“Who’s for the cave?”

I was shanghai’d, no doubt about it. I met the woman who was to become my wife in 1991, when I was researching a book based on the legend of the Bell Witch, and there is a whole involved story there I won’t go into. Anyhoo, Shell knew I was crazy for caves at the time, and to entice me to move to Tennessee she sent me photocopies of Tom Barr’s Caves of Tennessee and Larry Matthews’ Descriptions of Tennessee Caves, making sure to note all of the interesting-sounding caves near her home.

Photocopies, mind you, laboriously done at Nashville Tech. In retrospect it would’ve been cheaper for her to buy actual copies of the books! I later procured legit copies of each. Tom Barr signed my copy of his book many years later (after a trip to DePriest, interestingly!) and I will hopefully someday get Larry to sign his. Dr. Barr has since passed on, but Larry is very much a going concern and is working on another book even as I write this. In fact, he’s mostly the reason this missive came about in the first place, but again, another story for another day.

Anyway. Shell’s evil ploy must have worked, as I (not so) grudgingly moved from the Louisville area in early 92 and have been here in Tennessee ever since. I was a member of Tennessee Cave Survey for many years but have been infirm for the past ten years or so to the point that I have sort of drifted away from caving as a sport. But I remain interested and still have all of my books and gear. The books get read often; the gear mostly collects dust and takes up space in the basement, but it does elicit some great memories.

But anyway again. This is all about DePriest Branch Cave, probably one of my favorite places to have made those great caving memories. And, more to the point, the survey thereof.

The DePriest Branch survey came about as most such projects do for us…in a backhanded sort of way. My friend Dan McDowell came down from Indiana for visits every few months those days, and he was always putting the bite on me to find something new and different for us to do each time. As a result Shell and I started having a regular gathering for our Northern Indiana Grotto brothers and sisters called SpeleXposé, with our home as Base Camp. We even produced a guidebook of our area caves for our visitors.

One of those showcase-kinda caves was Lewis County’s DePriest Branch Cave, which we had visited as guests on a trip with the Cumberland Valley Grotto of the National Speleological Society. At the time we floated the idea of a survey, with Mike Bose, I believe, but everyone in CVG had pet projects they were working on and couldn’t be bothered to come west to map DePriest, no matter how pretty it was. That annoyed Ron Johnston, not just the cave owner but a caver himself. “Why don’t we do it?” I suggested. Dan was all for it, and allowed as to how he thought NIG would get involved.

What did Ron think? Well, he thought it was a pretty good idea, “as long as I get my name on the map,” he asserted. If you help survey, you’ll get you name on the map, I told him. Initially he was indignant (“it’s MY cave!”) but eventually he did help survey, and he did get his name on the map. All by itself even!

So, all that remained was to actually do the work. And over the course of the next year or so, we did just that.

That first trip it was, I think, me, Shell and her friend Wanda Warren, and Mark Deebel, now probably best known as the spearhead behind the Lost River Cave System in Indiana. We did over a thousand feet the first day (from the entrance to an impressive cantilever dome that would eventually be called the Pretty Good Sized Room) and were rightly accused of scooping the easy stuff first. That was probably true but we didn’t want to burn Shell and Wanda out, and we did it slowly and carefully, front sights and back sights and elevation, proper “grade 5” stuff in cave mapping accuracy lingo.

Dan came down within a week with Deebs again, and shortly thereafter arrived the vanguard of NIG. Pretty soon we had two and three teams going. I was still more or less unfamiliar with the cave and did a long southeast passage that dead-ended, thinking it was the passage that led to the Red Room and Hodag Cemetery, two exquisitely decorated chambers in the southeast quadrant of the cave. We would bring home pages and pages of survey notes, which were usually moist, and universally dirty, but all readable. I would immediately input the data into my Macintosh, loaded with David Herron’s CavePlot software, then it would draw a rudimentary map of what we’d done. The most wonderful thing about this was that as it worked, we finally began to grasp the layout of the cave.

At the end of that first weekend we had 4200 feet done, almost half of the cave as it later turned out, with much of the dry stuff done. Later Deebs, Steve Lockwood, Dave Seng and I did the wet upstream stuff, some of which was way nicer than expected. First trip I did up that way it way very wet and obnoxious, but you could mostly stay out of the water. Mostly. The second trip, Dave borrowed my wetsuit (you’d have to have see that to understand how awesomely funny this was) and it turned out we didn’t need it…the water was way down! There is an interesting little rock formation about a hundred yards in we called Phantom Ship; in the dimness it rather looked like a ghost ship floating on the surface of the stream. Well, it was beached on the next trip!

