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  • Sorry I Missed The Poker Game

    a True Sump Diving Story
    by Tom Johnson / tj

    Dear Anne & Andy,

    I know you are mad at me for canceling my visit that Saturday and making you have to look for another player at the last minute for the poker game. I just want to try and apologize and try to make you understand why I had to cancel. I could blame Forrest Wilson who led me to believe we would have finished our cave exploration by noonish or 2 p.m. at the latest… giving me just enough time to drive back to Atlanta… but I won’t… I just misunderstood him. So when he set me straight that very evening I was passing through Atlanta, I could see no other option but to cancel my visit with you and just stay an extra day in Tennessee to check out another cave or two. On my return thru Atlanta in route to my home in Orlando, I didn’t stop then either because it was nearly 8p.m. and you already told me you put Zoe to bed at 9p.m., and I had a long drive to do, and if I stopped, I couldn’t, no way, just stay for just a few minutes. I know you want me to meet your new daughter that you went all the way to China to adopt. It was in May, right? I really feel bad about that, but I had all those other dives to do in Florida, every weekend. Good news though… I did manage to keep her gifts clean despite the mileage they got this past weekend.

    Let me try to explain what I saw and participated in those few days, and maybe you can understand my reasoning. Now this is my story, as I understand it. I might not have all the facts and names exactly right, but I’m sure it is close.

    Forrest Wilson and I decided to car pool in his van since I was going up the whole weekend now, so we moved all my gear to his vehicle and headed out of Atlanta after 3p.m. or so. We met up with Cindy Butler and Brian Williams, both from Gainesville, Florida at an exit north of Atlanta. At Brian’s wish, we got off the interstate further north, and parked at one of those huge fireworks stores. Brian told us we were going to check out a cave nearby and then got permission to park there from the person inside. We then hiked up through some woods, over a railroad track, up a hill and to a hole in the ground. There, Brian and Forrest deployed ropes over and into the entrance to this cave and we all four rappelled down into it.

    That part was easy for me since I’ve rappelled more times than I can remember.

    We looked about the cave and took some pictures. It was really nice. Well it was nice until we got ready to leave. I had never actually used We looked about the cave and took some pictures. It was really nice. Well it was nice until we got ready to leave. I had never actually used these devices to ascend a rope… always went down, not up… so when the ‘ascenders’ I had on developed a problem on the way up (first 20 feet was fine), I didn’t know how to identify and resolve the problem. Actually Brian identified the problem, a bungee had come loose that pulls one ascender up, after the other, after I got to about 50 feet up. He encouraged me to keep up the climbing effort by telling me how crappy and old the ascenders I was using were (they belonged to Forrest). My ascent was far from pretty but I made it. I was filthy dirty too… that comes with caving though. Back at our vehicles, we cleaned up, changed out of the dirty stuff and headed off to eat a nice dinner.

    We arrived around 11 p.m. at the motel in McMinnville, signed in and I think I passed out once I laid down, but I can’t remember.

    The next morning, after a great breakfast next door, Marbry Hardin met us and we followed him out to a meeting place with others. Marbry is a National Speleological Society (NSS) caver from Murfreesboro, Tennessee that was mapping and exploring a cave. It ended at some underwater sections called sumps. He hoped to connect the upstream portion of this cave called Windy River to another cave system and to see if the downstream passage kept going. We use the terms ‘upstream and downstream’ because much of the time, this cave is completely submerged and even when the water level is low enough to explore it, you still have to swim big sections. To accomplish this goal he needed the help of some cave (or sump) divers and the manpower to move the gear to the end of this cave. He contacted Forrest Wilson for the divers (Forrest, Cindy Butler and I) and thirteen other NSS and TAG (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia) cavers, Brian Williams, Carol Cady, Camille Lloyd, Doug Strait, Jeney Leaderer, David Cole, John Fred Hutchinson, Hal Love, Joel Buckner, David Parr, Pete LaRue, Pat Yentsch and Mark Wenner. Marbry’s efforts brought together some really good folks and many got added to my ever-growing friends list.

    Despite the hundreds of cave dives that I’ve done, I may have been the least experienced ‘dry’ caver in the lot. I grew up ‘exploring’ caves and mines around my homes along the Ohio River, and my aunt’s farm in Kelly’s Creek Hollow in West Virginia. In Greece, I searched out many a cave looking for WWII ‘treasure’ but only found rust. The last real dry cave I did was in 1981. The cave was under a monastery in Kilkis, Greece. I got myself stuck, but after a wait of about an hour, my buddies came to my rescue and pulled me out of a (too) tight hole. Guess I’m reminiscing, sorry about that but this trip brings back memories.
    We followed Marbry for miles driving down trails until we could drive no more, and then stopped to get the big plan finalized.
    Marbry divided the group into 3 teams. Forrest and Cindy’s teams headed into the downstream section, about a half-mile, to push that sump, and the 3rd team had a mile long climb, swim, and walk to get to the upstream sump.

