide.

“Glad you made it. I was about to head back in there to find you.”

The rest of the adventure tour was a piece of cake. The biggest challenge was keeping your shoes on as the floor of the cave was covered in a sticky, slippery mud. Navigating the tunnels was much easier, and the trail was often open vertically for 10 to 20 feet, allowing me to stand upright. We explored for about an hour before we came to another small opening which immediately triggered my fear. I just knew we were about to be forced onto our bellies again for another prolonged period of snaking along the ground in the dark.

I got down on my knees again and proceeded through the hole. In just a few feet, I came out with the noise of the campers standing directly in front of our tarp and sleeping bags. Exhausted but relieved, I turned to the boys, who both looked supremely pleased with themselves for not getting lost and dying.

We brushed our teeth and readied for bed. Little did I know that the real adventure would be trying to sleep in a cave full of snoring scout dads. From that trip forward, I always remembered to pack ear plugs on camp outs.

I wasn’t the least bit claustrophobic before heading underground, but after spending a night spelunking, I developed a healthy suspicion of enclosed spaces.