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Queens Student Explores Mammoth Cave's Rich History and Hidden Depths

Jun 10, 2024 By Queens University Communications

Biology major and honors student Jordan Sanders ’26 was among 12 students nationwide who recently embarked on a unique spelunking expedition to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. For those unfamiliar with the term, spelunking is the exciting world of cave exploration! The week-long trip offered students an immersive opportunity to witness the cave’s awe-inspiring geological formations, rich cultural history, and complex ecosystem firsthand.

Jordan Sanders exploring a cave

The itinerary began with an introduction to Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest-known cave system. Students then received an overview of the cave’s history, learned about cave safety, and participated in team-building activities.

The following days were packed with adventure. Sanders explored the park’s surface sites, including historic landmarks, sinkholes, and scenic trails. One of the most captivating experiences for Sanders was the Historic Tour, a classic ranger-guided adventure that showcased the diversity of the cave’s various levels and passages. The tour provided a foundation for understanding the cave’s significance and its role in shaping the region’s history.

The exploration continued deeper underground with a trip that focused on artifacts preserved within the cave, revealing the fascinating story of Indigenous American use, early tourism, and the evolution of cave exploration over time. Sanders even experienced “wild caving,” venturing off the beaten path to enjoy the thrill of spelunking in a more natural setting.

“It was interesting to learn how saltpeter was mined and used in the making of gunpowder to support the American military efforts against the British during the War of 1812,” said Sanders.

Beyond the cave walls, Sanders explored the Three Springs Area, a surface location showcasing a Native American tool-making site, an African American community cemetery, and remnants of park infrastructure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). For a change of pace, an optional night hike provided an opportunity to appreciate the park’s beauty under the starry sky.

“It was interesting to learn about the extensive involvement of African Americans, like Stephen Bishop, in cave exploration and mapping,” Sanders shared. “Knowing that some even secured their freedom through their earnings as guides adds another layer of significance to their stories. It was encouraging to hear about their broader historical impact beyond the limited scope of slavery.”

The adventure culminated with a kayaking trip down the Green River, offering a glimpse of the vibrant ecosystem aboveground. Sanders also hiked the Echo River Trail, a scenic path highlighting the river’s connection to the cave system.

“I was amazed by the abundance of life both inside and outside the caves,” Sanders shared. “Kayaking offered glimpses of different fish and turtle populations, and we even had a chance to see a bald eagle with her eaglets. The trip was filled with unforgettable wildlife encounters.”

There was also a session that delved into the cave’s geologic wonders and ongoing research projects. This included learning about how researchers tested radon levels and how these levels fluctuate due to environmental factors, such as global warming. The trip concluded with a visit to the Great Onyx Cave, renowned for its stunning formations, and a final reflection session where students shared their experiences and takeaways.

To showcase their learnings, students were tasked with a final presentation project inspired by their encounters with nature. Drawing inspiration from a captivating rock formation, Sanders crafted a sonnet titled “Lovers Leap,” weaving a poetic tapestry of his experience.

The expedition to Mammoth Cave National Park was undoubtedly an enriching learning experience. Sanders is excited to share his experience with the Queens community upon his return. “The highlight for me was connecting with other honors students who shared my passion for the natural world. It was inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded peers, some even on similar pre-med tracks like myself. We’ve already got a trip for next summer in the works!”

With graduation on the horizon, Sanders will set his sights on medical school, aiming for a fulfilling career as a pediatric neurologist. “Research suggests that shared identities and experiences between patients and providers can significantly improve the patient experience,” he explains. “I’m eager to take all the knowledge and skills I’ve gained at Queens and use them to serve my community, offering support and healing to those in need.”

Inside of a cave