Updated: Mar 24
By Ethan Perrine
A cold dawn hung over the camp at Honey Creek’s shaft entrance on the morning of January fifteenth. Cavers stirred reluctantly, holding out for the first rays of morning to peak over the hilltop. We traded puffy jackets for wetsuits, prepared a hasty breakfast, and took our place in line for the tractor ride. The assembled crew represented a statewide effort, and among them, three teams had been mustered by the UT Grotto. Ours was to be The Red Dragons, a name that was definitely not the just first thing I thought of while penning our names on the sign-in sheet. At 10:00AM We were among the first in the cave, preceded by Jean Krejca’s team headed in the same direction. Our objectives were in the BH passage, a branch off of BG, northwest of the Boneyard. I had been there on the previous trip but we had to turn back for air quality. Our goal now was to reach the end of the long, anfractuous BH mud tube, and pursue the leads at its extremity. We were lowered down in pairs, Joel Haus and myself with Greg Sullivan and Marco Ramos soon to follow. I consulted the compass hung around my neck for the third time, determined to avoid the directioneering challenges experienced by several teams during September’s trip. Lights shone down the shaft and soon Greg, Marco, and Kurt Menking joined us. Reunited, we slid into the cool water and began our journey southwest, bidding Kurt farewell. The cave felt surprisingly warm that day, prompting the occasional pause to flood our suits with cold water. It took us an hour and a half to wade to the Boneyard. We stopped for photos at a picturesque ear dipper, and then scrambled over sharp, bone strewn cobbles for the next hour. Finally we pushed off the dry shore and swam to an unexpected intersection. It seemed we had either missed a turn, or perhaps were misinterpreting the map. We had different hypotheses on our whereabouts, and arrows carved in the mud only contributed to our uncertainty so we tried one of the branches that seemed right. After five minutes we realized we were on the wrong path. We retraced our steps and found the hard right turn to the northwest and entered the BG passage. The water from BG was deep with a film of sulfuric detritus. We were pleased to be back on track and could see the lights of what we guessed was Jean’s team in the distance. We said hello as they prepared for their climb in the Saturn 5 Dome, and then traveled further down the BG route. Back in stooping passage, we stopped for a snack break in a shallow pool. We were drawing near the BH hog waller and this was likely the last clean, dry space we could sit up in. Setting off once more, now fueled by Joel’s generously gifted dried apricots, we reached the round junction pool where the water from BG flows over a rimstone dam and joins the water from the BH branch on our right. We turned here and I announced to the boys that we were officially in “slop city.” The ceiling drew closer and mud banks rose to meet it. We checked the air, noticeably poorer, but the flame profile of our Bic pocket O2 meter indicated that death was not imminent. Satisfied with this, I then demonstrated the patent pending BH ‘Bow Slide. Joel describes the technique:
“Since there isn’t enough headroom otherwise, the most efficient method of traversal is to lean an elbow into the angled peanut butter shore and push off the opposite wall with one’s feet.“ Indeed, the serpentine nature of the passage means the banks have formed on the belly of each turn, so one must glide to the end of one bank then flop onto the next, repeatedly. Evidence of previous ‘bow sliding was carved into the mud before us, so we simply slotted into the groove and started running. We slid on for 2 more hours, now 2:30PM, and passed the turn-around point of the prior trip. Around a corner, the passage was interrupted by an imposing flowstone boss. The formation draped down, nearly touching the water, terminating in a row of long jagged incisors. We tucked ourselves around it and watched Greg claw mud away and squeeze his way underneath. His wetsuit snagged on the sharp teeth until he triumphantly crawled up a hidden slope into two small, decorated rooms. A half-meter tall by 2 meters wide and 2.5 meters long. He followed a Greg-sized hole to an upper room which was highly decorated, adorned with helictites and half-meter soda straws, 2 meters tall, 1.5 meters wide, and 2 meters long. In the roof of that room he described a dinner plate sized aperture, with no airflow. With this, he slid out, and Joel gave it a try, negotiating his femurs under the hard palate of the drapery. His dimensions were less conducive for continuing so he reemerged. Greg and I will count that as one point scored for the shorter men. A few meters later, I spotted another side lead in the upper wall. I dug a roughly Ethan-sized hole, and attempted to thrash my way up before deciding it wasn’t worth it. Greg dug a bit more, and with an assist from Marco and Joel’s knee, made it up. He confirmed it was indeed not worth it and popped out somehow muddier than when he went in. He reported a roughly 2 meter tall room with no defining characteristics. We reslotted our elbows and pushed off. Onward!
