Louisville Mega Cavern Ziplining in Kentucky
Guides Chloe Dick & Joseph Claggett talk ziplining in Louisville.
MRV: The Buzz, Your Outdoor Lifestyle Insider.
TRAVELING ON AIR UNDERGROUND: LOUISVILLE MEGA CAVERN
Zipline Guides Discuss Training, Ecology & History Of The Job While Traveling Over Canyons Below Kentucky City
Zip lining has become an American and an international pastime of sorts. However it is rare being able to experience it in the dark…much less under a populated urban center. That is what Louisville Mega Cavern offers. Hidden away under the city, this former mine was originally planned as a fallout shelter. Zipping over its vast canyons and rock formations is stunning and much bigger than one would expect. The Buzz traveled with millennial guides Chloe Dick & Joseph Claggett through the intrepid course and spoke to them about training, history and enjoying their job.
The Buzz: Chloe…you said that you grew up around this area...so did you know about the cavern?
Chloe Dick: No. So I lived here since I was three maybe 5 minutes down the street, and I didn't know that it was here until my best friend started working here a year and a half ago.
The Buzz: And were you into ziplining and that kind of stuff before?
CD: No. Honestly Tim, I really don't like heights (laughing).
The Buzz: Really?
CD: Yeah… I don't really like them. Except for down here where I‘ve gotten used to them, so they're not super-bad.
The Buzz: Joe?
Joseph Claggett: I grew up in Lexington. I went to University Of Louisville and I had a friend that worked here, and he recommended me for the job. I got the job, but I did outdoors stuff my whole life. I did Boy Scouts and all that. This is kind of like right up for alley for a good job.
CD: I was in Girl Scouts.
The Buzz: This place is unlike anything that most people see, because it's just a big, large open space. You have the underground caverns, and now obviously the ziplines.
JC: So this place started out as a pit mine, and the city eventually did not like that they were just digging a big hole in the middle of the city, so they decided to go into the wall. So they mined it out from the mid-30s to the late 70s. Floor to ceiling this place was 100 feet tall but then our owners bought it and they started back-filling it. We’re walking on about 60 feet of back-fill and organic materials right now such as dirt, concrete, car parts...anything that does not biodegrade.
Just to build it up…
JC: Right, so they got paid basically to fill the place back up.
CD: We stopped back-filling last November but they would come through here and they would weigh their load and they paid us $15 a ton to dump their stuff in here. We have about 100 square acres of space down here. It has been back-filled everywhere except the very back of the cavern. For some of the zip courses they wanted to keep some of the original [material].
The Buzz: And this is right in the middle of the city per se.
JC: Right, almost.
The Buzz: What’s above us?
JC: There’s probably neighborhoods above us but we go under 70% of the Louisville Zoo and all 10 lanes of the Watterson Expressway.
CD: And that Wendy's and the Kroger’s that you drove past to get here…that's all above us right now.
JC: So the city eventually changed the blasting laws and the mining laws, where you have to own the land above what you're going to mine below. So that obviously got way too expensive. That's why they completely abandoned this mine.
CD: Then the city of Mobile and the University of Mobile came down here and they did a feasibility study to see if they could make this into an underground shopping mall. And that was a big ‘no’ because the ceilings were still 90 to 100 feet high. So they didn't want to do that, so our owners bought it at an auction.
The Buzz: This whole area?
JC: This whole mine.
After going through a couple ziplines, the pair and your narrator stops for a breather.
CD: This one [Cross Canyon] is my favorite line because it is so scenic. It probably has the coolest lights, I would say, and then if you look straight down before the first blast wall, it makes you feel like you're in National Geographic. Maybe that's just how I feel. Then, also, if you look to your right, and you see that longest corridor, the cavern, it's a pretty cool view. We have some white lights, and you can see it lit up all the way down.
The Buzz: Can you talk about the length of the cavern and some of the canyons you were talking about on this run?
