More than 400 attend Winter Adventure Weekend events
OLIVE HILL, Ky. -- Walking out of X Cave on Sunday morning, Brent Ray couldn't quit smiling and talking about the caves.
A veteran caver from Kenova, Ray got to spend the weekend with his family wild caving over in the limestone-pocked Carter County, where he's been exploring the subterranean world for the past 30 years.
For the first time since 2008, and as part of the fourth annual Winter Adventure Weekend only, explorers were allowed to do wild caving at Carter Caves State Resort Park this past weekend.
More than 400 outdoors enthusiasts from six states took part in the weekend soaking up a buffet of outdoor adventures that included 140 different guided trips of such activities as: wild caving, horseback riding, tree climbing, canoeing, rock climbing, rappelling, ziplining, hiking, mountain biking, shooting and much more.
A 40-something who got hooked on wild caving when he was 11, Ray said getting to lead the Fern and Flood wild cave trips on Saturday as part of weekend, restored a piece that had been missing since the park's wild caving was outlawed in 2009 because of the threat of the epidemic bat disease White Nose Syndrome.
"The best way to describe it was like having a permanent grin on my face all weekend," Ray said of getting to cave again for the weekend. "It was a piece of me that was restored."
Ray, whose crew had to haul up a 16-foot-ladder for the Fern and Flood Caves trip, wasn't the only one who got in touch with his inner Tom Sawyer for some wild adventures.
Outdoors groups such as Ashland Cycling Enthusiasts and Kentucky State Parks shared into upstairs, downstairs at the lodge, folks tried to wriggle their way through the infamous Squeezebox.
The Saturday night timed Squeezebox finals competition saw reigning heavyweight champ and 2010 Marshall grad Jamie Dzierzak (Squeezebox winner 2005-08 and 2010-12) breeze to another win.
In the 176 to 200 pound Squeezebox competition, Boy Scout leader, Don Vartorella, 41, staved off competitors half his age with speed slides through the Squeezebox.
He got as low as 7 1/8 inches (in 27 seconds) and pulled and pushed his way through the box in as little as 4.3 seconds during the finals competition.
"My son Trent won it last year but he couldn't be here, he's stuck at college," Vartorella said. "It feels good to win it. It was like, 'Come on boys, keep up. I'm like three times your age. Come on, let's go.'"
While folks listened to adventure presentations during the day downstairs at the lodge, on Saturday night, the rooms were opened up for live music, as well as the auctions in which money was raised for the Friends of Carter Caves.
Throughout the weekend, a beehive of activity was found on the hill behind the lodge.
With set-up help by climber and longtime volunteer Brian Saul, Recreational Tree Climbing was in full swing Saturday afternoon as Scott Smith of Catlettsburg, Ky., and Jeff Rickman of Huntington helped people climb about 60 feet up into a towering black oak that sprawls majestically to about 100 feet high and in full view of the lodge dining room.
"Work those hips," Smith coached Bellevue, Ky., resident Patrick McCarthy, who came to climb the tree with his son, Sean McCarthy, 16. "Don't make your arms and upper body do all the work. Walk those legs up the tree."
Further down the hill from the lodge, some of the staff, made up of many expert climbers and rappellers who also participate in the annual Bridge Day rappel in West Virginia, set up a series of rope workshops including rock climbing, rope climbing, Down for Dummies (the rappel) and, the highline over near Smokey Bridge, the 90-foot-high natural bridge that lies down the hill between the lodge and the Smokey Valley Lake.
At Down for Dummies, expert rappellers Bruce Bannerman of Culloden and Julia Smith of Peebles, Ohio, harnessed up, then slowly walked and talked many nervous beginners off the cliff edge where they got to slowly drop 90-feet down a rope and see Kentucky's highest natural bridge.
"The cliff part was hard but just going down was easy," said a brave 9-year-old Sky Loomis, of Morehead, Ky.
While her 13-year-old daughter, Jenna only went down once, her mom, Julia Jones, of Morehead, Ky., hiked back up the hill for a second rappel after a breath-taking rappel into the heart of the bridge.
"It was awesome," Jones said. "I had walked that trail before but never saw it from that angle," Jones said.
Lakshmi Mahalingam, 23, of Hamilton, Ohio, said her group, the Tri-State Hiking Club, led by one of the main volunteers Andy Niekamp, put together the trip. She said she had to jump in for the adventures since it was only $30 for three day's worth of adventure trips.
"A lot of times you can get depressed in winter and don't want to go out so this is a great opportunity to get out and meeting new people too," said Mahalingam, who did everything from rappelling to horseback riding and hiking.
Directly above Down for Dummies, a platform manned by such volunteers as Adam Wilson and Jerry Brandenburg, clipped in folks -- and even a few dogs -- to take a wild highline or zipline ride where they got a bird's eye view of Smokey Bridge.
Hollering for joy for most of her journey was Kentucky State Parks commissioner, Elaine Walker, who came over from Frankfort, to check out all the wonders of Winter Adventure Weekend.
From watching kids' faces as they made their way out of the Kenny McCoy Corrugated Cave and through the Squeezebox to seeing people of all ages climbing trees, hiking and ziplining, Walker said it was great to see so many people exploring the state park.
"What has got me is that people of all ages children and twentysomethings are everywhere and you don't see them tied to their iPhones or video games," Walker said. "They are outside, they are being physically active and that makes me so happy. This is what a park system is all about."