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The history of the Carter Caves "Crawl-a-thon"

By John P. Tierney

Before the highly successful Winter Adventure Weekend, there was the Carter Caves Crawlathon. The Crawlathon morphed into the WAW because of the White-nosed syndrome that has so devastated bat populations. The Crawlathon attracted several hundred people from all over the country (even foreign countries) but the fear was that it would aid in the spread of the disease. For a time, cave tours in non-commercial caves of the park were completely stopped. The park naturalist, Coy Ainsley, was at wits end trying to determine what could replace the Crawlathon. The economic impact of a cancellation of an event of that stature to Carter Caves would be devastating beyond measure. As is the case with situations like this, the synergy of so many friends loyal to the park turned a tragedy into a real success story. 

The first Crawlathon was on January 29-31, 1982. The administrators of the Kentucky State Parks system wanted to find ways to attract more people to the parks in the winter months. The accommodations and food services are costly facilities to maintain if they are not being used. Every programming person in the park system was challenged to do something that would attract people to the parks in the dead of winter. I came up with 3 events, one for January, one for February, and one for early March, each totally different from the others. I decided to try a caving event in January because the caves are somewhat insulated from the weather outside. I also knew that cavers are not going to let the weather, bad or good, affect their travel plans. We had absolutely no budget appropriated for it. Furthermore, we had 2 people on staff: me and Rick Fuller. Sam Plummer and Don Kemper volunteered. So there were four of us. To be honest, I didn’t have great expectations, but it would satisfy administrators that I was doing something. The name "Crawlathon" just came from somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain. There was no long agonizing thought process or lists of potential titles that I pored over, it just happened on the spur of the moment. 

Some of the things that I wanted to do was to have programs that elevated people’s knowledge of caves, increase their enjoyment of the sport of caving, and instruct people on how to explore caves safely. I also wanted to have a keynote program that would feature a nationally prominent cave expert making a presentation about a current activity in world of caves. To afford to do this, we charged a registration fee of $2.00 and hoped that people would not be turned off by having to pay a fee. The first year we had about 35 people show up and that was surprising to me because we had no promotional budget and no social media outlets to get the word out. People found out about it through word of mouth and the feedback was so positive that people were asking what were the dates for next year. Our keynote speaker was Roger Brucker who was one of the most prominent cavers that I knew. He had written several books about the Mammoth Cave area and most cavers were familiar with his activities. 

The following year I put a call out to local cavers to see if they would be willing to volunteer with the caving activities. The response was overwhelming. With this volunteer staff, we were able to offer a greater variety of programs and tours. I started compiling a list of volunteers and people who wanted to participate. It kept my Commodore 64 busy. At planning meetings, there were many excellent suggestions on how to improve the event. It became obvious we were going to have to have advanced registration and to place limits on each trip. That made my Commodore work even harder. After a few years as the numbers were getting up over 200 participants, I begged the park system to get me a computer to keep track of things (I had taken my son’s Commodore away from). 

In 1985, the first serious weather related incident occurred. Thursday night and through the day on Friday, a significant snow storm dropped about 12 inches of snow, not only at the park, but all over the eastern US. There were people on route to the event and were stalled in rest areas along the Interstates and stuck in driveways and byways. Perhaps the prudent thing to do was cancel, but we decided that we would go ahead. Those that got here had a great time sliding down the roads with stokes litters and throwing snowballs. Some said that was the best one we ever had. Our featured speaker was stuck in Georgia, so one of the staff, Charlie Bishop, volunteered to do a program about some of his caving junkets. Sara Corrie told me that she was so glad we didn’t cancel. Winter adventurers should not let weather affect their pursuit of a good time. 

What really drove the program was the volunteer staff. Their suggestions and creative contributions is what caused the event to go from a little get together to the largest park sponsored winter event in the entire state park system. Along the way, someone jokingly said we should call ourselves "staph" instead of "staff." After we all had a good chuckle, I said "why not?" As the numbers of participants continued to rise, so did the numbers of "staph" that was needed increased. By the time that the event ended we had over 100 staph members and over 700 participants. Participants included scouting groups, church groups, and other types of organizational participation. Programs offered were available to all ages from infants to octogenarians. 

Trips involved a great variety of themes. One trip that was offered was a Creative Expression trip. Participants were led into a cave and once there, they were challenged by the leaders to express their feeling through poetry, prose, or any other artistic expression. Programs featuring photography were also presented. Of course the more adventurous trips were the most popular. The Bat Cave Trip, the Saltpeter Cave Crawl, Cascade Caves, Laurel Cave, and other non-commercial caves in the park. Trips were also arranged through caves outside the park like The Burchett’s Cave Tour, the Carter City Caves, Wilburn’s Cave, and Tar Kiln Cave. 

We were always challenged to come up with something new because people kept returning, and told us we want to do something different than we did the year before. We began to offer different levels of difficulty through the caves. The Bat Caves Extreme is a good example, as well as trips to Canyon Cave, which required technical expertise to participate. Surface activities were added like Down for Dummies, and of course, we also had to have an Up for Idiots, activities which were for people who had limited or no experience on rope, and then we added rappelling and ascension programs for the experienced people. We offered the Tygart’s Creek Regretta, a invigorating canoe trip down the icy, freezing cold waters of the creek. In 2001, we had over 150 trips or programs conducted during the weekend. We had pretty much reach our full capacity of numbers of people that we could accommodate. The Crawlathon had become an economic bonanza not only for the park, but for surrounding businesses. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting, if not strangest, programs that developed was the Squeezebox (or Squeezerama) competition. Some of the staph had seen a contraption that was a wooden box about 4 feet long and about 3 feet wide with a top that could be raised or lowered. The competition was to see how low a space a person could slide through. We built one of those things and at the first competition, it went on to the wee hours of the morning. We eventually had to set up weight categories, gender categories, and age categories. People were going nuts over this. For some, it was the highlight of the whole weekend. Competitors began to develop styles of clothing that would enable them to slide more easily through confined places. Some wanted to grease themselves up, but we didn’t let them. After Bruce Bannerman showed up in thin leotards, we banned him for life in the competition. Our stapher, Don Kemper, constructed a new improve version of the squeezerbox (still in use today) that has plexiglass sides so you can see their contorted bodies as they attempt to move through. To my knowledge Sarah Duncan holds the world record in the event for adults. She squeezed through an opening 5 ¼ inches high. 

Another program that should be mentioned is the Cardboard Cave Tour. The Lodge at Carter Caves has a large vacant storage area and one of our staphers said that a caver friend had taken cardboard boxes, cut them up, and pieced them together in his garage to make a crawling maze. He suggested that we construct one of those in the storage area during the Crawlathon. Staphers would start constructing this on weekends leading up to the event. It became so sophisticated and complex that escape areas had to be constructed for those who became lost. Boxes were connected by duct tape, plastic ties, and whatever else was needed. After a few years, the word got out about it and school teachers would set up field trips to the park to go through the cardboard cave. 

The Crawlathon set the tone for the Winter Adventure Weekend. As we begin to better control the outbreaks of White-nosed syndrome, caves may become an increasing part of WAW. Since the beginning of the Crawlathon and now through WAW, advances in technology and communication have made the last weekend in January at Carter Caves one of the busiest weekends of the year. I often said sarcastically "Tell me—who wants to travel hundreds of miles in the dead of winter on icy roads, in frigid temperatures to spend a weekend crawling through mud, wading through creeks, dangling on a rope 40 feet off the ground, push their bodies through a tight space in a little wooden box, and pay for the privilege of doing so?" Apparently, quite a few. 

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