OLIVE HILL, Ky. - By workday, Charlie Munn works at Superior Chrysler Dodge and Jeep in Ashland.
By weekend, Munn likes to get out and get a little mud on the tires, and well, all over himself too.
This past weekend, Munn, a member of ESSO Grotto, the Tri-State-based caving group, was one of 144 volunteers who happily got wet and muddy helping turn Carter Caves State Resort Park into a more-than-you-could-do outdoors adventure buffet.
Called Winter Adventure Weekend, the seventh annual event featured more than 50 wild caving trips and a record number of 175 different outdoors adventures for all levels - all of which had about 450 folks exploring caves, kayaking, rappelling, ziplining, horseback riding, geocaching, hiking, tree climbing and much more.
For Munn it was a special weekend getting to team up with his 15-year-old son Matthew, a Fairview High School student, to introduce lots of people to caves such as Horn Hollow and Rimstone (Laurel Cave is closed due to hibernating bats) which are located near the entrance of Carter Caves.
"I love how it feels underground. It is cool, and there is a lot of freedom," Matthew said. "I love looking at the formations."
Munn who has been a member of ESSO Grotto since 2003, said one of the great things about Winter Adventure Weekend, as well as the continued wild caving and commercial tour caves at Carter Caves is that just about anybody can do it.
"That's the high point of it is introducing people to the sport. Caving is something that anybody can get involved with if they are physically able," Munn said. "You can do the crawlways and vertical caves, and, if not, there are walking caves and a lot of the tourist caves have lighted walkways so you can participate on any level."
Although they had been to Carter Caves several times, Justin and Rachelle Williams of Hurricane had never been wild caving.
They got a real taste of the crawling and squeezing through tight spaces as Jeremiah Lewis led them on the Bat Cave Back Door trip on Saturday morning, down passages like Back Ache Alley, the Great Wall of China, Gopher Hole and the Drain - and through the Crack or the Chimney.
"Now we're going to go through Back Ache Alley - we've been upright long enough," Lewis said with a laugh, leading the group which had been resting.
After dropping down through a seemingly impossible crack in the smooth limestone rock called "The Chimney," the Williamses laughed as other nervous folks slipped through the crack and landed in a new passageway to access a lower level of cave passages.
"It's pretty amazing to go on these trips that are not paved and perfect," Justin Williams said.
"It is almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Rachelle Williams said.
The person at the end of the caving line of explorers during the Bat Cave Back Door trips was Tiffany Puff, a 23-year-old graduate of Wittenburg University. She works as a banker in Columbus, but was at WAW volunteering as a cave guide and as a tailgunner (the last person through the cave), on a couple Saturday Bat Cave Back Door trips.
Puff said she met a member of the caving club at Wittenburg her freshman year, took a trip and fell in love with the feeling.
"After being underground you get hooked," Puff said. "I think a lot of people expect it to be a hole with nothing in it, but there are so many different types of caves - vertical and stream passages - so it is not just the same bit of rock for miles and miles."
Puff said volunteering for trips such as Bat Cave Back Door, a Level II which drew in a lot of first-time wild cavers and teenage scouts, was fun because she is able to pass on some tips to those who want to learn more.
"Taking new people on these trips reminds you of how cool it is and all the cool things you see, and you kind of it see it through new eyes," Puff said. "I also know some tricks of the trade, and so I like to be able to help people."
Above ground, volunteers from ESSO Grotto and other caving groups with expert rappellers and climbers were helping folks glide down a 200-foot-long highline that zipped past Smoky Bridge, and below the highline, drop down a 60-foot or so cliff next to the Smoky Bridge.
Those were two of many outdoors ropes classes that included ice and rock climbing, rope ascension classes and even a climbing contest.
Ida Butterworth, 55, of Mt. Washington, Kentucky, got to mark one incredible experience off her bucket list - rappelling.
"I love nature, and I found out they had this last year and I came to it. Life is too short, and I want to try out everything that is healthy once," Butterworth said. "They had the opportunity so I thought, 'I have never done it, so let's do it.' I am adventuresome and I am here. I have friends who think I am crazy, but I come here and there are a bunch of people just like me. I want to make my own adventures."
Mike Hall, who will be 24 in May, worked at Carter Caves seasonally from 2011 to 2013, but moved away in 2014 to go explore the country. After stints in Connecticut, Texas and North Carolina, Hall, a Greenup County native, has just moved back.
