83-year-old caver still exploring underground: Roger Brucker has been exploring in and around Mammoth Cave National Park since the 1950s. Since then, Brucker has helped the Cave Research Foundation map hundreds of miles underground. Video by Matt Frassica, The Courier-Journal.
The air was dry and cool, the steady 54 degrees that Mammoth Cave maintains all year. Deep inside the labyrinth, a 110-foot hole opened up below the narrow path. A railing was all that separated a tour group from the blackness below. The name of this feature, appropriately, is Bottomless Pit.
As far as anyone knows, Stephen Bishop was the first to explore Mammoth Cave beyond the pit. A former slave, Bishop worked as a guide for would-be adventurers who wanted tours of the cave in the 1840s. The Park Service ranger who led the tour had inherited this role, and he told stories about Bishop along the way.
Roger Brucker, 83, has been exploring Mammoth Cave for six decades. He hung back and let the tour group pass.
“They used to say Bishop went across this on a wooden ladder,” Brucker said, gesturing over the void. “Would you cross this, shimmying on a rickety ladder?”
As unwelcoming as the prospect seemed, this theory held until five years ago, when Brucker and other cavers found an alternate route that skirted Bottomless Pit.
Still, the story about crossing the pit by ladder has held on. The ranger repeated it later in the tour, playing up the danger. Brucker just shook his head and chuckled. Some tall tales are too good to let go.
Brucker has a favorite aphorism that helps explain the endurance of myths about Mammoth Cave: “True if interesting.” If that’s the yardstick, then Brucker’s history in the largest cave system in the world is very, very true.
Where does that passage go?
Brucker’s fascination with caving began when he was 8 years old, on an all-day tour of Mammoth Cave. While on the tour, the young Brucker shone his flashlight up a dark passageway. “I asked the guide, ‘Where does that passage go?’ ” he said.
The guard replied sarcastically, “It doesn’t go anywhere. It stays right here.”
This answer did not satisfy Brucker. “I thought, ‘One of these days, I’m going to find out, because that’s not an answer.’ ”
It took some time, but Brucker did return. After graduating from Oberlin College and entering the Air Force, he did some poking around small caves in New York and Ohio, where he was stationed. In 1953, Brucker, by then working as an advertising executive in Ohio, came back to Kentucky for a National Speleological Society field trip. During that trip, he became hooked on the complex, winding topography and seemingly endless reach of Central Kentucky caves.
Reporter Matt Frassica can be reached at (502) 582-4502 or on Twitter @mattfrassica.