In my early days as a Tennessean, I was shown a cave. I explored the nearby countryside and discovered more caves, disappearing streams, and reappearing streams. I started putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and at age eleven, I drew a map of the caves, and the streams that flowed under the land of the sinkhole plain. The map hypothesized the connection of what are now John Henry Demps and Sullivan Cave.
Fast-forward 22 years, it’s the morning of June 12th, 2013, and my biologist friend, Matt Niemiller is showing up at my house to go explore caves on my cousin’s property. I am to assist Matt in the collection of cave life specimens, as well as assist him locating new caves to sample.
I turned in Freddie Dodson Cave and John Henry Demps Cave back in 2008 and have made numerous repeat visits to try and push the low airspace at the back of John Henry Demps Cave with the suspicion that it connects, as my old map shows, to Sullivan Cave. Previous attempts to push the low airspace consisted of trying to get someone else to do it for me, or hoping someone else would provide me the encouragement to go for it. But the effort never materialized.
I was afraid - afraid of hypothermia, afraid of sucking water into my lungs. Despite that, there was an overwhelming need to know. Where does this water go? I wanted to validate a 22 year old map.
Matt’s agenda for the day was to collect specimens and I was his “biologizing” assistant. It took about an hour to switch my brain off geology mode and into biology mode. I kept noticing the interesting fossils in the walls when I should have been noticing the millipedes, isopods, spiders, and crayfish that he kept finding. Our collections went well, and soon we were at the low airspace in the back of John Henry Demps Cave.
And there it was, a nagging need to know. Despite the water being about 6 inches higher than in previous attempts, I dropped to my knees and submerged my chest into 55 degree water. I held my hands above my head so I could better balance to prevent my falling into the cold, deep, murky water. Around another curve, the passage kept going. Matt was behind me and occasionally beside me. The ceiling dropped.
I was hyperventilating, and my arms were shaking, though I am unsure if it was the cold, the weariness of holding them above my head, or the adrenaline of the moment. I dipped my chin into the water and turned my head to get under the next constriction. “Does it get any better?” Matt said from somewhere behind me. I called back to Matt that I would continue forward for another minute.
I started counting seconds. At ten seconds another turn, thirty another. At forty my ear dipped into the water. My chest was hot as if I were sunburned. Was it was numbness or some other hypothermic effect? With polypro on, how long can I remain submerged like that? With every exhalation I could see my breath blowing back into my face in the wind. I had lost count with no clue of the long-passed minute. I could turn back, but I had momentum.
I could see my light reflecting off the ceiling and making ripple patterns across the water’s surface. Within that I saw a line of green light, not of my headlamp’s making. Moments later I was climbing out of the water, up through the fog of the thermocline and standing in Sullivan Cave with the warmth of summer upon me.
Matt had to go back for his pack, but was along shortly. I had tested my 22 year old hypothesis and proved it. I found that old map recently and noted how prophetic it was – water, caves, and maps – three of my favorite things.