Gary Roberson was 11 years old the first time he crawled into a cave as a Boy Scout. Instantly smitten with spelunking, Gary had no idea he was starting on an adventurous path that would become a lifetime passion.
“I never knew I was going to grow up to run a cave,” he said with a laugh. “My Mom always said, ‘You can’t make a living running a hole in the ground.’ But I have.”
Now, more than half a century later, Roberson is the CEO and founder of the nation’s newest show cave – Indiana Caverns in Corydon, Indiana. Part of the vast world-class Binkley Cave System, it is the longest cave system in Indiana and the 11th longest in the United States at more than 35 miles.
The first new Indiana show cave in 40 years and the first to be seen by human eyes in 2010, Indiana Caverns opened to the public on June 15. It has been drawing devoted spelunkers and first-time cavers of all ages. “We are doing really well,” Roberson said. “In fact, we are doing even better than I thought we would.”
Of course, there are many reasons why Indiana Caverns is proving so popular. It is brand new and fairly easy to navigate and has all the underground attractions that folks enjoy – cool 57 degree temperatures year round, a boat ride on an underground river, a four-story waterfall, beautiful cave formations, unusual cave dwellers and the awe-inspiring Big Bone Mountain.
That’s right. Indiana Caverns has a massive amount of bones from Ice Age creatures from lived perhaps 30,000 years ago. The prehistoric bones are believed to be among the largest cache discovered in one cave.
“When I first saw the bones, I thought they must be from cows or horses or other farm livestock,” Roberson said. “I had no idea how old those bones were. It’s amazing to think they belonged to Ice Age animals and then to try and figure out how the animals got there.”
It is even more mind boggling to consider that no man had ever set foot in this cave before. “There is no evidence of other human beings having ever been in there. This had never been seen by human eyes until three years ago,” Roberson said.
“There are no modern bones in there other than bats which is an indication that the entrance to the cave probably closed up before any people were in this part of the world.”
So how did Roberson and his caving enthusiast friends make this amazing discovery? Through time and perseverance – and maybe a bit of luck.
Located in southern Indiana about 25 miles west of Louisville, the Binkley Cave System has been explored by Roberson and fellow members of the Indiana Speleological Survey since 1967. Over time, Roberson helped develop Squire Boone Caverns and Marengo Cave, both of which are within a short drive of Corydon. Not far away is also Bluespring Caverns.
“We have a Cave Trail,” said Carol Groves, Roberson’s sister and marketing and communications director for Indiana Caverns. “A lot of people want to visit all four caves. They are all different.”
In 2009, Roberson wrote “50 Years under the Sinkhole Plain,” a book describing the Indiana Speleological Survey’s work over a half century. “Many of the original members have gotten older and retired,” Roberson said.
“I was the last one who would go exploring. I couldn’t get any of them to go anymore and I wanted to be sure to put our findings in writing so if somebody decided to pick up the project 100 years from now, they would have something to go on.”
Instead, the book quickly inspired a younger generation of explorers who began helping survey the Binkley Cave System. In 2010, the group made a major breakthrough – Indiana Caverns.
Surveying work is ongoing and Roberson said he believes the cave may eventually rank in the nation’s top five. “That could happen,” he said. “This cave is expanding all the time.”
The top four American caves are Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Lechuguilla Cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both in South Dakota.
At Indiana Caverns, a large map near the entrance shows the cave system in detail. And the map keeps getting updated as new discoveries are made. “It’s hard work,” Roberson said. “It’s nasty and it’s hard and you have to love what you’re doing.”
COMFORTABLE CAVE TOUR
Visitors, however, don’t have to go through that five-hour cold muddy crawl on your stomach to see what so fascinated Roberson and his buddies. A new entrance for the cave was created by drilling a hole in the ceiling of the cave’s largest room – roughly 85 feet tall, 50 feet wide and 200 feet long. The cave now has a spiral staircase, walking paths and a 25-foot bridge to a balcony overlooking Big Bone Mountain.
“It’s an expensive project,” Roberson said. “We had to blast a tunnel… We had to carry everything in by hand. Tons and tons of steel, concrete.”