    Team members met each other and talked while packing up the gear into packs for the hike to the cave. I had brought an old tank holder that was used before the invention of buoyancy vests to use to carry one of my 72 cuft steel tanks and Brian lent our team a duffle bag to carry the other. After making sure all my dive gear was packed, so it would not get smashed, we divided it out amongst the group and we headed out.

    At the cave we spread out the gear bags and changed from our hiking gear into our wet suits. We then repacked just the things that were going into the cave. As my dive harness was being pulled out of a bag, the pocket containing my underwater notepad and survey tools fell out and down into a tight crevasse. Crap… had to get that back… so after a squeeze though a hole the thing was finally reached… lucky me... Later, when the teams started into the cave, through that same hole, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.

    I wore my 6.5 mil semi-dry suit and a harness with wings (for added buoyancy), that the tanks connected to, and carried a small pack. Once inside the initial opening, everyone in the upstream team was waiting and wading in a pool of water. It was cold, probably 50 degrees or so, but the wet suits were working. Once everyone was ready, Marbry, leading my group, took the lead upstream. We hardly got started when we found ourselves swimming. Everyone had on a PFD (personal floating device or life vest) so no big deal unless you also had one of those steel tanks.

    I got the chance to help carry and tow the tanks more than once. And to think I had seriously considered bringing some larger ones… Poor Doug got into a bit of difficulty with the tank he had since it made him a mite bit negative than he was buoyant. I think he was so dedicated to getting that tank to its destination that he would have rather drowned than give it up, but I convinced him to give it to me, at least in the wet sections. Not far into the cave we figured out it was ‘smart’ to tie a dry bag (they float) to each tank, and just pull or float them through the wet sections, which accounted for most of the mile long trek. One of the downstream teams had a similar incident and lost a tank.

    I got the chance to help carry and tow the tanks more than once. And to think I had seriously considered bringing some larger ones… Poor Doug got into a bit of difficulty with the tank he had since it made him a mite bit negative than he was buoyant. I think he was so dedicated to getting that tank to its destination that he would have rather drowned than give it up, but I convinced him to give it to me, at least in the wet sections. Not far into the cave we figured out it was ‘smart’ to tie a dry bag (they float) to each tank, and just pull or float them through the wet sections, which accounted for most of the mile long trek. One of the downstream teams had a similar incident and lost a tank.

    The cave was not overly complex and did not have too many leads or passage off it, so we were able to spread out the line as Marbry led on. Marbry would, from time to time, tell us where we were and what formations to expect next. After what I consider ‘a long time’, I was sure we were almost there when he told us that up ahead was a stretch consisting of a swim for 800 feet, a 400-foot dry section that included some climbing, another long swim, then the last dry section before the last 400 feet which was wet… Damn, we were only half way… I was worrying I would be too worn out to make the dive once we got to the end. Despite the exercise and running I routinely do, the muscles that were getting exercised today were not those.

    Going in I didn’t have my camera on me. It was in a bag someone else was carrying, but I would take note of sections I would capture on the way out… Unfortunately when we arrived at the last dry section, it wasn’t in the bag, so no pictures were taken inside this cave… how terrible… leaving what some might consider the most important tool… But! At least Brian brought his inside, so we have a few nice shots inside this cave.

    My gear was spread out and people watched while a few of us assembled it all. Marbry is a diver (and future cave diver) and Mark was already trained to cave dive, he just hasn’t gotten into sidemounting his tanks just yet, but I had good help getting it all together and put on. Expecting the worse, because of the many tumbles and bangs on the way in, I didn’t expect everything to work 100%, but with the exception of a minor leaky inflator hose, that I should have taken off since I didn’t need it, everything was working fine. Once I got my gear and fins on, three of us swam the last 400 feet to the end and Marbry showed me where he thought the cave dipped down and continued.