Far upstream was fascinating. The passage width was startling for so deep in the cave and it was big enough to walk around in after having crawled and climbed to get there. But it gave you the feeling it was about to end, and end it did, with a sump pool along the right side of the passage amongst silt-covered breakdown.

Over the next several trips we kept doing cutarounds and little stuff off of the main passage, side leads that we knew weren’t really going anywhere but would add the the footage and lend character to the finished map. Some of them I couldn’t get in, they were so tiny; here Ron’s son Chris came in very handy as he and Dave were really the only people who fit. Also, to date I have yet to see the fabulous Born Again Chamber as I am a) too big and b) too claustrophobic to attempt such a small passage. There is a video of Bruce Silvers of NIG going through it on YouTube and to me this is the stuff of nightmares. I offered to dig the passage out out a few times but Ron demurred, saying it’s the best kind of nerd filter. I guess that makes me a nerd…if so, I wear the moniker proudly!

I can safely say we surveyed everything there was to see in the cave, and I believe I could traverse it in my sleep now, even twenty years later. There are a few places that might, if given a serious push, might go a farther: for example, a miserable, low, wet passage just off the end of the Gun Barrel called W7. It started as W6 till we got in to survey it, thinking it might pass beneath the upper level stuff and bypass the sump at the end of the cave. Walter Scheffrahn, Windy City Grotto caving veteran and ace surveyor, who was lured out of caving retirement and brought his family down a couple of times, led the survey into it and was concerned (perhaps rightfully!) that rain might flood the awful little crawl. Thus it became Worryin’ Walt’s Wonderfully Woesome Watery Wallow. We returned later and learned that it got low and apparently ended after a few hundred feet, adding the final W, for Worthless! Still, move some rocks away and it might go farther…at the bitter end you can hear water dripping into some kind of cavity. Maybe it’s a drain. Something for another day, another trip, and now I’m not sure I’m capable. So it goes.

Ultimately we mapped almost 9000 feet worth of cave. Ron was a little disappointed that we came just short of three kilometers, but it wasn’t as if we didn’t try…I even tried to force the sump at the end of the cave a few times during dry weather and still believe that more passage exists beyond, it just may not be accessible through the DePriest entrance. It’s pretty grim back there…the footing is very awkward, and if you were to slip and fall and be unfortunate enough to slide beneath the wall…well, it might be difficult to retrieve your body…

So, it was time to draft the map. I am no artist, certainly, but the software did most of the hard work allowing me to practice my penmanship. Thankfully I did not have to hand-letter the features; we had access to page layout software and were able to do things neatly. Shell is a wonder at this sort of thing and was able to provide valuable instruction and the finished product was well received; Ron looked ready to cry when we presented him with a framed copy of the map which as far as I know still hangs on the wall of his home. The truly ironic bit though is that I don’t have a large format copy of that map…and I drafted it!

Yes, we heard some grumbling from some Tennessee cavers after the fact about NIG coming down and scooping another big Tennessee cave, just like they did with Dunbar. But there you go. You either do it, or someone else will do it for you. We had the same thing happen with another nearby cave, Pleasantville Palace in Perry County. There at least we started it all. I still have most of the survey notes for that too; we got a little over a quarter mile recorded on that one before the idea ran out of steam. Six hundred miles is an awful long way for folks to travel, after all. Hopefully someone else will take up that spelean gauntlet. It’s a small cave but very pretty in spots.

What’s left to do? Well, if it’s really big caves you want, well, we have one of those too. Blowing Cave, in Hickman County, just up the road from DePriest. Morgan’s Cave, if you will, to differentiate it from all the other Blowing Caves, including the sprawling maze a few miles west across the Perry County line. Hickman County’s Blowing Cave, owned by transplanted Texan Gary Morgan, is a large volume cave that must be seen to be believed, and may well traverse an entire massive limestone ridge to the little burg of Upper Sinking. The passage just goes and goes beyond the last big room, sometimes crawling, sometimes big enough to stand up in, always carrying water. Too, there’s an awful swallow hole cave on the other side of the ridge that is channelling gobs and gobs of flood water roughly southwest, and a large, interesting karst spring just up the road from Morgan’s that appears to spit it all back out again. Things that make you go hmmmm…