The Coolest Cave You Haven’t Heard Of (Yet)

Deep beneath the corn­fields, rolling hills and idyl­lic scenery of rur­al south­ern Indi­ana lays a pos­si­ble nation­al trea­sure. The Bink­ley cave sys­tem, qui­et­ly sur­veyed over the bet­ter part of the last fifty years, awaits fur­ther dis­cov­ery. Closed before the end of the last Ice Age, no human had ever set foot in this under­ground won­der before the late 1920’s, when the bot­tom sim­ply dropped out of a pond near Cory­don, Indi­ana, form­ing what was even­tu­al­ly called Bink­ley Cave. Dur­ing the 1930s and ‘40s, ama­teur spe­lunk­ers began to explore the first short stretch­es of the cave, and in 1967, Gary Rober­son and Ter­ry Cray­den began to sur­vey more of the system.

By 1969, 11.35 miles have been sur­veyed. In ear­ly 2012, a con­nec­tion was dis­cov­ered between Bink­ley Cave and near­by Blow­ing Hole Cave. Today, the cave sys­tem has grown con­sid­er­ably, as it now sits at over 37 miles long, mak­ing it the 11th longest cave sys­tem in the US, and eas­i­ly the longest in the state of Indi­ana. It is a ten­ta­tive belief that after the entire sys­tem is sur­veyed, it will become the longest pri­vate­ly-owned cave sys­tems in the nation. The own­ers (Rober­son being one of them) have now opened up the orig­i­nal Bink­ley cave as a “show cave” known as Indi­ana Cav­erns, where the pub­lic can come in and tour a small (but absolute­ly incred­i­ble) por­tion of the old­est part of the system.

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Why South­ern Indi­ana?
The area that is home to the Bink­ley cave sys­tem was pre­his­tor­i­cal­ly a vast ocean. Gary explains that the sed­i­ment that fell to the bot­tom of the ocean was com­pressed over many, many years and hence formed sed­i­men­ta­ry rock such as lime­stone, which is incred­i­bly preva­lent in the area. Once the land­scape changed, ground­wa­ter began to erode away the water-sol­u­ble lime­stone, even­tu­al­ly carv­ing out the enor­mous cave sys­tem we see today. Dur­ing the last Ice Age, crea­tures used the cave sys­tem as a source of shel­ter, food, and many oth­er things. As a result, the sys­tem is a trea­sure trove of pre­his­toric ani­mal bones. A ver­i­ta­ble cor­nu­copia of rem­nants have and will con­tin­ue to be found in the sys­tem, includ­ing flat-nosed pec­ca­ries (which were pig-like crea­tures), bears up to nine (yes, nine) feet tall, owls as large as four feet, bison, and others.

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What can I expect to see?
Even as a rur­al Indi­ana native, I was a lit­tle sur­prised at the dri­ve to Indi­ana Cav­erns. It’s pret­ty off of the beat­en path, and the road lead­ing direct­ly to the site can gen­er­ous­ly be described as a one-and-a-half lane coun­ty road. Depend­ing on the sea­son of your vis­it, don’t be sur­prised if you get stuck behind a trac­tor with that famil­iar (to Mid­west­ern­ers) orange tri­an­gle sign on the back, let­ting you know that, well part­ner, you ain’t get­tin’ any­where very fast. Trust me, it’s worth the wait. Pulling into the park­ing lot, I noticed the quaint set­up of the brand new vis­i­tor cen­ter, set amongst what looks to be just anoth­er piece of good ol’ Indi­ana coun­try­side. As there was an absolute del­uge of rain com­ing down upon my arrival, I didn’t get a lot of time to snoop around out­side, but it appeared to still be fair­ly unde­vel­oped. Upon enter­ing the vis­i­tor cen­ter, I noticed some­thing very unique and quite refresh­ing. As a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor of out­door attrac­tions both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly owned, I’ve noticed that gift shops tend to be the preva­lent pres­ence in any vis­i­tor cen­ter. While there is a gift shop in the vis­i­tor cen­ter at Indi­ana Cav­erns (they’ve got more than neck­laces and key­chains, any­how), there is also a large sec­tion of the build­ing devot­ed to a bur­geon­ing inter­pre­tive cen­ter where vis­i­tors can look around at dis­plays and learn a bit of the his­to­ry and notable facts of the sys­tem on their own, giv­ing the place a bit of an “immer­sion expe­ri­ence” feel.

Accord­ing to Car­ol Groves, direc­tor of Mar­ket­ing & Com­mu­ni­ca­tion for Indi­ana Cav­erns, “The goal is to have the best inter­pre­tive dis­play of any pri­vate­ly owned show cave with­in 3–5 years.” The high­light of this area has got to be the run­ning elec­tron­ic tick­er that shows where the cur­rent sur­veyed mileage of the sys­tem stands on that day. It real­ly gives you a sense of just how quick­ly and impres­sive­ly this pre­vi­ous­ly vir­tu­al­ly unknown cave sys­tem is grow­ing. Cou­pled with a reg­u­lar­ly updat­ed map above it, the dis­play gives you a sense of the mag­ni­tude of the whole oper­a­tion. “The Bink­ley cave sys­tem is grow­ing rapid­ly in length right now,” says Gary. “ISS (Indi­ana Spele­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety) cavers sur­veyed anoth­er 2,255 feet last Sat­ur­day in a new under­ground riv­er found only three months ago. This new area has the poten­tial to take the cave from nation­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant to inter­na­tion­al­ly significant.”