    We decided since I probably only had a 200-foot sump to find and survey, I would return in one hour or less. Tying off my primary reel to a PFD, I released the air in my wings and dropped down underwater looking for a continuing passage. Ah, it was so nice to be in my favorite environment. I was very comfortable here and it was a good chance to recuperate after that mile long trek. I am pretty much weightless here so very little energy is needed to move about. This is the way to explore caves… The passage I was looking for was about 15 feet down and slightly to the right of where Marbry thought it would be. I did a secondary tie off there, and feeling recharged, I headed in. Visibility was maybe 8 feet. That is 4 feet in front and to the left or right of me. That is a joke… Behind me, because of the percolation off the sides and top, the visibility was far less. Percolation is the silt that falls from the top or sides of caves when disturbed. This percolation was far from being the worse I’ve seen, so the current though this section, when the water level is higher, must be strong.

    About 70 feet in, a ‘Y’ came into view (the passage split). Since we expected to meet up with the other cave to the west of us, I took the right side. Not that much further on, I looked up and saw no ceiling, meaning an air dome, so I ascended and found a small space filled with air, but no place to crawl out. Back down I went, realizing the water temperature at the surface was significantly warmer than nearer the bottom. I kept going, not checking my compass, since I figured I would survey on the way out. I was ‘bouncing’ off the right and left walls, so I knew I was in a passage going somewhere. Again I found another air dome and ascended to find a long, tall crevasse. No dry areas to crawl out here either and no continuing dry passages, so back down and to the right again. Swimming along, and after laying 300 feet of line, I was very surprised to find a very new line ahead of me. Someone has been here before me. No, it was my line. I had made a complete circle. I had tried to stay between walls on either side of me through this section, so I know it was not just a big room, but there was a lot of breakdown and obstacles, so it would be worth another look at one day.

    I make an educated guess as to the way out. Should I go left or right? Since I know I had taken one right turn I guessed correctly, it was to the left. I tied my line into the other, cut it and left an arrow on it, pointing out with my initials on it. Traveling back out just 30 feet or so, I just did manage to find that lead that went left. I tied the line into the main one and headed off in that direction. This cave was real clean, meaning there was little breakdown in it, smooth ceiling and floor covered with smaller rocks & pebbles, and for the most part, I couldn’t see either wall on the left or right. At the start of this section the depth was 21 feet, the deepest of the dive, but that decreased ever so slightly, as I continued on. At about 100 feet into the cave, my line ran out on the reel, so I cut that and tied into the line on my 300-foot spool. Surely that would be enough to last before the next dry section, but, as the line came to an end, no dry section. I was upset that I had no more line to spare and this beautiful cave was still going. I had plenty of air but could not safely go any further. I checked my time and it had taken me 25 minutes to get to this point. I headed back a short ways, until I could find a rock big enough to tie off on, and left another one of those arrows with my initials on it.

    On the return leg, I stopped to survey (record the distance between survey points, azimuth and cave features). The cave passage was going east, opposite of what we expected. Since I wasn’t moving much, I started to get real cold and shiver at times. Have you ever tried writing while shivering? I should save those notes, to smile at in my old age… At one stop, with my notes and compass lying on a rock, three fearless and curious albino crayfish surrounded my slate. They looked like they were interested in my notes, but it may have been that they thought it looked like lunch. I didn’t wait around long enough to see them try to take a bite, and see their reactions… Another lost photo opportunity…

    Upon surfacing Mark was there, waiting for me. It had been about 50 minutes. I had used up a quarter of my air, most during the survey part on the way back from that last long section. We swam back where I was helped out of my gear.

    While my gear was being repacked, I munched on a Butter Finger candy bar and drank all my water. I told everyone what WE found. I think everyone felt the pride in finding new cave. I couldn’t help but bond with these people in our successful exploration expedition. It was a great feeling. This was teamwork at its best. Andy, it was just like those days when we were Lieutenants shooting cannons at Fort Irwin. It was almost as good a feeling as I felt after my artillery battery out shot yours and we only had four working guns by the end of the exercise. Hey, don’t you still owe me $50 for that? Yep, great teamwork really rocks!

    Mission mostly completed…but not quite. We still had a long way back. Once the area was cleaned of all debris and gear packed we were on our way out. We didn’t go far before the idea of leaving one of those heavy tanks came to mind. One was still overfilled since I used the tank with the leak mostly. I know I’ll be regretting not leaving it the next time, but not nearly as much as the person(s) carrying it…

    I was surprised when we got to the entrance. The trip out was shorter. Don’t ask me how, but it sure seemed like it. We hauled out the gear and learned of the other team’s success in finding that the cave continued on downstream after a 300-foot sump, and that the team was missing one of Cindy’s tanks. Forrest let Cindy use one of his, and didn’t dive, since it would have been very unsafe to do so, with only one tank.

    Cindy Butler with success on her face!

