Winter Adventure Weekend draws massive crowd

February 1, 2019

OLIVE HILL, Ky. — Growing up with a Jan. 26 birthday, Dana Sutherland always felt a bit robbed as a kid.

It’s a birthday that came on the heels of Christmas, and as far away as you could get from the summer sun. But these days, he’s making up for lost time.

Since 2005, the 43-year-old outdoors adventurer from Lima, Ohio, has been taking off work his birthday week and making a beeline to Carter Caves State Resort Park where he is one of the 130 or so volunteers helping put on the annual Winter Adventure Weekend.

Celebrating its 10th year as WAW, and 38 years of a winter caving event at Carter Caves, the Winter Adventure Weekend ran Jan. 24-27 at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive Hill, Kentucky, just 45 minutes west of Huntington.

This year, more than 500 people from 10 states came out to enjoy a record 223 activities - an all-you-could-explore buffet of outdoor fun from cave tours and winter survival to ice climbing, Yoga in a Cave, guided hikes and rock climbing and rappelling.

Working belay for the Natural Bridge rappel, Sutherland who turned 43 on Saturday, said he can’t imagine a better birthday present.

“As a kid I thought having a winter birthday sucked but I’m making up for it,” Sutherland said with a laugh. “This has been awesome. I have been getting to come down here and have my birthday party here every year since 2005 and having a birthday at winter adventure weekend as an adult is epic.”

While the event may only be a birthday party for one, it is for cavers and outdoor adventurers, who came from as far away as California, Alabama, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, like a Christmas smorgasbord of trips.

Started back in 1981 by retired park naturalists John Tierney and Sam Plummer (who both still help with the event), the original event called Crawlathon ran from 1981 until 2008. After the event was suspended in 2009 because of the threat of the bat disease white nose syndrome, it was re-invented and broadened in 2010 to become Winter Adventure Weekend.

Bringing in more locals for a day adventure

Although the event routinely has drawn more than 500 people, and as many as 750 during the Crawlathon days, last year attendance dipped to 338.

This year the organizers decided to reduce the registration fee for the four-day event to only $20 and then structure it as an a la carte “pay to play” pricing with more extreme and off-park trips charging nominal fees to offset costs. On Saturday night, park naturalist Coy Ainsley, who organizes the event with Kellie Meenach and Paul Tierney, said lowering the price helped bring in more than 150 more people this year than last year.

Chris and April Melvin, of Ashland, made their first trip over to Winter Adventure Weekend with their 10-year-old son Ike. Climbing the trail back after rappelling through the Smoky Bridge as part of the “Down for Dummies” beginner’s rappel trip, Ike had a smile that stretched across his face after completing his first heart-pounding rappel.

“She promised me $5 if I would do it,” Ike said with a laugh and looking at his mom.

Chris, who surprised his son with the trip, said they always visit Carter Caves in the summer but decided to come over for the day and explore the park during its epic Winter Adventure Weekend.

“My dad always said you can’t let fear keep you from having cool experiences,” Chris said. “We’ve always heard about this and wanted to go to it and finally got around to it.”

Dropping Natural Bridge and other new trips

There were 14 new trips this year including: Cascade Karst Commando’s Jr. Caveguide Trip, Frozen Foraging Hike, Star Gazing, Plogging, Geomorphology Hike II: The Valley of the Caves, Wilderness Tool Useage, Trail Running 101, Staying Warm in Winter Camp, Hawks and Arrows, Backcountry Banter: Cooking for Backpackers and Natural Bridge On-Rappel.

That Natural Bridge Rappel was a rappel through the sinkhole in the top of Carter Cave’s Natural Bridge, which is the only natural bridge in Kentucky that supports a road.

During this trip, you descended over 60 feet into the bed of Cave Branch Stream enjoying a rare view of the icicle-laden natural arch which is located just past the Welcome Center.

On Saturday, Adam Welp, an Indiana native who graduates from The Asbury University Center for Adventure Leadership in May, and Sutherland, who makes the drive from Lima, Ohio, were working belay for the Natural Bridge rappel which landed in the stream bed.

“Growing up in Indiana I thought you had to go out west to get these kinds of adventures, but there’s world-class rock climbing in the Red River Gorge and then you have all of these caves, so there’s just so much untapped experiences here in Kentucky,” Welp said.

“And it’s great to be able to have an event like this in the winter when people are usually crammed inside.”

