Introduction to Six Days with Carroll by Jeff Page
Now, there is still another world under the one we live on. You can reach it by going down a spring, a water hole. But you need underworld people to be your scouts and guide you. The world under our earth is exactly like ours, except that it’s winter down there when it’s summer up here. We can see that easily, because spring water is warmer than the air in winter and cooler than the air in summer.
-From Earth Making, Cherokee tradition*
There were two trips into Carroll that took place in December 2006. A photo trip with seven people December 26-28 and a survey trip with four people December 27-31. Shawn Williams went in with the first group, then joined the second as the first made its exit from the cave. The following piece was published in the June 2019 edition of the NSS News, the monthly magazine of the National Speleological Society.
The editor’s first reaction was to ask why they should publish a “trip report” that’s over ten years old? After a closer look, it was apparent there was more here than a trip report: it’s an underworld odyssey. Much of the story takes place in Carroll Cave which is why it needs to be preserved on our site. But it isn’t all about Carroll. Since I became involved with caving, I’ve struggled with being able to explain
to myself, let alone the non-cavers in my life, what it is that compels our tiny segment of the human family to want to explore when the entrance to a cave beckons.
The expanded human family will often dismiss us as kooks or oddballs, but they fail to recognize that the underworld must surely be in the DNA of all of us. The human species has been interacting with caves for at least 200,000 years. We find graffiti in caves around the world dating back 40,000 years. We may debate about what the “artist” was trying to say, but none can deny the fundamental statement, “we were here”. Now that caves no longer serve as a means to survival, our relationship with them has distanced and the cave gene has become recessive in most of us, but not all.
What is so special about this story is its journey through the soul of the caver. What is it we find so gratifying, even sacred, that we endure the danger, the wet, the cold, the mud, the hunger, the fatigue, the pain and discomfort, when we could just as well satisfy our need to commune with nature by watching the sun come up in a mountain meadow? The answer lies below. “But you need underworld people to be your scouts and guide you.” That is, unless you’re already one of them.
*American Indian Myths and Legends, Erdoe and Ortiz, 1984 p. 107 https://www.amazon.com/American-Legends-Pantheon-Folklore-Library/dp/0394740181/
Six Days With Carroll by Shawn Williams
With passion comes privilege. Crawford, Stone and Pulaski Counties in my current state of mind, Missouri. Monroe County, Illinois-the earth beneath them swallowed me an astounding number of times.
We stumbled the ridges of the Ozark Mountains, kept pushing cave leads and tried to assure the landowners that what we’re doing is genuine and true. The finishing touches were put, as far as we know, on some of the maps that help us visualize these wondrous subterranean spaces. It’s simply what we do. It’s in our blood.
Along the Courtois River is a crazy, snaky number that goes by the name of Woods Cave. At just under 800′, it took two of us four trips into this zig-zag-mother to finally call it at “goes low, highly decorated” to avoid any more of the “plinkity-plink” sound of delicate soda straws breaking and rolling down our helmets to the floor. One broken formation is one too many. This was just past the small pile of old Busch beer cans slowly being reclaimed by the cave.
An impediment in a cave that prevents only the hardiest enthusiasts from continuing is often called a nerd filter. Guess the nerd filter at the entrance of this cave missed at least one. We nicknamed it Glass Menagerie Cave commemorating its abundance of nearly transparent soda straws. There are miniature stalactiflats galore and a previously unknown-to-me formation that resembles one of those little Dow Scrubbing Bubbles.
Mullens Cave #2 in Crawford County was a cave full of crap, literally. The most animal scat I’ve ever encountered in any cave. Because of this, cave life abounded, fed by the scat.
Stone County, Missouri, a place near and dear to my soul offered Cave Falls Cave. Its spectacular entrance includes a beautiful waterfall and old silver mine penned Beggars Tomb. CFC was blowing so much air on my first visit that I could hear it whistling loud past my ears. At just over 1800′ so far, it’s among the top ten longest known caves in Stone County. It was mighty grim when we called the last trip off the room named the Vermicularium which is where I also found the bone and the tiny, blind grotto salamander. It still went very low and very wet and was still blowing air in my face taunting me, whispering “come back”. It’s a big, sporty cave but you must suffer through negotiating the water crawls to glimpse the splendor of the Croco Stimpy formation and Ren’s Den. Any Ren and Stimpy fans should get that! The caves name is eerily similar to a cave I was fortunate enough to visit years ago in St. Louis County by the name of Cave of the Falls. Coincidence of the caves?