    I slept well at the same hotel that night, but up early, ready for Sunday’s adventure.

    On this day we headed west to a spring called Big Spring. The trail to this place was even rougher than Saturday, so we left Forrest’s van at a parking area and loaded his and my gear into the remaining four wheel dive vehicles. Today the ‘group’ was only Forrest, Marbry, Cindy, Brian and I.

    At the end of the trail, we found some friendly campers spending the weekend. They seemed fascinated that we showed up with scuba gear… It must not be a normal sight around here. We talked with them a bit then walked up a short trail to a spot where a creek started. The water came from the base of a huge cliff. There was significant flow so we returned to the vehicles to get our gear to look for a way into the mountain.

    We didn’t have any help today, to get gear to the dive site, but it wasn’t much worse, or much farther, than some spots that I’m use to in Florida. Three of us geared up to check out the waters in the most obvious spot. There was certainly a way in there, but after moving a couple hundred pounds of rock, it was evident to me that it might take all day (and another set of tanks that we didn’t have) to make a Woody Hole (named after someone that has crawled though many of tight places), big enough to squirm through. The chance of a landslide was great even then, so I finally gave up and surfaced. Meanwhile Cindy and Marbry had found a spot, not in the basin, that looked promising. Brian had already checked it out, and reported that it opened into a bigger room. I took the line and entered, confirmed there was a bigger room, tied off the reel and left it there for Forrest to see and push it on into the cave. Not long after I surfaced, Forrest made his way into here, and then followed the line in. He pushed it forward to about 50 feet inside, left the reel, and returned. He said it looked like it was getting tight after that. Brian took that opportunity to do another dive, to the end of the line (essentially a cavern dive), and then returned with a story that the VIS was really bad. My turn again, so I went in and picked up the reel and Brian was right, the VIS was really bad… about zero. I felt around to see if there was any chance of moving on and sure enough there was a 2-foot high ledge near the floor that I swam under and though. VIS now was about –10 feet (worse than zero because of the muck I had to move aside). Feeling my way though about another 50 feet, I came to another ledge and crawled into it, and got to a spot I couldn’t go any further. It was tight in there, but I was able to turn around. As I was turning, my hands and knees ‘fell through’ the bottom. The cave went straight down. I didn’t expect that… I felt around to see just what this was, and deemed it a continuance, but it was awful small and tight. I felt around to see if I could fit through and if there was a chance for a line trap, there was, but there was room for me to fit through, maybe. To make this entry as safe as possible, I turned around and entered feet first. I had to pull my tanks in close. They are attached to both sides of me. I exhaled completely, to make myself more negative (and smaller), and pushed through with a just a bit of effort. Once I got through the restriction, I felt around the restriction, to make sure it was still clear and I had not moved the line into a line trap (a crack to one side).

    At this point, hanging onto the line, I turned on a hand held light, more powerful than the ones I had been using attached to my helmet and mask, to check out the space I was in. The VIS was much better, maybe 20 feet in any direction, but I could NOT see the floor, or walls. I could not see the ceiling, only inches away, because of the silt that followed me through the restriction. It was an awesome feeling hanging there, not knowing what the area looked like around me. I had a great urge to drop down and find the bottom, but I checked my gauges and found I was at thirds, meaning I had twice the air it took to get this far, so if I was to have a problem, I might need that extra air, so I decided this was far enough for today. My depth at this point was only 27 feet, and 100 feet from the surface. I cut the line from the reel and tied it off to a not so good spot at the restriction, but it was the only place I could find that ‘might’ hold. I made sure it was secure, after pulling myself back through the restriction, and into the –20 feet of VIS… There were a couple inches of muck already lying on the line I just laid! Remember, I couldn’t see anything, just the sense of touch. Keeping the line taunt I followed it back out, adjusting each tie off to make it snug. I left an arrow somewhere down there, not at the end of the line, but close to it. After surfacing, Brian re-entered just a few feet, to cut the line leading out of the water, to place it somewhere well underwater. With this done, we all crawled out and ended our weekend of cave exploration. What a weekend!

    So, Anne and Andy, this is exactly the type of thing I seek out every time I get a chance to dive, which is only a few times a week. Can’t you see how this kind of thing ‘moves me’? It might be a passion, but it is a good one. It is NOT as dangerous as driving to the dive sites (especially if Forrest is driving). I can’t help myself and I really don’t want to change. Please forgive me for not stopping by, even though I drove within a mile of your house…

    Still Your Friend (I hope),


    Pictures by Brian Williams and Tom Johnson