August 11th of this year marked the beginning of the ninth annual restoration field camp at Mammoth Cave National Park. Over thirty volunteer-cavers from around the country gathered at the Central Kentucky cave for what turned out to be, by some accounts, one of the most strenuous camps to date.
The camp was the beginning of the restoration of the Echo River area of the cave. Although volunteers have worked in the Echo River area in past years, the Park Service has now made the decision to remove everything man-made in the River area that would affect the natural cave life. This decision, while ending a popular boat-ride tour of the cave, and ending all tourist activities in that area, is evidence of the concerns of the Park Service, that ecology and protection of natural resources is high on the list of priorities.
The history of Echo River is a long one which captivates cavers and is of interest to any adventurer. First discovered by slave-guide Stephen Bishop in 1838, Echo River teemed with several varieties of cave life. Blind fish, with almost transparent bodies, along with white-blind crayfish and other creatures, fascinated Bishop and the tourists he would later bring. Along with its curious echo qualities and deep crystal clear waters, the river would soon become a favorite stop for several generations of tourists.
To make the River more accessible, bridges were built, along with wooden walkways and boat-docks. Miles of electrical cable was laid and lights installed. Throughout the years, due to flooding and age, the wood rotted, and other walkways and bridges were built directly on top of the old ones. The old structures were allowed to rot and collapse into the once pristine waters.
The presence of foreign material in the water and illumination of the cave passage caused changes in the natural food chain of Echo River. Also, fish from outside the cave, that occasionally were swept into the cave by high water, once would have died in the darkness of the cave and would have become food for cave creatures. Now, with the cave illuminated, the outside fish became predators instead of prey. The creatures which once thrived in Echo River were nearly decimated. Today, one can occasionally see a white crayfish, however, blind fish are rarely seen, and until restoration efforts began, the bed of Echo River was strewn with the rotting posts and planks of collapsed walk-ways.
In recent years, restoration volunteers have worked in the Echo River area. Although this was before the Park Service's decision to completely restore the area, these volunteers were successful in removing thousands of pounds of debris from the river. Donning wet suits at times, cavers pulled rotting wood from the mud, then dodging herds of curious tourists, hand-carried it a mile and a half to the entrance of the cave. This usually included a "bucket brigade" up the 88 steps of the Mammoth Dome tower.
This year's camp was no different than those of the past with the exception of a commitment to begin complete restoration of Echo River. The work began Monday morning, and for some, it was hard work, indeed. The goals were to remove the metal steps at the last boat dock, remove light fixtures and wires from the boat-ride passage, and begin removing all electrical cable. Lara Storm and Rich Bell, joined fellow caver, Larry Bundy, in removing light fixtures from the river. Larry brought a one-man inflatable raft in which he paddled, while Rich and Lara clung to the sides to maneuver into position under each light fixture. The first day, they were successful in removing all the lights and wire along with several lengths of heavy chain. At times, they were barely visible from the boat-dock as they made their way to Cascade Hall, some 75 yards down the river.
Several people began the work of removing the stairs at the boat dock. The stairs were fabricated with aluminum steps bolted to heavy angle frames. These frames were, in turn, bolted to heavy metal posts seated in concrete, buried four feet in the sand. The top half of the stairway was completely covered by several feet of sand, causing workers to dig through the sand with shovels. The Coleman lanterns used to light the work area cast a peculiar glow over scene. Some workers dug while others unbolted steps. Some of the bolts had to be cut off with sledge hammer and chisel. The work was hard, but great progress was made just the first day, and by the end of Tuesday, the stairway at the dock of Echo River no longer existed.
While the stair work was going on, several volunteers began the work of removing the electrical cable from the cave. Near the boat dock, the cable, existing of five strands of number 4 wire, (heavy stuff) lay neatly exposed along the side of the trail. The cable was cut into approximately 30 foot lengths, rolled into loops, and tied, to be carried out of the cave. Further from the dock, however, in an area of deep sand, the cable had to be dug up by hand, sometimes from a depth of several feet. After coils of cable were stacked on the passage floor, still other workers, began the long haul to the surface.
All the material to be removed from the cave was staged at different points along the way. The pile of cable, wood, chain and other debris grew as the work progressed. The goal was to remove all material from the passage up to the end of the last bridge, at an area known as the Sands of Sahara. Incredibly, by the end of Thursday this goal was reached. All the material now lay at the bottom of the stairs at the Historic Entrance. The only items left were a few light fixtures on the ceiling, too high to be reached without ladders, a section of cable near the Sands of Sahara, and a few buried concrete footings at the river's edge.
Friday morning, work began disassembling the far end of the last bridge. (Historical view.) Because of flooding over a period of time, the Sands of Sahara had crept down the passage, like a desert sand dune, toward the bridge, burying the end of the bridge under six feet of sand. A 20 foot hill of sand reached from the water below the bridge, bisected by its deck and hand-rails. No one knew how far the bridge extended under the sand and no one knew how long it would take to disassemble such a bridge, or if it could even be done by such a small group of volunteers. Workers dug furiously for two hours before the end of the bridge was found.
To prevent sand from slumping down on workers, it had to be constantly moved away from the digging area. Finally, the bottom of the support posts were uncovered, and wielding pry-bars and hammers, the end of the bridge was disassembled. When the lateness of the hour forced workers to end their labors, 10 feet of bridge had been disassembled and removed to River Hall. Workers considered this a great accomplishment because they now knew how to remove a bridge from Echo River. They now knew it could be done.
The work on the Echo River restoration will continue. The Park Service would like to see all the wood removed from that part of the cave within the next two years. Also, a good portion of the steel bridge will be removed, which may present a greater challenge. However, if the past efforts of volunteers can be used as a barometer, the work will be completed on schedule.