To begin exploring Indiana Caverns, visitors watch a short film about how the cave was discovered and its importance. Then small groups are lead into the vast underground world for the 80-minute trek. Jackets and comfortable walking shoes are recommended.
Scattered around the cave are the remains of extinct species of Ice Age animals. “We think that these animals might have entered the cave for shelter or to hibernate,” Roberson said. “Many of them might have become trapped when they fell over a drop off just inside the cave.”
Among the bones are those of the flat-headed peccary, a distant relative to today’s pigs.
“They traveled in herds and liked to rear their young near caves and bluff settings,” cave guide Caroline Turcotte said, pointing out the nicknamed Peccary Plunge. "When one fell over the cliff, the others might have followed. No one knows for sure.”
Unlike other animals that entered the cave, the Pleistocene black bear was able to come and go in the cave using an entrance that was covered with sediment centuries ago.
“You can see a bear wallow,” Turcotte said, gesturing to a bowl-shaped indentation on Sleeping Bear Boulevard where a bear might have made itself comfortable for a long winter’s nap.
Near the base of Big Bone Mountain lies a near complete skeleton of a young Pleistocene bison, possibly Bison Antiquus. If confirmed as Bison Antiquus, it will be the first Pleistocene bison found in an Indiana cave. Bones of other ancient animals include snakes, birds and beaver.
“There is still a lot of research to be done,” Roberson said. “We think there may be more bones of even older species just below the surface.”
Binkley Cave also has the honor of being a “biodiverse hotspot.” According to the “Hotpots of Subterranean Biodiversity in Caves and Wells,” there are only 20 sites on the entire earth where over 20 species of subterranean animals occur.
“Binkley Cave is one of those,” Groves said. “There are 21 species of troglobites here.”
One of those is making an appearance on today’s tour – the big blind crayfish. “You are lucky,” Turcotte said, stopping by a small clear stream. “Usually the big crayfish is hiding from us.”
Looking like a translucent toy, the troglobite skitters around the water as Turcotte follows its path with her flashlight. A distant relative of the lobster, the crayfish have adapted over time to the total darkness of the cave. They are eyeless because they never leave the dark.
How dark is it in the cave? The darkest dark you will ever see, Turcotte said. Giving ample warning, she then turned off all lights so cave visitors could get an idea of the pitch-black underground world.
“I can’t see anything,” noted 9-year-old Clinton Keesling of Illinois. What he liked most, however, was the 20-minute boat ride.
The boy’s grandparents, Randy and Ella Keesling, had visited the cave a few days after it opened. They were so impressed that they can back so Clinton could see it.
For Phyllis and Ulysses Johnson of Indianapolis, it was their first-ever cave visit. “He saw it in the newspaper and said, ‘You want to go?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ We are always up for an adventure,” Phyllis explained.
That is what Gary Roberson likes to hear. After all, it is the same reason he changed the course of his life from an office job to an underground explorer and developer.
"I went to Vanderbilt College in Nashville to study business,” Roberson said. “When I got out of college, I was an investment analyst but I quit that to work at a hole in the ground. I always tell my workers here that you should do something you love. You need to work for a living for the money but it’s important to do something you love.”
A lifelong Hoosier – except for his Tennessee college years - Roberson says the adventure and thrill of discovery from venturing underground are what still attract him today.
“To go places that nobody has ever seen before is so exciting,” Roberson concluded. “Most of the mountains have already been climbed. What’s left is the moon or the bottom of the ocean. Or an underground cave. It’s the lure of adventure. I’m an adventurous sort of person and caves have been my adventure.”
IF YOU GO:
Where: Indiana Caverns, 1267 Green Acres Drive SW, Corydon, Indiana 47112
Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March.
Regular Tours: Cave tours 80 minutes. Cave tours are not handicapped accessible.
Admission: $18 for adults, $9 for children. Children 3 and under free.
Amenities: Indiana Caverns also offers a large gift shop, very clean restrooms, picnic tables, walking trails and a chance to pan for gemstones and fossils.
For more information: Contact Indiana Caverns at (812) 734-1200, www.IndianaCaverns.com.