By Jeremy Patton
Wells Cave is located in Pulaski County, Kentucky.
Note: I will not reveal its location because caves are common targets for vandalism. Furthermore, their fragile ecosystems get destroyed by heavy human traffic.
Wells Cave is an extensive system with more than 11 miles of known passages, so I have read. Delania and I have explored it via several entrances, the river passage being the most recent and memorable.
We paddled into its ominous, yawning mouth on 9/12/16. The weather had been dry for more than a month and the water shallow. We checked the weather forecast several times before entering. Wells Cave is the wrong place to be during flash-flooding.
We marveled at the meandering, water-hewn passage. Our kayaks dragged on numerous shoals, forcing us to carry them for short distances. I found no human tracks in the mud, nor graffiti on the ancient, limestone walls. It was a dark, mysterious underworld that few people had visited.
It was serene and beautiful, but as I considered the spacious tunnels and debris scattered about, I was reminded of the violence of water. It had obviously rushed through the cavern, rising to the ceiling in many places. The thought of it was unnerving.
I am not sure how far we ventured that day. It was less than a mile, with no sign of the river passage ending. Before we turned around, we found side tunnels and cave formations, perhaps signs of the gradual transition to higher elevations within the system.
We have spent time in numerous caves, but we rank Wells Cave as one of our favorites. If you locate this magical place, please respect it by leaving no trace of your presence. Above all, remember that there are no guides, tours or barriers. If you visit this cave at the wrong time, it can kill you. Do not enter unless you know what you are doing.
Delania and I returned to the river entrance on 10/29/16. An ongoing drought made paddling difficult because we had to repeatedly carry our kayaks across shoals. As the day wore on, we began transporting a single kayak to save time and energy. I paddled across one final pool then shoved it back across the water so that Delania could cross. This turned out to be a useful technique, but I will tie a rope to the back of the boat next time so it can be reeled in.
We traveled a short distance farther than our last outing, wearing knee-high waders through some sections. The water finally got too deep and we grew tired of lugging around the kayaks, so we turned back. I intend to purchase better equipment that will keep us dry while exploring the cold river passage.
When we revisited Wells Cave Arch #1, I noticed a small arch within the arch that I had missed. I call it Wells Cave Arch #1B.
We discovered several new arches. One could be considered a bridge, although it only stood a few feet above the river-bed. I hypothesized that its height was influenced by the average water level. It appeared fragile, but quite long and wide, perhaps 10×20 feet. I hope to measure it next time. I could not get a good photo due to humidity and poor lighting.
It was nearly November, but we did not encounter bats in the river passage. It might not have been their favorite hang-out (no pun intended) because of flooding. Also, they may have postponed their hibernation due to the unusually warm weather. If we encounter a bat population, we will leave and not return until spring.
3/4/17 – With the drought over and the river at a normal level, we hoped that we could paddle through without carrying our kayaks. Not only did we carry them numerous times, we also portaged some of the narrow channels where the current was too swift to row against. We did not get any farther in the cave than our last attempt.
The water was not significantly higher, except at the entrance, where we had to duck to get inside. However, water appeared in places where it had been dry before. A rapid roared just below Wells Cave Arch #1.
This trip was the first time that we encountered clouds of flying insects deep inside a cave. They were attracted by the light of my headlamp, so I donned my floppy-hat then strapped my headlamp on top of it. The rim of the hat diverted most of the bugs away from my face.
I think the best way to progress further is to wait for another drought and walk while wearing waders – the kind used by fly fishermen.
Added 9/21/16 – Updated 3/6/17