Monday, August 9, 2010

Vacation 2010

We went with more of a "staycation" this year. They kids had a lot of fun last year at Seabreeze, but when we thought about it in retrospect it didn't seem like the optimal use of time and money. My sons aren't big on "thrill" rides, even those that aren't too thrilling. As a result, they were totally disinterested in any of the water-park rides besides the Lazy River and the wave pool. And even with the wave pool they just stood in the shallow end. Likewise with the mechanical rides, they passed on pretty much all of them. I think they perhaps rode the carousel.

This year, my daughter very much wanted to go back to Seabreeze or to someplace similar. We looked very seriously at Darien Lake, particularly since my kids had each earned a free 1-day admission ticket from their school's no-TV-week reading program. That would have saved some money. We also considered the generally less-expensive Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge, NY, and even briefly toyed with the idea of Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. Each option was more expensive than the one before it and, ultimately, each had the same exact problems. They all had pretty much the same rides that Seabreeze has, with minor variations from park-to-park. And there's the rub - we'd again be paying full park admission prices for access to rides that my sons weren't interested in trying. The boys managed to mostly have fun, anyway, but it seemed like a huge expense with insufficient payoff.

So we switched gears completely. Instead of tickets to an all-day water-park with a nearby hotel, we chose Howe Caverns outside Cobleskill, NY. It's a remarkable natural phenomenon - a deep, horizontal series of caverns and galleries 152 feet below the rolling hills of Scoharie County, New York. Over the last ten million years, water carved away limestone deposits and left behind more than a quarter-mile of underground passageways, around half of which are open to the public for tours.

Saturday morning we packed up our van with a weeks'-worth of supplies to tide us over during our two-day excursion. We trucked across Central New York and down through some lovely little rural towns including Ames, NY and the fascinating little Sharon Springs. If it had been just my wife and me, we would surely have stopped in Sharon Springs, a small community (pop ~550) that changes elevation dramatically as Route 10 winds through its heart. The kids aren't too big on quaint little towns, however, so we kept going.

Cobleskill was a little light on restaurants that we could identify as suitable for the kids (the Rubbin Butts BBQ sounded awesome to me, but the family would have no part of it), so we make a quick stop at Pizza Hut for lunch before finally pulling in to the Howe's Caverns parking lot.

The above-ground facility is lovely - a Tudor-style (I think) building houses the ticket office, a cafe, a gift shop, and, of course, the elevator shaft down to the cave complex. We paid our $70 for five tickets and then waited about 40 minutes until it was time for our tour to descend. What we saw below was just amazing.

The tour guide, Mike, didn't seem to know much beyond what was in his scripted spiel, but the guide narration offered a lot of useful info. We actually entered at the rear end of the cavern complex, through an artificially-blasted shaft and into a man-made entryway called the "Vestibule." It turns out that Lester Howe, the man who "discovered" the caves and opened them to the public (though there was a story of at least one previous white man to use the caves as a hiding place in the 1700s, and the caves were known to the local Indians, as well, but none of them sold tickets so they don't get credit) and his family operated the cave tour business until the end of the 19th century, when they sold the land to a mining company. This company began a limestone quarrying operation at the "natural entrance" to the caverns and destroyed much of the caves original majesty at that end. It would be another thirty years before the caves returned to non-industrial ownership and were once again opened for tours, this time beginning at the undamaged end and continuing up to the point where the mining had stopped.

During the 80-minute tour (ours was closer to 90 minutes, mostly due to having to stop often to wait for other tour groups to pass by us on their way back out), we saw the thin remnant of one of the waterways that had carved the caverns over the last 10 million years. It turns out that ice ages, the most recent one in particular, caused great changes for Howe Caverns. For starters, the glaciers drove a mixture of rocks, dirt, sand, and other debris, called "till" into some of the openings that had once allowed water to flow from the surface down into the caverns. These tributaries were thus cut off, leaving behind galleries, openings and natural shafts, but no longer helping to carve away the sedimentary stone of the caverns.

In addition, we saw in one large cave enormous blocks of stone that had tumbled from the ceiling ten thousand years ago. They were also the result of glaciation, as the pressure from the glacier's incredible weight pressed down on the roof of the cavern and caused the chunks of rock to dislodge along their relatively flat sedimentary layers. This resulted in the cavern's roof being very flat above the pile of squared-off stones that resembled a giant child's toy blocks.

We saw stalactites and stalagmites, which were frankly gorgeous. The stalagmites in particular tend to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa, being cylindrical, off-white, and having furrows in their sides from the running water that formed them which resemble the Italian structure's window openings. Each section of the cavern was different from the last - some high and wide, others narrow and winding. In some there were neat rock formations above and to the sides, while in others the beauty was in the water that still flowed through or even in the sound. One structure, called the "keyboard" for its resemblance to the business-end of a pipe-organ (and also because of its nearness to a similar structure that did, indeed, resemble such an instrument) was curved in such a way that if you nestled your face into its interior surface, your voice would carry and be amplified considerably.

We traversed the Lake of Venus on pole-boats, looking like nothing so much as the depression-era visitors sitting in identical boats on that same lake some eighty years ago. I saw a picture of exactly that. And that was another remarkable thing about the caverns - save for where man has damaged them or added to them, they are as they have been for thousands, even millions of years.

That also means that there's no huge hurry to return, of course - they're not going to look any different in another hundred years than they do today - but my back-of-the-napkin calculations came up with a conservative figure of $25,000 in tour tickets alone on the day we were there, so assuming that that's a typical Saturday and adding in revenue from all other sources, I suspect that the Caverns are doing all right in spite of any lack of return visitors.

The ride home was uneventful, excepting that we didn't actually GO home. Instead, we stayed at an Embassy Suites across town. Why? Well, the kids like to stay at hotels - it's like a big sleepover for them, plus there's a pool and it's just someplace new. Moreover, I have a boatload of Hilton points getting ready to expire in a month, and I needed to stay at a Hilton hotel to keep them, so we did. The stay was unimpressive, but the kids had a good time anyway. On Sunday, we played some miniature golf at a favorite course, got some ice cream at Pete's Polar Parlor, and then came home where I promptly took a nap. Farewell, summer family vacation 2010! I'll remember you (mostly) fondly!

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