For some of us, this was going to be another trip north from Florida to Tennessee to push the Windy River Cave. Car pooling in Steve’s new Blazer, Paul and I headed north on a Thursday. We took a minimum number of tanks, 10 or so, since there were NO air fills to be had anywhere near our destination.

We headed up interstate 75, through Atlanta, then got off and headed west, across some little mountains, night time now, to a little town where we were going to stay. Paul said he knew the route, so he got to drive. He made at least one wrong turn, taking us a few miles out of our way that we had to return on. He scared the crap out of Steve and me on the tight mountain curves. I had left my notes with the hotel name on it, but I called my nephew who looked up the phone number to it on the internet. I was able to call the clerk who spoke at least 5 English words. Her directions didn’t help much, but we finally made it to the right hotel. Already there, but not asleep yet, were Forrest and Dave. This was at a hotel in north Georgia that Forrest had picked out. Somewhere he had stayed at weeks ago. I made a reservation as soon as he told me where, and it ended up to be before him because I got the only (ONLY) good room, the one that had two double beds. That was fortunate for John since he didn’t show up until that next morning, but we had five guys with 3 beds in two rooms. Now I’m not the oldest in this group, but I did book the good room, so I got a bed. Steve claimed one since he ‘signed on’ before Paul, and Dave got the other one. Forrest and Paul, the oldest... got the floor... There is more to the story, about a really raunchy TV show, but I’ll say no more about that.

I woke up before dawn the next morning and noticed that Paul was using a cushion from the small couch as a pillow. Damn, I wondered how many butts had set on that on that thing. Oops! I forgot to offer him one of my many pillow the night before. I felt bad until he told me he had been too proud to ask.

Next morning John joined up with us at a local restaurant for breakfast. Maybe it was because a couple of us (I won’t mention who) looked ‘foreign’, but they put us all in a part of the place all by ourselves. Breakfast was great and we were soon off to our first dive at a cave in northern Alabama that had lots of names like Craig’s Mill, Cherokee County Blue Hole, and Mill Creek.

This cave is on private property that Forrest has permission to dive. It’s neat that this permission has persisted for two generations of owners. Mill Creek is essentially a cave dive into a HUGE room with the line following (mostly) the ceiling around the perimeter. Some of the group were perfecting and adding experience with their sidemount rigs (we were all in sidemount). I’ve done this cave before (back mount the first time), but this time my plan was to check out a deep lead down to a (the only) side tunnel. Unfortunately the lead and jump I thought was it turned out NOT to be the lead, and no time to search for it, so maybe next time. The water was in the 50s, VIS about 20’ and my max depth was 120’.

Back on the road, we headed over to a nearby spring just a mile or so away. It has some civil war fame (maybe it was indian history). Forrest had gotten permission ‘to check it out’, but I volunteered to enter first to see if it went anywhere. Supposedly there was a line already in it which I found heading into a restriction of about 5 inches at a depth of nearing 30’. There was a nice current coming out of the restriction and very clear past it. VIS was near perfect in the basin but it rapidly got closer to a couple feet as I moved some of the rocks and glass fragments (at least one significant piece in each handful). This wasn’t working so after surfaced to borrow a small shovel, and feeling my way back to the restriction I was soon able to move enough debris to either side of me (it was wide here; just low), enough to squeeze through. Great, now I have a ceiling of 12 inches; just not as wide, and only 10 feet in I hit a similar restriction to the first, but there was a turn just past it, and no good place to move the debris so that was it for this cave today.

Two caves in one day.. but no, wait, we still had another to check out... that is IF Forrest could remember where it was. They had put line into this sump twenty years ago. His memory proved to be still intact and after a long drive, many turns, over hills, mountains and to the end of a valley, we came to a hole in the rocks that proved to have a sump inside.

Dave had the honor of checking this one out first, and he did so returning to say that he left his line in since the old one was in tatters, but the cave was still going. That report motivated John, Steve and I to gear up. John took a marked reel of mine to continue the line and headed off into the sump, then I followed with the goal of doing a rough Wild Ass Guess (WAG) survey of the whole thing. Steve followed. The vis, after the others, wasn’t bad, maybe 10 feet at times. The depth from ceiling to floor never exceeded 8 feet probably, and there were a few air domes (up to a foot or so) inside. I surveyed the line that Dave ran, then started on the marked line that John left, but turned the dive when my buoyancy was just too positive for the really fragile area it was heading into. That reason, and I didn’t want to make John’s exit any worse. John returned last to report that he had stopped and tied off the line after entering a big room. He guessed that the cave continued, but that exploration would have to wait until, maybe, October of this year.

Great day. Wow, what a Friday. Now our four vehicles headed north to McMinnville, Tennessee but we stopped at a Mexican Restaurant on the way. We were on in the boonies and there was this really nice Mexican Restaurant with a live Mexican Band. No, this was not an episode of the Twilight Zone... I ate too much as did most everyone else. We arrived late to the hotel, but drove straight to it, hardly any wrong turns. I had been there before, but I had the desk clerk on the cell phone guiding us through town to the hotel. Everyone got their own bed this night and the next.

