By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Amber Ross thinks of her job as a tour guide at Front Royal's Skyline Caverns as something of a family business.
Madeline Wight had never set foot in a cave until the day she applied for the same job.
Ross, a rising junior at Warren County High School, and Wight, a recent graduate from Shenandoah University, are among the about two dozen students spending their summer guiding tourists through the famed cavern.
Without that young labor force -- some guides start as young as age 14 -- the tour couldn't operate on its current year-round schedule, open all 365 days of the year.
"All the caverns employ a lot of young people because summertime is your busiest season," Skyline Caverns general manager Brooks Bolen said. "You start from Memorial Day, Fourth of July and then Labor Day are your biggest weekend days, so you need a lot of guides.
"Here, we cut the tours down to about 25 people. Unlike a lot of other caverns, we try to keep our group sizes small. Obviously, that takes a lot more staffing. We have older people that work here, but it's important to keep high school kids on year-round because you are busy on October weekends. People are coming up here to go see the leaves, see the foliage, go on Skyline Drive."
Bolen said most of the student-aged guides are high schoolers from within the county.
That includes Ross, whose mother Melissa Ross worked at Skyline Caverns for 20 years and served as a guide, as did her uncle Wayne Ross.
Caving experience is useful but not necessary for the job. Bolen, whose own first job was as a 14-year-old tour guide at Luray Caverns, said the ability to memorize the tour script, an enthusiastic attitude and the ability to interact with people are the main attributes for a successful guide.
The benefits of working as a guide at Skyline Caverns go beyond a paycheck, too.
"This job looks a lot better on a college application than working at McDonald's," Bolen said. "This job will teach you communication skills, which it did me. I was a really shy kid at 14 years old, and it gave me excellent experience for taking public speaking in college. I had the experience that made it a breeze."
There are other perks, as well. Guides must walk the approximately one-mile cave trail several times per shift, with a 61-step staircase capping the tour. Guests can tip, as well, which motivates guides to give an entertaining and interesting tour.
Ross admits that being 200 feet underground in a dark cave "gets creepy after awhile," but the tour itself is no problem in the relatively easy to navigate cavern.
"It's pretty smoothed out," Ross said. "There's no actual cave diving or spelunking that has to be done for this. You walk through for an hour on a gravel pathway so you won't get hurt. There's handrails to keep people safe."
A single guide can take a group of up to 25 visitors, although Wight said about 10 is an average-sized excursion. Guides are also instructed on how to respond to various scenarios, from guests experiencing claustrophobia to the occasional bump or bruise.
Wight, originally from Richmond, saw the job posting online and decided to check it out with a tour. Now she's leading tours two to three times a day, operating the facility's mini-train ride, running the indoor mirror maze or even working in the gift shop.
"I've learned more about science than I have any kind of class that I've sat down in," Wight said. "It's just so much fun because people come here to take a tour and to enjoy themselves. I think my favorite job is actually driving the train. People want to have a good time when they come here, especially the little kids getting all excited about rocks and stuff. I think it's a great job."
Both Wight and Ross have experience in theater, a definite plus for becoming a tour guide. Ross said working at Skyline Caverns even helped her land a part in a school play.
"You basically perform in front of people so you use your theater projection voice, also memorization," Ross said. "Being a theater kid helped with that a lot. Actually getting this job helped me get a part in a play this year. I'd never had that many lines before and I was able to memorize lines a lot faster, having memorized this speech."
Bolen said guides are instructed to stick to the script, not necessarily verbatim but in regard to content. Individual guides do come up with a few jokes and ideas of their own, as well.
"You want to put some humor on your tour, but you don't want to get in there and the whole time be a complete comedian," Bolen said. "That's not what it's all about."
Ross, who hopes to one day become a veterinarian, said working as a cave tour guide has been educational.
"I've learned a lot about science from this, about geography and geology," Ross said, "how caverns are formed -- I never knew that until I started working here, or what you'd find down there, the temperature, the difference between a stalactite or a stalagmite, even."
Wight will soon start looking for a job as a music education teacher, but for now she's happy to teach people all about caves.
"Every day that I come into the caverns, I look up and see something new, something I haven't seen before like different formations -- they're so large and beautiful in there," Wight said. "It's a great opportunity to experience nature and show other people exactly what I like."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org