The Pautler Cave Project in Illinois just west of Waterloo saw the breakthrough of a continuation of the cave at the nature preserve, also known as Dane’s Cave. Don Coons and crew did a fantastic job. Several of us dug and dug for years. Now there is a gated, culvert-filled hole about 24′ deep. The design, construction and implementation of the whole project was a blast, and the rotating crew members were top notch and loads of fun. The homemade iron-lid with KCI hand-forged on it puts a real personal touch to a real personal project for a lot of folks. Pautler Cave behind the first gate was spectacular. What’s beyond the second gate is amazing.
The black cave pearls, pure white formations and the many bones I found in “The Bone Room” were notable, for sure. Also of interest was Rust River, rusty and dark-hued flowing from the wall over a small flowstone trickling in front of the snow white formations on its way to the main stream. The river of pure white calcite flowing from behind the white formations made for quite a contrast. Picture a ’57 Chevy dumped in a sinkhole rusting, leaking oil and turning the cave pearls in the tiny stream black. The water itself is fairly clear, so it’s not as scary as one might envision. Beyond the “bone room” lies Pautler Falls and a sizeable cave system visited by few.
Group trips to Skaggs Cave, a journey after a Carroll Cave Bio-Inventory trip to Geronimo Springs Cave in Hickory County and so many other trips made this list obviously long and very worthwhile.
What better way to celebrate these accomplishments and try to put behind me an otherwise mediocre year than with a nice, long, quiet, relaxing vacation in Camden County. Rest, rejuvenation, reading… Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Swimming, floating, hiking, taking in some natural splendor, losing all concept of time, napping with no wake-up time. Some serious soul searching. And, figuring out how best to part with Liz.
I’m gonna go spend some time with my new favorite lady. “Carroll, I’m coming to see ya again!!!”
It proved to be my last road trip with Liz. I picked her up in Chicago in ’99 and we’d been traveling together ever since crisscrossing karstscapes, carting critters, a canoe and camping gear. She’d always been there for me. Holmes Hollow, Council Bluff Lake, Eureka Springs, Parthenon, Berryman. Regardless of weather, time of day, amount of time it’d been since I’d last spent time with her, I could always count on her. How much longer could I carry on this unfair affair without letting her know? I should wait ’till after the New Year. I need to let her go easy. Man, I’m gonna miss her. I would soon be 40 and there were going to be some changes.
As was our usual way, we took the back roads to get to The Lake on the day after Christmas. We were both glad that was over. Through Vienna, Iberia and Brumley the ‘holiday’ decorations were thoroughly enjoyable in those snippets of view times between curves, that “hitting-a-deer panic attack” that hit every so often and the worrying about all the Uncle Larry’s who had started their day with spiked egg nog and then insisted on driving home. Condo #410 at Osage Beach was waiting with heat, thick blankets and Jack Daniels. I really didn’t want to think about our split. Life without Liz? Sad, yes. Yet, I smiled. Life was good and will continue to be without her. She is not irreplaceable.
I was to meet Carroll at 2 p.m. at the silo on the first day of Kwanzaa. I pulled into the schoolhouse campground, which is command central for Carroll and her suitors, about 1:45 to receive a call from someone at the silo. The silo is where Carroll actually is. They were wondering where I was. It wasn’t who I’d expected, but another woman’s voice on the line. Three women in one day? CRAZY!
Regan, the voice on the phone turned out to be a fellow crew member on the December photo trip. Her voice was among the many that would be mixing with Carrolls’ in my head that day.
Meet the other crew members: Jamie, Terry, brothers Chad and Craig and their father, Rick. It’s 4:30 p.m., a VERY late start. We’re at the base of the excavated entrance shaft ladder and things are about to get shaky. “Silo, we have a problem.” I thought to myself. There is no communication to the surface, nor anyone in the silo to hear us if there was. Luckily, we were still close to the entrance and only one was injured.
The senior member of the team has taken a nasty fall. He slid down a steep embankment, over a large ledge and onto a mud bar landing his thigh on a rock, obviously hard but luckily flat. After deliberating for some time we established that the ok-but-shaken Rick was fit to venture on. We recommitted. Weighed down with equipment and gear added to the already slowed pace and we reached camp just past the famous DL7 passage about five hours later. The passages in Carroll are sequenced regarding their location in the huge system. Thus, DL7 is the seventh side passage, Downstream, Left. UL2 is the second side passage, Upstream, Left, etc.
