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Lincoln Caverns: Show Cave Committed to Conservation Outreach

April 08, 2019

Reprinted from NSS News, April 2019 Conservation Issue 

By Abbe Hamilton

Ann Dunlavy, manager of Lincoln Caverns, isn’t a fan of colored lights. She flips a switch and a particularly pristine underground formation is bathed, for an instant, in red light that sensationalizes and distorts its frosty cascade. “This is for the people who just have to have their colors,” she says. The switch clicks again, and for a split second, our tour group stands in darkness, about 100 ft beneath Warrior Ridge in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.

 “Now back to the good stuff”. The sound of another switch, and the sinuous corridor beyond lights up in a warm, white glow that accentuates, the shapes and textures of this subterranean masterpiece. “Make sure you duck extra low to avoid the flowstone!”

It’s hard to square the passage’s merry glow and the energetic stream of information from its red-haired owner with the cave sitting silent, completely dark and without a natural entrance for tens of thousands of years – right up until the day a highway crew blasted its largest room in half during the construction of Route 22 in May, 1930.

Ann is the third-generation Dunlavy to operate Lincoln Caverns. She serves as its bookkeeper, gift shop buyer, marketing and personnel manager, sales clerk and winter tour guide. It was Ann who led my group of four up an ice-slicked path to the cave in January, regaling us with information about the establishment of the new main entrance, comfortably offset from the buzzing highway.

2020 will mark the 90th year since the discovery of Lincoln Caverns, and the 89th year of its operation as a show cave. It is fitting that a cave, slow to change and easy to ruin, is run by a woman so prepared for adaptation. She carefully studies the latest advances in karst (cave geology) and groundwater science, as well as on the creatures that call the cave home. It doesn’t hurt that Will White, one of the global authorities in cave science, was a Lincoln guide in the 1950s and lives nearby. He regularly drops in for staff trainings. Our tour group peers up at a glassy cascade of calcite punctuated with little popcorn nodes, and she’s quick to mention that although the features of the cave remain unchanged, staff interpretation of their development evolves with new scientific discoveries.

The adaptability theme extends to the tour format for any given group. Our party of four was, to put it mildly, a varied bunch. I’d never been to a show cave, but I’ve visited many noncommercial ones. One fellow visitor had never been underground, period. A second had visited Lincoln Caverns as a child. A third was a former Lincoln tour guide. All four of us learned something new during the tour. These custom-tailored visits are a pride and distinction of the Lincoln Caverns staff.

Have you been to Lincoln? Ann wants you to come back.

If you’ve only caught events such as the ever-popular Ghosts and Goblins tour, T-Rex Tuesday, or visiting Santa or the Easter Bunny in the cave, she’ll recommend you mix it up with a geology program, or February’s Batfest, which showcases the most beloved of cave creatures with child and adult-geared workshops, crafts, and games. If you’ve seen the regular tour, try it with a blacklight. (No, really, try it!) This year alone, special programs include cave photography sessions, a celebration of National Caves & Karst Day, and Discovery Days, which celebrate the Lincoln Caverns family history – and there are more exciting ideas on the way.

Dunlavy’s educational bent is “caves are important for everyone, and everyone should know about them”, and her program offerings complement that philosophy. The offerings at Lincoln Caverns are varied, and manage to keep the focus on caves and geology. “You won’t see us adding on a water park anytime soon,” she jokes.

Her enthusiasm for conservation and the legacy of these caves is reflected in the attitude of her well-trained staff. The focus during the presentation seems to be less about why Lincoln Caverns is so great, and more about featuring processes that are happening everywhere underground. Many features of the cave were pointed out as examples of universal geologic and hydrologic processes. This strikes me as a more honest depiction of the cave, as is the choice to operate with white lights only. They manage to provide a deeply rewarding and engaging experience without resorting to sensationalism.

Staff are quick to recommend the two commercial caves located within an hour’s drive of Lincoln: Woodward Cave and Penn’s Cave. Lincoln, a small and pretty Helderberg cave, represents many more caves along the entirety of Warrior Ridge that have not yet had an entrance unearthed. Dare to compare Lincoln’s Helderberg layout with the Keyser limestone caves, Penn’s and Woodward– in the same day! The point isn’t that one’s better than another – it’s that they’re so different. The enthusiasm is contagious.

The sustainability ethic runs deep in this place. It has to: Dunlavy knows more than anyone how irreplaceable her cave asset is, and bills it as a nonrenewable natural resource. She is extremely proud  that Whisper Rocks, the second cave on the property, is almost exactly the way her father found it in 1941. To protect the two caves on the tour, guides transfer their respect for good caving practices  directly to visitors. Her staff will visit student groups prior to a cave tour to prepare children for their responsibilities for the near-pristine environment. Dunlavy is phasing in cooler LEDs that will reduce the need for meticulous algae removal around the lights.

Back in the Raystown Rocks gift shop, Dunlavy describes the offerings for scouts, school groups, and youth organizations that now comprise almost half of the visitors to Lincoln Caverns. “Being a Girl Scout volunteer taught me how to plan events”, she says. Her bat jewelry glitters in sync with her eyes as she rattles off the badge programs she developed to meet Girl Scouts and Scouts BSA’s requirements.  Scouts at every level of participation can earn badges at Lincoln Caverns. Troops stay for a weekend of crafts, games, workshops, letterboxing and geocaching activities, and primitive camping or slumber party-style lodging (the educational center on site sleeps up to sixty!). Generations of her own “girls” have guided tours at Lincoln Caverns.

Offerings for scouts developed naturally into programming for birthday parties, youth groups and school groups. The summer kids’ camps are rising in popularity and available to children who have completed grades 1 through 9. Programs for older groups involve tours of other local wild caves!

Interested groups of any kind can choose from thirteen different workshop options. In “Thinkin’ in Lincoln”, participants gather cave data the way geologists do, from measuring temperature, CO2, humidity, and drip rates to conducting acid tests to identify rock types. This is real cave science, offered to birthday party groups! The most popular workshop studies fossils. Other subjects offered include: groundwater, caves, bats, cave life, geologic time, dinosaurs, and rocks.

Dunlavy and staff even take Lincoln Caverns on the road. Curricula for introducing geosciences to different grade levels in school will soon be available on the Lincoln Caverns website. Caverns’ staff run after school programs based in cave-related natural science topics in nearby State College, and participate in the Exploration-U community science nights in conjunction with Penn State.

Lincoln Caverns is intimately sized, just like its tours. Few walls are too far away to touch, which makes it all the more remarkable that the cave remains as well preserved as it is, despite almost a century of visitation. Your proximity to the rock allows you to see every glorious little detail, and the guides will encourage you to do so. The pace of our tour was more reverent than my previous experiences in a cave: much like a sommelier encourages a slow experience of wine, so do the winding paths of Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks encourage a measured appreciation, every new light switch and room entrance a new unwrapping.

This is a space where the interpretation enhances the experience, and as a caver, a scout and a resident, I’m thrilled to have Lincoln Caverns in my backyard. 

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