Welp said for he and other college-age volunteers, WAW is a great chance to share the skills they have been learning in school.

“There’s a lot of hard skills that we get to break out and use that we have been practicing at our own sites,” Welp said. “It’s great to be able to take those out and use those here in the real world.”

A village of volunteers and local support

At Down for Dummies on Saturday, volunteers Barbara LaFranzo and Brandon Miner, who both are from the Hamilton, Ohio, area, were gearing up rappellers.

Visitors were then clipped onto the rope to head over the cliff near Smoky Bridge with the help of longtime volunteer Kevin Kissell, who has been coming to the event since 2003 and volunteering since 2007.

“I love introducing things like this to people who have never done them before,” said Kissell, who is from Dayton. Saturday night, WAW organizers and Carter Caves’ park manager Chris Perry, a Carter County native who has spent his career at the park, thanked the wealth of volunteers from the trip leaders, support “Staph” (so named because volunteering is infectious), and groups such as The Friends of Carter Caves and ESSO Grotto that have been helping for years.

“I give all the credit to our volunteers they have created an event that is looked upon by the park system as a crown jewel,” Perry said.

At Saturday night’s program Perry awarded the volunteer of the year award to the Smoky Bridge Highline Crew.

“These folks over the past several years (since 2012) have come in twice a year to the park and built and operated our highline (zip line) ride with materials donated by many of them and our Friends Group,” Perry explained. “Unfortunately recent legislation passed by the General Assembly has put an end to our High Line ride but that didn’t deter this group from still being active at WAW.”

Perry, who welcomed District 18 Sen. Robin Webb, of Grayson, to the event on Saturday, said local support from the new Carter County Tourism Commission and its 3 percent transient tax has given the event and park new money to help promote the event and the park across the region.

Into the mystery below

While there were many outdoor adventures above ground - from rock climbing and winter survival to throwing tomahawks and kayaking, one of biggest perennial draws of the event is the large number of guided trips into some of the 20 caves on the Carter Caves property, as well as a few more out into Carter County, which is home to about 200 known caves.

Over the four days, visitors camped in a cave (Cascade) learned about the history of mine lighting and explored caves from regular walking tours to all-day trips that put cavers to the test with some nasty crawls, plunging through 3 feet of water to gain entrance, straddling water-filled underground canyons, and climbing up ladders to access various parts of wild caves.

On Saturday afternoon, local cavers Sheila Stephens and Keith Muzic led a group into a wild caving favorite: Bat Cave Back Door.

At the mouth of Bat Cave, Stephens explained why the cave is both well named and why they were only taking “the back door” passages through the cave where cavers would soon be duck walking, scrambling over breakdown piles, crossing creeks through knee-high water, doing belly slides, and crawling on their hands and knees.

“Bat Cave is one of the largest hibernaculums for Indiana brown bats,” said Stephens, of Bat Cave, which is estimated to be home to about 28,000 bats in the winter.

In addition to the wide range of caving, WAW also celebrated caving with a new Saturday night presentation as Tammy Otten, who has been on Cave Research Foundation expeditions in Mammoth Cave, as well as expeditions in Jaguar Cave, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Isla de Mona, Puerto Rico, gave a presentation on being part of the team that explored Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico, for seven days underground in February 2017.

With a jaw-dropping slide show that presentation featured that vertical-intensive trip through Lechuguilla Cave to the Deep Seas Camp and beyond, including Zion, a breathtaking 600- by 170- by 250-foot room discovered during the expedition.

“Caves are a very special places and you can go somewhere that nobody has been before,” said park naturalist Coy Ainsley introducing Otten. “And it is much cheaper than going to space.”

Heading Underground: OK, so you missed Winter Adventure Weekend but you can still head underground (it’s 55 degrees or so) year round.

WHERE: Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive Hill, Ky. (40 minutes west of Huntington)


GUIDED TOURS:Carter Caves has Cascade Cave and X Cave open in the winter. Guided tours of Cascade are: 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Fridays and Sundays. Cost is $10 (13 and up), $6 (3 to 12) and free for those 2 and under.

X Cave: 10:30 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 1 and 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Cost is $8 (13 and up), $5 (3 to 12) and free for those 2 and under

ON THE WEB: Go online at https://www.facebook.com/CarterCavesStateResortPark/ and https://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/carter-caves/ for more information.

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