Where in the world can you find the bones of ancient mastodons, eyeless fish, and an ingredient for the original Twinkie all in one place? Look no further than Mammoth Cave National Park. In her newest book, Mammoth Cave Curiosities: A Guide to Rockphobia, Dating, Saber-Toothed Cats, and Other Subterranean Marvels , author and cave guide Colleen O’Connor Olson guides readers through the strange and beautiful world of Mammoth Cave. Along the way, she makes some surprising connections and brings to light some of the lesser known creatures and lesser known stories of the world’s longest cave system.
To celebrate the release of her book, we teamed up with Colleen O’Connor Olson to learn more about how the book came to be and to get an inside look at what it’s like to be a cave guide in the strange and wonderful world of Mammoth Cave National Park.
How did you become a cave guide at Mammoth Cave?
In college I saw a notice on campus looking for summer concessions employees at Mount Rushmore. Working at a national monument sounded more fun than working in my hometown. I worked in Rushomore’s gift shop and fast food. Selling souvenirs and scooping ice cream was OK, but on my days off, the Black Hills of South Dakota became my back yard, it was great!. I decided I wanted to work in the national parks when I graduated, but as a park ranger so I could enjoy the outdoors and help others understand and enjoy it every day. After working seasonally for other concessionaires and the National Park Service at Grand Canyon, Klondike National Historic Park, and Gulf Islands National Seashore, I applied for a seasonal job at Mammoth Cave – working underground sounded novel and exciting. I planned to stay just a few seasons, but I’ve been here 25 years! There is so much to learn, I’m still picking it up!
You mention that “Mammoth Cave Curiosities” started out as a series of papers for the National Park Service staff. What inspired you to turn it into a book? What was that process like?
Over my years at Mammoth Cave I wrote a lot of informational papers for the staff. I chose some topics because the scientific papers available were difficult to understand if you didn’t have a background in science – like cosmogenic isotope dating. Other topics were oral history, like cave guides’ expediences with celebrities visiting the park. Visitors enjoyed it when guides shared the information, so I decided to rewrite the papers and arrange them as a book for the general public. I had already done the research and primary writing, so to make the papers into a book I polished my writing style and made sure the language was understandable to non-cave people.
What is one interesting thing about Mammoth Cave that visitors never think to ask about?
In addition to topics that people associate with caves, like geology, Mammoth Cave has a lot of interesting connections to things usually not cave related, like being mentioned in the novel Moby Dick, and that Jane Wyatt’s (an actress in Father Knows Best and Spock’s mother in Star Trek) family owned Mammoth Cave before it was a national park. Who would think to ask about that?
What is the strangest thing that has ever happened on a tour?
A summer seasonal guide who also taught school brought her class on a field trip to the cave. Two of the teen age girls were scared of the cave, so when the lead ranger took the class down a side passage, the seasonal guide/teacher stayed in a cave chamber with the girls to try to calm their fear. She said, “You’re brave to face your fear of caves, what other fears do you have?” The girls both said, “Clowns.” At that moment the lead guide returned with the group and two of the boys had clown masks on! They didn’t know their classmates were afraid of clowns, they were trying to be funny. The cave / clown combination terrified the two girls. Very few visitors are scared in the cave, and that has been our only clown encounter, so if you have clownphobia, don’t let that stop you from visiting!
Most visitors to the Park hear about Stephen Bishop, but are there any “cave guide legends” that most people don’t know about?
The same era that Stephen Bishop worked in the cave, mid 1800s, the Bransford family also guided tours. Mat Bransford was brought to the cave as a slave and his descendants guided cave tours for 100 years, until the 1930s. A modern descendant, Jerry Bransford, guides tours today.
Which of the Mammoth Cave animals (alive or extinct) is your favorite and why?
There are so many weird, wonderful cave animals, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Today I’m leaning toward the eyeless cave fish. It never leaves the cave its entire life and uses its lateral line system to feel waves to navigate in the dark. Regular fish have lateral line systems, too, that’s why they don’t swim into aquarium glass, but the cave fish’s system is even more sensitive.
What is your favorite cave joke?
A woman who had bad experiences with men made her daughter promise she would never marry any man on the face of the Earth. She fell in love and became engaged to her sweetheart, but kept her promise to her mother by marrying him in Mammoth Cave, under the face of the Earth! This joke goes back to the 1870s.
Are there any lesser-known tours or places at Mammoth Cave National Park that visitors often pass over, but shouldn’t?
The park has 70 miles of trails for hiking and biking above ground, so you can enjoy a hike in the sun as well as a hike underground.
You have been a cave guide for over twenty years. Is there anything about Mammoth Cave that still amazes you?
I am still amazed there is so much to discover. In recent years cave explorers have found two previously unknown underground streams and two entrances. In addition to new cave, we learn new things about cave life. Almost all life depends on photosynthesis, but the cave has chemoautotrophs (a type of bacteria) that survive by consuming hydrogen sulfide rather than organic matter from plants. The chemoautotrophs may be part of the reason Mammoth is so biologically diverse.
Colleen O’Connor Olson has been guiding tours at Mammoth Cave National Park for over twenty years. She is the author of Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave, Nine Miles to Mammoth Cave: The Story of the Mammoth Cave Railroad, Mammoth Cave by Lantern Light, and Prehistoric Cavers of Mammoth Cave.
Purchase book here.