Next morning, after another great breakfast (we do eat well), we met Marbry, the man most responsible for pushing the Windy River Cave. We were all a bit late, but we met up in route to the cave with Camile, Pat and Keith. We now had a party of ten, which was not as many as we were hoping for, but sufficient to explore the downstream sump that was found on the previous expedition here.

Ten people hauled the gear for 3 sump divers using steel 46s for sidemount tanks. We had used steel 72s the last time. Maybe that ‘ordeal’ may have been a reason we were now only a group of 10, but Pat was back again this time, and he was on the upstream (1 mile) trip the last time. Carrying a single 46 tank was not too bad. We had them all attached to some floating device to keep them buoyant (lesson learned the hard way the first trip). The trip in and back out was still a tough one.

Once we arrived at the end of the ‘dry’ downstream cave, Paul, Forrest and I geared up. Lots of divers in the group that weren’t diving so we all had at least one ‘tender’ per diver, so that part went well until Steve dropped my regulator necklace into the muddy water, but I held my breath and after a minute or so of feeling around, found it.

I headed into the sump first, following a line that Cindy Butler had left on the first attempt. VIS was up to 3 feet so I probably only took a few draws from regulator before surfacing into the next passage. I took a couple pictures, but too curious as to what was around the corner. Leaving my gear on and making survey notes, I swam/waded past that room into the next passage, and the next and the next.. While I was doing that I heard Forrest and Paul following. They had removed their tanks, and were surveying as they proceeded too. I got to a point that the water ended, in a really huge (tall and wide) passage, so I removed my rig and left it submerged off to the side (part of it surfacing to mark it’s location), and the three of us continued on. I let Forrest and Paul lead through this next section which turned out to be a likely place to easily break a leg. The passage was big, but the walk through area was very narrow, ‘V’ shaped with HUGE packed mud banks (not clay) on either side. The ‘path’ we were following was covered with about 3 inches of water, and about 2 feet of mush (mud). The dangerous part was that in mud were sharp boulders, and holes that you better hope you didn’t fall over if you stepped into one. This was not fun, and if we ever take our gear over this section it will need to be on some kind of sled (more gear to haul the next time). After about 100 feet of this we finally made it to more solid footing. We were wading and swimming the last few hundred feet as the cave made some significant turns then ended. Another sump! Since we had left our gear back a ways, and no one was going to be foolish enough to risk injury trying to get their gear over that bad section which we still had to cross getting back. We verified our survey on the way out.

Paul and I took some last pictures before leaving this section. Paul went first, then me with Forrest bringing up the rear. As I was following the line with VIS about 5 inches, my outstretched hand felt something soft, and holding it, I move closer to see what the heck it was and it was a white hand... and just then it moved... phew... that was a relief! Paul had simply stopped to look for something. I used a mere 2 hundred psi.

Back with the group we told them what we found while everyone, in great spirits (and some cold), helped tear down the gear for the pack out. On that trip out, Steve and I brought up the rear and Steve got a chance to learn to follow (while swimming, wading, and climbing over rocks) the often very subtle ‘trail’ out. At the entrance, more pictures taken, then we exited back into the real world. Another exciting and great dive, and it wore me out.

At dinner, soon after, I couldn’t even stuff myself at the Chinese restaurant. Dinner over, Marbry had knowledge of a site where a creek starts and a spring emerges from a hillside. Trying to beat the falling sun, we followed him down winding roads for miles and got there just about sunset. I’m tired, so not amount of coercing was going to get me wet to go look for a way into the spring this time. Dave was willing to check it out though. Marbry even got wet, but took no tanks in. After searching, no easy way in could be found. The cave probably headed down into a narrow crevasse, but no VIS so another attempt later maybe.

I was exhausted, fed and ready for bed... Probably as were most of the others, but Steve just had to go find a super Wal-Mart so he could get some hose clamps and parts to change his SM rig for the next day. Geese, can you imagine that? Well we found the store, got his gear and explored much of McMinnville that evening.

The next day, after our routine (but good) breakfast, Marbry shows up and we head off to a State Park to check out a site that might have a cave. There was once a quarry atop the hill above the possible cave entrance. Slag (broken rocks, boulders and debris covered the hillside and even into the water. There was a spring here because there was flow coming out, but after repeated searches, John and Steve gave up trying to find a way in.

That was it. The expedition this long weekend was over. Dave headed back to North Carolina. Forrest and John headed back to Georgia. Steve, Paul and I, sharing one vehicle; one packed to the hilt vehicle, headed back to Florida.

Paul said he knew the way back, but I drove out of Tennessee then Steve took over. We had lots of things to talk and argue about, so the trip back was quick, or so it seemed.

Great trip!

Tom Johnson / tj