CD: Yeah. So there's two canyons. The first one's about 60 feet from zip line to the bottom of the canyon, and the second one is about 45 to 50 feet from zip line to canyon. That green blast wall is an original blast wall left here by the miners. So like we said, they used dynamite to blast this place out. They would drill into the limestone and pack it full of dynamite. Then they would run behind this wall and pull the plunger. So that was an original wall used for their protection… kind of cool.
The Buzz: Chloe…how did you push yourself to do this if you are scared of heights?
CD: My best friend of four years works here, and she was doing it. She was telling me it was great. They make you do one on your first day, and I really thought that I was going to pee my pants on the last one (laughing). So I was trying to talk myself out of that because I couldn't be known as the girl who peed her pants (laughing). So one of our managers, Taylor, he was like, "I think you'd be a really great guide. Let me just take you out there and start training you a little bit." So I got comfortable with it, and then I trained…
What's the hardest thing about training to do this?
JC: Yeah. The initial braking people do is at 45 miles an hour on some of the faster zip lines.
CD: You're just not sure. So the way that rope works is it's a pressure tension knot. It's called a “prusik” knot, so the harder you pull on it, the faster you stop. So we could stop you guys on a dime if we wanted to. The hard part is gliding you in over the box, and having big people come at you really fast. It's a little intimidating.
The Buzz: What’s the optimum weight for people…
JC: I would say anywhere between 150 to 200 is a good weight. It's easy to stop them.
CD: On our longest line of the day, if you're under 100 pounds, we do throw you. (laughing)
CD: Yeah…push (laughing).
The Buzz: Why…because it'll hang if there's not enough momentum?
JC: The zipline goes down and then it comes up a little bit at the end.
The Buzz: Interesting.
CD: And then, I think retrievals are also kind of intimidating in training.
The Buzz: When you say retrieval, what do you mean?
CD: So if a kid doesn't make it, we don't just leave them hanging right there.
The Buzz: You got to go out.
CD: So what happens is, the braking guide will hook up to the line and glide out there. Then we'll attach ourselves to you and hand-over-hand pull you in. In real life, it's usually kids under 100 pounds but to make sure that you're physically able to, they make you do it on 250-pound people in training, just to make sure that you're not going to get stuck out there with somebody.
The Buzz: How many people are a consistent number when you guys are in summer and stuff like that?
JC: 12 to 14 maybe on summer days.
The Buzz: So you have to keep it moving.
CD: Right. 12 is our full tour. We oversell them sometimes because we get bigger groups. Boy Scouts really like to come here, so usually, they'll oversell their tours to groups of 14.
The Buzz: Any Girl Scouts?
CD: I've had one Girl Scout troop, but it's typically-- we get Boy Scouts by the busload here. They do mostly well with listening to directions. I think they just get really excited and they talk amongst each other because they're excited…
The Buzz: I think later on they'll be into the history as they get older. I mean, did you two get into the history, or were you always into history?
CD: I don't think I was ever really into history.
The Buzz: But now, just because you're here…
JC: Right. It becomes more interesting because you can actually think about it in depth, about everything. There's like 17 miles of roadway carved out down here, and you wouldn't think of that much as a kid, but if you really think about how much limestone….
CD: It's a lot.
The Buzz: And you don’t think about the people who used to go down here to work…
CD: I actually had a great one-on-one encounter with a guest one time. I was standing outside the visitor center, and he came up to me and the first thing he said to me was, "You can really smell the limestone, can't you?" And I was just like “I don't really understand that,” but I was like…he was like this cute old man. And he told me that his father was a coal miner and that his father was actually in a collapse of a coal mine… that he had like black shrapnel underneath his skin and it healed over it. He told me that his dad would drink like three raw eggs with bread stuffed in a Mason jar every morning and that he would sit at the breakfast table with him.
The Buzz: Little bit of whiskey too perhaps?
