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  Tourist Traps Ahoy!

The Lost Sea

by Matthew T. Everett

There are 13 of us, if you don't count our guide. We're floating in a dirty old pontoon boat in the middle of the Lost Sea, 500 feet under a hill just outside of Sweetwater. The Lost Sea doesn't seem nearly so lost now that we're out on it. In fact, even though it's billed as North America's largest underground lake, at 13.5 acres, it doesn't seem very much like a sea. When I was here on a middle school field trip in 1986, I thought I heard the guide say that, in the farthest reaches of the lake's back room, the bottom—if there was one!—had never been reached by divers. Maybe he didn't say that. I do know that now they say the deepest part is 75 feet. That's still pretty deep, but it doesn't sound like a sea. The sea's the ocean, and this isn't like that at all.

Besides me, there are three retired couples in the group, the men wearing the standard uniform of RV nomads from Florida: crew cuts, sporty golf shirts, casual shorts with elastic-backed waistbands, and sensible walking shoes. There's a teenage girl with a long ponytail and a class of '99 T-shirt ("The Last Class of the Millennium!"). She's accompanied by her boyfriend and a set of parents, whether his or hers it's impossible to tell; either way, they're apparently mindful of the catastrophic potential of loosing adolescents in dark prehistoric caverns with unseen hideaways and a long history of intemperate behavior. There's one last couple, in their 20s and quietly anonymous, who listen intently to our bubbly teenage tour guide Jessica as she points out the blind fish in the lake underneath us and describes the geological details of the lake and its caverns.

To get to the sprawling caverns, we descended a steep, artificially-lit tunnel built with dozens of curved steel plates, painted bright yellow and connected with industrial-sized bolts, that leads down from the combination gift shop/tour lobby. It's a space-age prelude to our descent into the bowels of the earth and our visit to the second-largest underground body of water in the world, just a few acres smaller than one in Africa. You'd think the spectacle of a cave opening might be a highlight of this descent into these dim nether regions. Instead, you go inside an ugly, glass-fronted 1960s park ranger-style building, where you buy a ticket and head through a turnstile and down the yellow tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel, you're standing in the large, musty-smelling cave room where the tour starts. Small lamps dot the room and are lined along the trail, illuminating significant points along the route to the lake. There are formations that supposedly resemble George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—"You have to have some imagination to see them," Jessica says, and I apparently don't—and the Devil's Hole, a two-foot wide opening that drops 13 feet. A woman once mistook the face of a maintenance worker changing the light bulb in the hole for the devil; that's how the hole got its name.

The trail through the caverns loops around—it's nearly a mile down to the lake, winding past rock formations with funny names and remnants from various enterprises that have been attempted here, from moonshining to guano mining, and then a steep quarter-mile route back up. Jessica leads us along the dirt path, lined with wooden railings for handholds, into the room known as the council chamber, where the Cherokees held important meetings during the 19th century.

The caves around the lake are officially known as Craighead Caverns, after a Cherokee chief who acquired the property in the 1820s. That's about the time, according to a brochure available at the gift shop, that white settlers first moved into the area around Sweetwater and began using the cave themselves to store produce. During the Civil War, the caverns were mined for both saltpeter and bat droppings, each of which can be used, to different degrees of success, in the manufacture of gunpowder. After that, the caverns became a popular destination themselves, as several entrepreneurs tried to make money out of guided tours. There was even, in the 1940s, an establishment known as the Cavern Tavern located here. The dance floor from the Tavern is still on the tour, but the Tavern itself didn't last long. Patrons would drink and drink and drink, but apparently couldn't feel the effects of intoxication in the cool, humid underground air—at least not until they began the climb back out of the cave, up a steep flight of more than 130 stairs. The Tavern closed just a few months after opening after several patrons were injured on their way back down the stairs.

The Lost Sea itself was discovered in 1905, by a local boy named Ben Sands, who slid through a tiny crawl space, now blasted out and known as the Ben Sands tunnel, and stepped directly into standing water. It wasn't until years later that the extent of the lake was fully known, and not until 1963 that the lake was opened in its current form as a tourist destination. The corny logo that decorates billboards and tacky souvenirs, with its inexplicable drawing of a Viking ship, seems to date from about that time, as do the rusty pontoon boats that take us out onto the lake.

We pass more of the fascinating geologic displays on the way down the trail—the Vale of Tears; Crystal Falls; the niche where the remains of a Pleistocene jaguar were found in 1940. Jessica tells us that the cat probably fell in while hunting and just never got out. To demonstrate what the cat must have found, she turns off the lights, blanketing us in a thick cover of impenetrable dark.

There's no way to adequately prepare for the total darkness you experience when you're 300 feet underground. Several of the retired women offer startled gasps, and I hear people shuffling to get closer to each other. "The only places where you can get total darkness like this are underground and at the bottom of the ocean," Jessica says. "If you put your hand right in front of your face, you won't be able to see it." I do, and I can't. "If you were to stay in total darkness for 14 days, you'd go blind."

That's what happened to the trout that were stocked in the lake in the 1970s. They're not completely blind, but they have lost much of their sight over time. The trout were part of an experiment to find passages out of the cave. Scientists tagged them and hoped to find them in nearby lakes and streams, but never did. Now they're stuck in the lake, nearly-blind, unable to mate (deposited eggs, awaiting fertilization, float off of the sandy floor of the lake to the water's surface, where they're eaten by the fish), and completely dependent on the liver pellets tossed to them by the guides on each tour. They've become something like the mascots of the lake, just as inexplicable and incongruous as the Viking ship logo.

The lake itself is...Well, it's a lake. It's hard to get excited about a lake, even if it does have 500 feet of rock and dirt and trees and interstate highway above it. Even if it's the biggest one on the continent. The part that we get to see, the front room that's open to the public, is only 30 feet deep. There's a brief, five-minute boat ride around the front room, and in the distance we can see the dark passageways that lead back to the closed parts of the lake. The fish follow us, trained by the liver-pellets that are dropped into the water on each tour. We see even more rock formations, like Betsy the Milking Cow, a stalactite that drips down into the boat as we pass under, and we're told about the flood of 1994 that filled the room, banging the small fleet of pontoons on the ceiling. There is one cool spot, just a few feet away from the dock, where part of the roof fell into the lake 2,000 years ago, an example of the powerful forces that have shaped the caverns through hundreds of thousands of years. Other than that, it's pretty humdrum. One of the retired ladies puts it pretty well: "You don't hear cars or trucks or nothing. It's so peaceful and quiet."

June 8, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 23
© 2000 Metro Pulse