I did get in a lot of the swimming and wading and hiking I had looked forward to but my 80 pound pack made the journey especially long and arduous.
Although it was a new camp, it was pretty solid as far as cave camps go. We quickly settled in, excited about brandishing the slave flashes assigned to each of us that were to accompany the main camera unit and the scoring of that potential epic shot the next day. The group, except for Jamie whom I’d met at Garrison Cave in 2005 during a beautiful sixteen-hour John Beard expedition, had been complete strangers to me on the surface but had quickly become friends. We leisurely set up camp. There was just enough flat area for comfortable sleeping on our pads set on tarps. We assembled the camp stoves, fueled by canister isobutane, mainly consisting of tiny Pocket Rocket stoves and conversed. Our first supper of the expedition was a late one and in a pattern that started that very night, I was the first one to fall asleep.
Having no effects from sun or moon to guide our lives, only the hands on a watch face, on 12-27-06 the wake-up call is apparently at 9 a.m. Oatmeal is the breakfast of choice for most and getting going was particularly caver-time slow. This was mostly due to the fact that we had one water filter for the whole crew for cooking and drinking purposes. This was mainly to save on pack space. I prefer the power bar and fruit bar route which involves no cooking and a quicker departure. All were reminded and again concerned about Ricks injury but were assured he was fit for travel.
So the sum of these parts plus the photo shoot at The Liberty Bell put the hands at noon by the time we reached Scenic Falls, one of two substantial falls deemed worth enjoying and photographing over a snack, the other being Horse Shoe Falls.
We’re beyond DL7, mud’s getting deeper, the hell holes hidden under the water’s surface carved in the mud from continuous placement of feet in the same places over the years or carved in rock from the water are aptly named and seem to be increasing. Hit one wrong and your whole body is jolted. Almost unnoticed are the slow, calculated maneuvers familiar to an already crippled herd.
The trilogies: Grandpa, The Liberty Bell and Big Tex would keep me intrigued the entire trip. Big Tex is a huge balanced pendant of rock above the river roughly the shape of Texas. The bell is equally huge. It was our hope that our attempts at capturing its splendor on film did it justice. Grandpa is still hanging in there but is a shell of his former self. I’ve since learned on a recent return trip that what I named Grandpa is actually called Interrupted Melody. Just a ghostly remnant of a once majestic figure. After thousands, maybe even millions of years of forming them, Carroll’s now slowly breaking all three of them down. And she would try to break me. It is her classic, deceiptful way.
We trudged on and wearily ended up at the Lake Room. The Lake Room is nearly six miles from the natural entrance. A multi-day trip just to get here had it not been for the man-made back entrance. Creamy, peanut butter mud EVERYWHERE. We managed to get what we again hoped would be some great shots before several others ventured further via the inflatable raft brought in on a previous trip to the other side of the lake where walking passage continues with rumors of only one set of prints. Depth checks of the lake often exceeded the thirty foot maximum allowed by the gauge. I am slimy mud head to toe, distilling in my farmer john wetsuit and layers of thermal clothing. I want to go back to camp. A desire I rarely feel while I’m underground. I then remember just how far we have to go and how much we have to negotiate. By the end of this day I will have traveled parts of the same path three times.
Oh the simple power and worth of a hot meal and clean, dry clothes! Adding boiling water to a bag of freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff results in a little piece of underground bliss. Some pages read in my book, contemplation and hope about what we accomplished that day and I was again the first to sleep that night. What time did I go to bed? I have no idea.
It wasn’t until the third day that we truly grasped the magnitude of Ricks injury. Running from his groin to his knee was sickly purple and black skin. It appeared that a huge leech had attached itself to his leg. It didn’t really matter now when he got out, but if his legs would get him out without a rescue. It was peace-of-mind-galore having Terry DeFrates there. Hopefully his certification as a cave rescuer would not be needed. It was rough seeing Rick suffer but his will was strong. We broke camp and some of us more reluctantly than others, began our exit journey. It would take at least one of us longer to eventually make it above the bedrock.