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Anoth­er supreme­ly cool oppor­tu­ni­ty offered at Indi­ana Cav­erns is the chance to be an active par­tic­i­pant in the exca­va­tion of some of the pre­his­toric remains. For a nom­i­nal fee, “Paleo Dig at Indi­ana Cav­erns” gives you the seem­ing­ly unprece­dent­ed chance to be a part of his­to­ry. Par­tic­i­pants are super­vised by a pale­on­tol­o­gist while painstak­ing­ly extract­ing his­to­ry from the mud­dy depths of the cave.

“New” in the strangest sense of the term
While it is dif­fi­cult to call a rough­ly one mil­lion year old cave “new,” Indi­ana Cav­erns just opened in June of 2013. With­in sev­en weeks of oper­a­tion, rough­ly 14,000 folks have come through the prover­bial doors, and vis­i­tors have con­firmed to the staff that they are “impressed by the amount of work that was done in just one year to devel­op the cave,” accord­ing to part-own­er and dri­ving force behind the ongo­ing work, Rober­son. With a staff of less than 20, they have had their hands full, but each of them seem to be incred­i­bly well-informed and cor­dial. Accord­ing to Rober­son, the mar­ket­ing of attrac­tions has changed dras­ti­cal­ly. “We have a con­sid­er­able adver­tis­ing bud­get. We have bill­boards and adver­tise­ments all over the area, but in order to reach peo­ple from far away, social media is by far the best avenue.” Anoth­er thing that some vis­i­tors may won­der about is the ever-spread­ing scourge known as White Nose Syn­drome, a poten­tial­ly dead­ly (for bats) inflic­tion that has tak­en a toll on bat pop­u­la­tions over the last sev­er­al years. At Indi­ana Cav­erns, how­ev­er, it is not much of a con­cern. The main entrance to the cave is housed indoors and accessed through a set of sealed glass doors, so that bats don’t both­er. Oth­er nat­ur­al entrances to the cave offer access for bats, but in order for them to reach the part of the sys­tem fre­quent­ed by humans, they would have to trav­el well out of their way and prob­a­bly exert too much effort to both­er look­ing for food there. There­fore, human-to-bat trans­mis­sion is high­ly unlike­ly. Gary also explains that most trans­mis­sions of WNS are bat-to-bat, any­how, so there’s real­ly not much to be done once it has spread in a spe­cif­ic area.

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 Nowhere near “tourist trap”

Every trav­el­er has been stung by the ever-allur­ing high­way bill­board that does­n’t deliv­er on its promis­es of tourist-nir­vana. Indi­ana Cav­erns is noth­ing close to that. While a grand major­i­ty of the Bink­ley cave sys­tem is off-lim­its to the pub­lic (do you real­ly want to army crawl through the mud for miles, any­how?), the tour is sim­ply awe­some. Descend­ing down what looks to be a tun­nel into anoth­er dimen­sion, vis­i­tors are led into the cav­ern. Upon entry, they are led down an open spi­ral stair­case for what seems like sev­er­al sto­ries. Because you can see straight down for sev­er­al feet and con­sid­er­ing the new-ness of the cave, it can be a bit of a tense expe­ri­ence (espe­cial­ly for peo­ple with a fear of heights). Upon land­ing from the stair­case, vis­i­tors are imme­di­ate­ly treat­ed to a view of a four-sto­ry under­ground water­fall and tak­en across an open cat­walk to oth­er geo­log­i­cal won­ders (again, heights!). Next up is what the staff calls “Pec­ca­ry Plunge.” Appar­ent­ly, these crea­tures ven­tured into the cav­ern and met an untime­ly demise when the ground much fell from beneath them. Bones of the ani­mals are found in abun­dance in this area, and repli­cas have been placed in strate­gic loca­tions to give you a sense of what they looked like. There are sev­er­al oth­er fas­ci­nat­ing stops on the tour, includ­ing a few “bear wal­lows,” which are inden­ta­tions in the silt where the mas­sive crea­tures once bed­ded down for rest. The end of the tour con­sists of a real­ly cool float down an under­ground riv­er, where sev­er­al oth­er for­ma­tions can be seen. With all of the duck­ing, climb­ing, and handrail hold­ing, there is a small but gen­uine twinge of dan­ger, which adds anoth­er lay­er to the fact that this isn’t just anoth­er show cave.

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To sum it up…
While the size of the show cave itself will prob­a­bly not grow any­time soon, know­ing the sheer size of the sur­round­ing Bink­ley cave sys­tem is a pret­ty amaz­ing in itself. The Bink­ley cave sys­tem is an amaz­ing devel­op­ment, espe­cial­ly for its loca­tion, and may hold real sci­en­tif­ic sig­nif­i­cance in the future. “[The cave’s] sci­en­tif­ic sig­nif­i­cance real­ly depends on research that is done. There is not a lot of mon­ey to spon­sor cave research, so it is fair­ly lim­it­ed,” explains Rober­son. “I guess I would say that the Bink­ley cave sys­tem of which Indi­ana Cav­erns is a small part has great poten­tial for addi­tion­al research, [so] who knows what could be dis­cov­ered? I think the bones, the great depth of the cav­ern (for what is gen­er­al­ly defined as a sink­hole stream cave), the biol­o­gy, and [the pos­si­bil­i­ty of] unique microbes that might have med­ical or oth­er uses are some of the things that bear more inves­ti­ga­tion.” As the tick­er in the vis­i­tor cen­ter will tell you, this is an ever-expand­ing piece of his­to­ry unrav­el­ing right before our eyes.