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GOING UNDERGROUND FOR A COOL ADVENTURE

Looking for something cool to do this summer, a family trip that really rocks?

When it's 85 degrees in the shade and everyone has eaten their weight in popsicles, mom and dad and the kids can get in the car, flip on the air conditioner and head east to Howe Caverns.

Arriving in Schoharie County, it still feels like the sidewalk could melt the bottoms of your sneakers.

But then you hear the magic words.

"It's 52 degrees in the cave. You'll need a sweater or jacket," an extremely polite teenage boy declares as he guides you to a parking spot.

Howe Caverns, a 4 1/2 -hour drive from Buffalo, is New York's second most popular natural attraction after Niagara Falls, with 200,000 visitors a year. Since 1842, when farmer Lester Howe discovered the huge cave beneath his cow pasture, 14 million people have gone underground to see its wonders.

Situated at the end of a long winding road in hilly farm country, the Howe Caverns Lodge is a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s, when Baby Boomers and their parents motored around America in their station wagons.

The sprawling Swiss-style chalet houses a mini museum, a homemade fudge stand, gift shop and a sit-down restaurant with views of the scenic countryside.

Visitors await their tours on comfy leatherette chairs, under a 24-foot-long time line that marks big moments in geologic time, like the Cenozoic Era, 6 million years ago, when underground streams began carving the cave, and 1 million years ago, when mastodons and wooly mammoths roamed the ancient forests above its tunnels.

The 80-minute tour starts on an elevator, where, swiftly and smoothly, visitors drop 156 feet into a man-made hall of rock at the cave's entrance.

With cave scenes from "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" spinning in our heads, our group of 19 adults and children can't wait to step into the dark, mysterious labyrinths we see just ahead.

Before we start walking, tour guide Jennifer warns us not to touch the cave because the oil in human skin inhibits the formations, which grow at an incredibly slow one inch over 100 years.

She also tells us to watch out for "cave kisses" -- drips of water that fall from the ceiling of the caverns, where the humidity is a hair-frizzing 75 percent.

When we finally enter, a hush falls over the group that is now surrounded by limestone. Everyone whispers, as if in a church, as they stare at the strange, rock shapes and listen to the tumbling water of the River Styx, the shallow remnant of a once-mighty stream.

Years ago, a 10-foot-wide red brick path was built. It winds more than one mile through the caverns, which are 3,000 feet long and up to 75 feet high. Discreetly illuminated by electric lights, the cavern is dim but not dark, and the cool air is refreshingly brisk.

A 6-year-old girl claps her hands with delight when she hears that bats live in the caves, but we see none.

Using a flashlight as a pointer, Jennifer shows us stalactites, white plumes of rock that hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites, cones that rise from the floor, and flowstone, in which the rock looks rippled and slimy.

"This is awesome," a teenage girl whispers to her little brother as she peers into a grotto, a hole made in the side of the cave when water-propelled boulders barreled through millions of years ago.

The big or unusual rock formations have names. In Titan's Temple, a room that is 55 feet high and 50 feet long, there's the Chinese Pagoda, an 11-foot tall stalagmite.

Other rocks suggest the faces of witches and the shapes of giant dragons and turtles.

"You have to use your imagination," our guide says, smiling at the children.

When we are 200 feet below the surface, it's time for a boat ride on the Lake of Venus, a short float on a motorless barge that the guide pushes along by using handholds installed in the walls of rock.

At the end of tour, the men lower their heads as we walk under Headache Ledge, then it's on to Winding Way, where we're allowed to touch the rock as we squeeze through a narrow passage, an activity that is optional for claustrophobics.

If you're afraid of the dark, you can also skip the part of the tour where the guide turns off the lights for a minute of total, inky darkness.

In the late 1800s, when Lester Howe took tourists down by ladder into his cave, oil lanterns were the only source of light and explorers wore waterproof coats and boots as they slogged through the cave.

Arriving in carriages from Saratoga Springs and Albany, well-heeled ladies and gentleman would pay 50 cents for a 10-hour tour, which included a box lunch and a pick ax to hack off souvenir pieces of rock.

Described as an eccentric genius in "The Remarkable Howe Cavern Story" by Dana Cudmore, Howe made a fortune with his tours, but hit rock bottom after bad investments, and sold the land and its caverns.

In 1929, Howes Caverns Inc., a group of local investors, reopened the cave, and by 1949, it had attracted one million visitors.

Over the years, the unusual environment has inspired many underground enterprises. More than 550 weddings have taken place in the cave, on the same spot where Howe's daughter, Harriet, married her sweetie Hiram in 1854.

Local businesses age their beer and cheese down under and musicians have recorded songs in its depths.

Open year round, the cave is haunted for Halloween and Santa brings his elves down below in December, when the 52-degree tunnel is toasty compared to the ice and snow outdoors.

Three summers ago, when New York City was slapped with a severe heat wave, the cave hired extra guides to deal with thousands of people who escaped to the chilly caverns.

But this summer, like the 74 that came before, most of the visitors will be moms and dads with young adventurers and amateur geologists in tow.

On my tour, all the children, from nine to 19, were impressed, especially one girl, who seemed to know a quartz from a feldspar.

"This is really, really cool, Dad," she said, looking up at his face in the semi-darkness.

"Yeah," he said. "It really is."

Howe Caverns.

Getting there

(from downtown Buffalo)

Take the I-190 South to the
I-90 East to Exit 29 (Canajoharie)

Take Route 10 South to
Route 7

Follow Route 7 east for five miles; turn left on Caverns Road