By Brian Lazenby
It was a recent warm, sunny day when Jake Lainhart led a small expedition down a worn path near Sand Gap to a narrow crevice beneath an overhanging rock. Squeezing through the opening, the group found a whole new world, foreign to most, but one in which the 88-year-old Lainhart was right at home.
“I’ve been going in these caves all my life,” he says, as he was instructing the group on things they can and cannot touch.
Lainhart grew up in a different day and age, a simpler time, but it suited him just fine.
He was born in 1926, when McKee was known as “Yeller Dog,” and he recalls that the town consisted of little more than a courthouse and a liquor store. The only road through town was made of dirt, even though almost no one in Jackson County owned a car.
There were no video games, no cable television and no Internet. But there was one thing Eastern Kentucky was rich with — natural beauty — and Lainhart took to it like a bear to a cave.
“We would go to the woods,” Lainhart says. “We pretty much lived in the woods. That was the greatest thing in the world to do. It was sure better than going to a pool hall or a gambling hall. So that’s what we did.”
Lainhart has been exploring the hills and ‘hollers’ around Jackson County all his life. He knows what berries, herbs and mushrooms are good to eat, and countless squirrels and rabbits became dinner thanks to his deadly aim with a slingshot.
“I’m awfully fond of a rabbit,” he says. “That’s one of the best things to eat.”
Lainhart pointed out varieties of mint, huckleberry and other herbs that could be used to add flavor in the kitchen — or over a campfire.
“It wasn’t a thing in the world for two teenage boys to go off in the woods and stay three or four days,” he says. “That’s what we’d do, and I could still live in the woods today if I had a mind to.”
Lainhart is a naturalist through and through. He is a self-taught geologist and a self-reliant outdoorsman. But most people that know Lainhart immediately associate him with the many caves and geological formations in the region. Deep underground is where he is most at home.
On the recent expedition, he pointed out various creatures that are as home underground as he is. Frogs. Spiders. And salamanders that he refers to as “water dogs.” It is clear that his caving knowledge is vast, gained from the countless hours he spent underground.
“As a kid, a group of us had a hideout in a cave up on the side of a hill,” he says.
It was in that cave hideout where Lainhart and his friends would eat their “all day suckers” if they were lucky enough to have the three pennies the big lollipops cost. It was there they would talk about their adventures in the woods.
“We just had a big time out there,” he says.
Lainhart knows the caves around Jackson County better than most know the roads in their community. He was called on several years ago to help find two kids who had become lost in Wind Cave near McKee, and it quickly became clear that he knew the cave better than anyone else on the rescue team.
But he also knows that caves can be dangerous. As a kid, Lainhart and his friends explored caves without really knowing what they were doing. They didn’t always have the proper equipment, and didn’t necessarily follow all the proper safety precautions. But all that has changed now. Lainhart understands the do’s and don’t’s of caving, and anyone going into a cave should know them too.
He emphasizes the importance of not touching stalactites and stalagmites, having proper equipment and being prepared for anything.
“Just about anything could be in a cave,” he says. “You could walk in on just about any type of animal.”
Never enter a cave alone!
- Always get permission before entering a cave – every cave has an owner; respect landowners and their property.
- Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Always have at least three reliable sources of light.
- Know and abide by the state and federal cave protection laws.
- It is illegal to: break or remove broken formations; disturb, harm or remove cave creatures; disturb or remove historic artifacts or bones; deface the cave by leaving litter or marking on the cave walls.
- Don’t leave anything in the cave — “Pack it in, pack it out!” Dispose of all trash properly.
- Always stay with your group — don’t wander off. If you get lost, stay put; someone will find you.
- Never drink cave water. It may look clean, but it can be polluted.
- “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but carefully placed footprints, kill nothing but time.” (National Speleological Society Motto)
Source: National Speleological Society, www.caves.org.