CD: Right. His dad said that his chest hurt really bad. And he unbuttoned his shirt and just took a kitchen knife and slit where there was a black thing underneath his skin. He just popped out the piece of coal and put a Band-Aid on it…
The Buzz: Bad ass, right?
CD: …and then he just like went on about his day. And I was like, "That's cool, man. I don't do that here, but that's cool."
The Buzz: Did you two learn more about science than you really ever wanted to?
CD: [I realized] that the water definitely does affect other things. We pump out about 55,000 gallons of it a day. Once we get to the bottom of the next line, I'll point out some hoses that we have. We pump it all into an underground lake. Once that overflows, there is a lake in the parking lot…I'm not sure if you saw it…but then we pump it out there. It gets up to average temperature, because it's only about 40-50 degrees in here. We let it warm up and then we pump it out into a local body of water called Beargrass Creek. It was one of the most polluted bodies of water here. Our water is 98% pure because it is that limestone-filtered water. So we're working on helping the ecosystem outside of here.
The Buzz: And it will clear that out?
JC: A lot of the sewage and runoff water locally goes right into that creek that we talked about. We pump our water straight to there. And the reason we pump it out to the parking lot first instead it straight to the creek is because if we had such a vast temperature change between this cold water and that warmer water out there, it would basically kill everything living in it.
The Buzz: This cavern was originally was going to be a nuclear fallout shelter right?
CD: It was supposed to be but now they understand it would not have been a successful fallout shelter because of those big entrances…those big, gaping holes…they wouldn't have found a material that would have let oxygen in and kept the fallout out. So basically what they would have had to do is just keep moving far enough back into the cavern while keeping a tester [upfront]...and if it came close enough, they would have to keep moving their camp backwards into the cavern.
The Buzz: They actually did think about that back in the 60's?
CD: What they did was there was an elite list of people that was mostly military and government officials along with certain celebrities. Colonel Sanders paid his way in is what I've been told. So the people were supposed to meet at the fairgrounds, and they dug a tunnel from the fairgrounds to our cavern, so that nobody would follow them.
The Buzz: From where the Expo Center is [the location of the National RV Show] correct?
CD: That was their meeting place. Then they were going to travel underground here. That way they could keep it top secret.
The Buzz: That's about 5 miles.
CD: Yeah. It's a little bit of a walk. It has since been collapsed. But originally down here they had enough food rations to last two to five years, depending on how many babies they made down here.
The Buzz: So they had medical and everything like that? Or at least a midwife?
CD: They had food, rations for that, and then they had emergency supplement dietary pills in case the food ran out, so you would take one pill and it would give you your calories for the day. You'd still be hungry, but energy-wise you'd be golden.
The Buzz: That's interesting because now we think about everything in a different way.
CD: Right. They also did not think through the restroom that they engineered. They had big drums of water with a bag inside, so you would drink all the water out and then they had a toilet seat, and you would sit on top of the drum and you would go to the bathroom in the bag. Then you would tie the bag off and go take it to some far point in the cavern, but they didn't think about the methane gas that would cause those bags to explode.
The Buzz: Looking at this stuff, what engages you to come to work here in the dark as a zip-line guide?
JC: I would say it's a fun thing to do. I mean, it's a different experience every day. You can have good tours. You can have bad tours. It just depends on the energy of the people. We'll counter the energy at them. But I would just say that the more fun the people are, the more fun it is to work. The time flies by.
The Buzz: But you have to keep on your toes. That's the thing. It's a mental thing as well as a physical thing.
CD: There's some days when you go home pretty sore. Especially if you do have larger people, but as long as you have a good crowd, you don’t get too tired. Different people come from all over. It’s a new experience every day. You’ll have a group that's excited and jazzed, and they're not fearful at all, and it will be a great tour. But you’ll also have people who are scared, and you'll get to help them through that. That’s really cool, especially since I'm a little afraid of heights. It's cool to help people conquer their fear.
A graduate of New York University's Tisch School
Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim
has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde
Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct
craft beers among other things.
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