We grunted and cussed. We stumbled. Some toppled and fell. We limply and literally fell into the water when it was time to swim. We did find time to laugh and I’m sure at times some of us felt like crying. Spoken word was minimal. Was the team suffering that much, or was it just quiet reflection? Just when we thought we had made a wrong turn and were about to turn around, we heard the voices of the survey crew. I had decided only that morning that this was my halfway point. I have another three days in here.
Ben, Amber and Jeremy, three-fifths of the survey crew were within earshot but out of sight except for the bottom of some one’s boots. After a quick briefing, Bob Lerch and I and the photo crew were heading to Jerry’s Cairns to drop off my gear and bid the others farewell. Jerry’s Cairns is perhaps the best known and most utilizable space for larger groups to camp in the cave and is located just upstream from DL7.
Good luck my friends. I would not know their fate for at least three days.
Just like that I was no longer a photo crew member and suddenly a member of a survey crew heading fast to where we were to meet the others and from where I had basically just came from.
The others were now, except for Jeremy, friends whom I’d logged many hours underground with. Ben works at Onondaga Cave State Park, Amber is a Geology Major, Bob’s an Agricultural Soil Scientist and currently heads the survey for Carroll Cave and Jeremy is a most recent addition the Carroll family who resides in St. Louis. He’s also a newlywed.
Getting to DL7 from camp was fairly decent, especially after what I’d been through already that day and the previous day. Proceeding, we pulled tape, read our compasses and clinometers, sketched, talk a lot about safety, snacked. Jeremy was even caught snoring loudly a time or two. In the often muffled echoes of voices, the verbal horsing around, time spent in silence while the book persons sketched and in the calming tranquility in the voices of the water, the hours slipped away as they always do for me when I’m deep underground.
Then it was time for ‘hot meal’.
I didn’t get the memo about that hot meal. All the more awesome for some of the crew to share their supper with me. I may not have had not enough energy for a safe trip back to camp without that. The energy bars go only so far.
By now we were somewhere between Horse Shoe Falls and The Lake Room in what my mind dubbed “The Epic Room”. The way the shadows from the lights sneaked and bounced around corners and played on rocks and formations was especially amazing. The surrealism of what caves do to human voices sometimes was powerfully evident. “Wow” sighed often out of me unconsciously. Larger amounts of exhaustion seemed to make it even more spellbinding.
Reading instruments for me is great as it gives those of us not on-book chances to poke around while the sketchers crunch their numbers and work their pencil-lead magic. The tiny waterfall entering on the left just past DL7 had piqued my interest the day before and I grabbed this chance to enter the passage. It was a good sized canyon, at some points as tall as 20′ but only about 5′ wide. Wall to wall muck with a tiny stream trying its best to slice through the impossible amount of slime. The mud formations here are like millions of tiny snow-covered pine trees jutting out from the walls and floor and ceilings at all angles. I tried to be very deliberate in placement of both hands and feet to minimalize evidence of my explorations using my knuckles instead of fingertips on the mud. There was only one set of footprints visible and they appeared to be fairly weathered. The pace of weathering in a cave can be unfathomable. I scampered several hundred feet into the passage. It kept going, along with the one set of boot prints. I would have to return to find my blessed virgin of this cave within a cave! My body was telling me it was time to return to the team both by mental clock and it communicating that it had definitely been challenged. I’d reached that point where I finally realized how many pounds of mud I’d collected on my boots and body throughout the day and how much I’d worked trying to rid myself of that mud. I wonder for an instant if I’ll make it back to camp unaltered physically. My mental bliss was fading fast.
Amber and Jeremy had returned to camp earlier. I think Ben, Bob and I got back to camp around 2:30 a.m. Had they been sleeping upon our arrival I’m sure they would’ve been very disturbed by my twisted, high-pitched mantra: “Mommy?… Where are you Mommy?…Mommy? I need you, Mommy!” I was fried. I heard Bob and Ben echoing my plea with maniacal laughter. Anyone hearing us outside our sick little circle of surveyors would have surely banished us from any chance of explaining ourselves and would probably attempt a quick escape from our presence. I would not be reading before bed nor eating. I could barely peel myself out of my wetsuit and make it up to my little sleeping passage above where the others were camped. I hoped that the photo team had made a successful exit. The steady echoes of the water people didn’t even get to their second verse. Again asleep in cave land.
