Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Hike to the Local Sink Hole

Joppa Ridge Road, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

We drove this densely forested backcountry road to get to a sink hole in Kentucky. Fortunately, we saw no signs of bootleggers or moonshiners in these backwoods, but we did see a few wild turkeys next to the road, so close you could almost reach out and touch them. Beneath this road and these woodlands lies the world's largest cave network, over 390 miles of caves, some of which are flooded with underwater rivers.

Outcrop, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

By the road was this outcrop of limestone, showing telltale traits of Karst topography, a geologic phenomenon important for the formation of caves. Weaker layers of limestone erode faster than harder layers above, creating ideal situations for cave development over time.

Hiking Trail to Sink Hole, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

The hike down into the sink hole depression was a short but challenging one. The day was dreadfully hot, and in the sink hole, extremely moist and humid. The air felt so thick you could almost slice it with the tail of Daniel Boone's coon skin hat.

Wooded Cliffs, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

Once in the sink hole gorge, we looked upward to the forested hillsides and cliffs, and saw trees. Many trees. And they seemed so tall. By this time we were sweating and breathing heavily. The air felt muggy, sultry, sticky and airless. Yes, that's right, airless air. Never mind the oxymoron. It was so.

A Lost River, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

At an overlook in the gorge, we spotted this lost river, a segment of the underground system of rivers in Mammoth Cave that suddenly emerges for a time, then disappears back into the caves. When the river emerges, it picks-up sediments and nutrients from the woodlands and carries them through the caves to help feed cave fauna, such as the cave salamander, and the Madagascan burrowing cow.

Cedar Sink, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

Finally we reached our destination, the holy grail of Mammoth Cave sink holes, Cedar Sink. Sink holes, which are sometimes called swallow holes, are typical of Karst landscapes. They are natural depressions formed by erosion of the limestone bedrock, or where a cave ceiling has collapsed. In this case it is an underground river which has surfaced. The sink hole looks so lush and swampy, you would almost expect to see a python.

As evening approached, it began to get a little dark, so we turned back up the trail to return to our car.

Kitschy Knight, Cave City, Kentucky  © Doug Hickok

As knight approached, we found our path blocked, and were forbidden to pass. Fortunately I happened to have in my knapsack a shrubbery and a herring, which the knight insisted I give to him, or he would say "Ni" over and over to us. He then let us pass unharmed, and so
we went on our jolly way,
 conking our coconuts together as we walked.

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