Hall said it was amazing to come back and see people like Butterworth exploring and trying new things at the park.
"I love it. It is not just the simple fact that people are actually getting out here and experiencing it, but it is introducing them to new things and maybe that will open up their mind to say, 'Hey if I tried this, why not try something else,' " Hall said. "It is nice to get out here and see all of these people eager to jump on a rope or eager to get into the caves and just getting involved."
Hall, who was doing the rappel off of Smoky Bridge, said he was excited to see Carter Caves adding more high adventure into their regular menu of activities.
In fact, this past July, Carter Caves added a rock climbing area off of the Three Bridges Trail.The free, self-guided activity is open to park guests who must get a permit at the front desk.
"When I heard about that I was so exhilarated," Hall said. "As I have been walking around the park I have been asking people about it, and they love it. That's just one more activity to push the park further, and that is really cool to see here."
After a full day of indoor fun like the drop-in weaving class - Mug Ruggin' It - a Yoga 101 session and the drop-in Squeezebox and Slackline, folks gathered up for Saturday evening's program, live music from Heath and Molly, an acoustic duo who've cut an album inside Cascade Cave, an awards ceremony, the squeezebox finals and a photo slideshow - a juried photo exhibition of nature and adventure photos shot by folks who attend the event.
"These photos should draw you in and make you want to go out and experience something," said Tim Moontz, who judged the photo competition with Catherine and Charles Bishop and referee Steve Duncan.
A live and silent auction filled with 105 items was organized by Kelly Niceley of Union, Kentucky. That auction by the Friends of Carter Caves annually raises about $2,000 to $2,500 through concessions and the auction to help pay for such park extras as the new highline, wild caving gear and much more.
After park naturalist Coy Ainsley and park manager Chris Perry thanked the volunteers, they brought up "Mr. Carter Caves," John Tierney, the retired park ranger who started the wintertime adventure event (first called Crawlathon) some 35 years ago with volunteers from the local caving groups.
Tierney recognized the Winter Adventure Weekend volunteer of the year - Cabell County resident Bruce Bannerman, a legend at the event for his Squeezebox appearance in tights back in the day, and his decades of work manning the "Down For Dummies," rappel class among many other volunteer efforts.
Tierney didn't let the always-joking Bannerman, who also is a faithful volunteer at Huntington's Heritage Farm Museum and Village, get off the stage without getting in a few jokes on him.
"There are so many people who have been with us for these 35 years, and one of the most memorable people is Bruce Bannerman. What could we have done without Bruce, well, we could have done better," Tierney said as the crowd erupted in laughter.
John Tierney, his wife, Lelana, his son Paul Tierney, Sam Plummer and Steve Duncan, were all honored as volunteers who have been to all 35 winter adventure events at Carter Caves.
"Crawlathon started with seven staff members and 30 people showed up," Ainsley said. "It always falls on the last weekend in January, and 35 years later we are still here, and we are celebrating Crawlathon morphing to Winter Adventure Weekend."
If you head underground
Winter Adventure Weekend may be done, but you can still go into Middle Earth over at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive, Hill, Kentucky. Here's a closer look at the park, located 40 minutes west of Huntington.
INTO THE CAVES: Walking tours are available at X Cave and Cascasde Cave at Carter Caves State Park. X Cave tours are at 1 and 4:30 p.m. daily Thursday through Sunday (45 minutes long) and Cascade tours are at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday (75 minutes long).
CONTACT: Call the park at 800-325-0059.
GETTING THERE: Carter Caves State Resort Park is located at 344 Caveland Drive in Olive Hill. The park is off Interstate 64 at exit 161. Take U.S. 60 east. Go approximately two miles and turn left on Ky. 182 north. The park entrance is three miles from the left turn onto Ky. 182 north.
UPCOMING WINTER/SPRING EVENTS @ CARTER CAVES: February 12-13: Valentines Dinner Theater; March 18-19: Backpacking Workshop and Overnight Trip; March 26-27: Easter Weekend Getaway; April 2: Eastern Mining Collectors Association Spring Meet and Show; April 2, April 16, May 7 and May 14: Tygart Creek Paddle Excursions; April 17, May 8 and June 18: Grayson Lake Paddle Trip; April 22-24: Wildflower Weekend; April 29-30: Campers Appreciation Weekend; April 30: Smoky Bridge High Line Ride Weekend