It is so nice to be able to greet another ‘day’ without a nine o’clock alarm and discover its well after noon on day four. Considerably different is the vibe at Jerry’s Cairns. The IPod present in the ‘mornings’ to lively up ourselves was a first for me and priceless. James Brown never sounded so powerful out of such tiny speakers. We are of new breed of project cavers. We shall from now on be known as “The IPod Cavers” and we’re going to map in DL7 today! Being pumped up from the music also made getting into a cold, wet, nasty wetsuit just a little less repulsive.
DL7 has also often been called a cave inside a cave. It’s a side passage yes, but it doesn’t really feel like you’re in a side passage. You feel like you’re in another cave. A cave with mud almost like punishment. Mud that swarms your feet and gnaws your Sciatica into burn mode. You want to just sit between takes in the mental filming of this movie of your life. You’ve sweated so profusely getting here that you’re prevented immobility by inevitable, trembling chills as the cold of the cave slowly tries to reclaim you. We must laugh at ourselves and at the dance we’ve perfected while trying to rid our limbs of this insatiable muck or we risk cold, dark, dense defeat. Defeat is not part of this equation. As miserable as DL7 has the potential to become, to me, it must remain just that: potential. It can be potentially traumatic, if your mind is weak. It can be potentially dangerous, if you don’t play by the rules. It can be potentially beautiful if you truly appreciate the privilege. In this miraculous underground maze of time, space and water the weight and karma in the life of all of these things is intricately combined, as it should be. The hours we spent here on this day melted away as the designs on the pages grew more magical and beautiful. Our minds want to push on, but our our itchy, blurring eyes and mostly assaulted bodies tell us otherwise and again it’s time to head home.
Tonight I shall have a renewed spiritual energy. I will rejoice with and share laughter. I shall relish the rare bond I have with these people who my new favorite lady has allowed to breathe her in again and again and allowed to touch the furthest reaches of her soul. Tonight I shall fight my fading eyes to finish the last chapter in The DaVinci Code. Tonight I shall strain my ears to their brink and stretch my thoughts to their thinnest possibilities in an attempt to decipher and understand, although probably not completely just yet, exactly what it is the voices coming from the water of Thunder River are trying to tell me. Their voices speak words that are millions of years old and carry the weight of the strength to move stone. Perhaps they’re trying to tell me that long after I am dead and gone, after the wars after wars fought for insane and ridiculous fevers peak and hopefully end, after the music has changed and the landscape above ground is changed forever beyond even a semblance of what I knew it to be, whether my name appears on this map or any other cave map is not important. What’s important is that I am here for a reason. That reason helps guide me through aspects of my life and reminds me of certain things. To be kind, gentle, respectful and understanding. To be appreciative of the many gifts I have been given and posses. To really grasp what it means to be able to do the things I do and go the places I go and enjoy the company of those who share this passion.
Soul searching: check!!!
Day five brought unprecedented and complete exhaustion. Amber and I decided almost immediately to stay in camp to read, nap, reflect and talk while the others hit the main passage again, hopefully getting the new survey to The Lake Room.
I slept more than anything, only briefly realizing much later that the voices I heard were human returning from another day on the river hittin’ the books. I remained secluded, choosing to welcome no one home. I didn’t even have the energy to do that. Not even my dreams were acknowledged on that fifth night.
I was instantly sad upon awakening on day six. I lay for a long time in my catacomb away from the lights of the others just listening. A combination of sounds I would likely never hear again. Today I must leave the safe confines of that which I’ve infiltrated. I leave the excitement of that next hundred foot shot and subsequent amazement of what these sketchers accomplish on paper thus adding to this map. Today I interrupt the unconscious nurturing of the bonds that have broadened and are seldom broken. Today may be the first day I’ll see sunlight in almost a week.
I had looked forward to carrying a lighter pack out. Much less food should mean much less weight. I had forgotten to factor in the caked on mud, the saturated clothes, and, of course, the burrito bags. Ever wonder where human waste goes in a cave? Liquid waste is carried out in the stream. Solid waste gets wrapped in aluminum foil and many, many zip lock bags. They are then strategically packed. I think my pack actually gained poundage. It definitely felt like it.
The journey to the shaft was almost silent. My eyes were mostly in a forward, altered, otherworldly stare. My feet and legs largely on autopilot. Placement of my hands and fingers much less calculated than is my norm. Time almost stands still as we alternate the floating on top of our packs and negotiating terrain above stream level.
How do I thank her?
I really don’t I have to say a word to her. She already knows.
I love you too.
Shawn Ethan Williams
“Live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, eat the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
-Henry David Thoreau