Half an hour later, now 3:10PM, we crawled our way into a delightfully different passage. The mud tube transitioned into a tall, clean-washed slot canyon. The towering passage extended before us, framed by natural bridges and sapphire blue plunge pools. It was a beautiful change of scenery and we stopped for pictures. It seemed incongruous with the BH morphology, but we soon encountered even greater surprises. On the left hand side of the passage was a window that led to a stunning room. Fist-sized botryoidal growths at the base of the room looked like liver spots, and a ramp of meter tall stalagmites stair stepped into a decorated dome. It was so grand, we had a photoshoot with Marco in silhouette, illuminated by Joel and Greg from below. After the trip, looking at the survey notes we saw that this dome is marked, but the dome should be scouted. A few meters down the main passage, we came upon yet another impressive dome with potential leads at the top. The tube narrowed after the domes, and we belly slid on thinking, surely we were nearing the end. The passage seemed much longer with many more turns, domes, and leads than seemingly indicated so we consulted the compass frequently as we wallowed.
At 5:00PM we came upon another tall dome, double barrelled which had potential. Shortly thereafter I investigated a low crawl and again found myself beaming up into a dome the tallest we’d yet found. This one we called Patrick Starfish Dome in honor of a formation in the floor. The dome was a 2 meter silo that extended nearly out of sight. We noted the considerable time it took the drips to reach the floor. As men of science, we knew the best instrument for measuring the rate of a falling object is one’s own eyeballs. So we craned our necks up toward the darkness and endured the face thumping water drops and decided it was 25 meters.
I checked my watch. It was past 5:00PM and we hadn’t even found our destination. This in mind, we decided to split up. Joel and Marco doubled back to dig on the station 95 lead and Greg accompanied me to seek out the end of this god forsaken mud tube. We slithered on through chunky sludge and a half hour later, finally encountered the terminal constriction. There was a water filled alcove to my right that glugged sumpily, but my probing was inconclusive. I considered pushing, but decided not to die for a crappy lead, and we turned our sights to the main passage. Our tube, a modest .5 meter tall crawl, narrowed to a 30 centimeter V-shaped groove obscured by rock protrusions with no airflow. Greg and I deliberated for a couple of seconds and concluded it wasn’t the best use of our time.
Now that we had taken in the whole of the BH passage, Greg—The Red Dragons resident Geologist—posited the following:
“The gauge of the overall passage diminished with each passing dome infeeder. The most notable change we observed was with the last 3 domes. The gauge of the passage moved from approximately 1.5 meters wide by 1 meter tall to barely a 1 meter by 0.5 meters, then dwindling to 0.3 meters. The presence of the domes and narrowing gauge is suggestive of connecting vadose passages above.”
We opted to double back with Greg salamandering in front. He noticed a tight lead hidden in the bank and pawed out enough dirt for us to squeeze in. We found a room 6 meters across with a, you guessed it, promising dome. This one we were certain was untrodden. We met back up with Joel and Marco. Their labors revealed 3 meters of narrowing voidspace. They averaged 15 minutes per foot, and used their hands because the mud swallowed tools. Joel’s legs were cramping from lying prone, so he bartered apricots for jerky and performed confined space yoga. The four of us then backtracked to the Station-86 lead. A meter wide tube soon narrowed to a belly drag. We were surprised by some 2 meter domes but primarily the passage continued uniformly. Greg and I chased it 20 meters then returned within the time we’d budgeted for probing. We’d checked off our list, and the Red Dragons resolved to begin our great and arduous exit. We pushed off at 7:30PM, motivated by dwindling drinking water. The stream of chunky chocolate milk seemed beyond the limits of iodine tabs and lifestraws. We continued on through the crawls, the natural bridges, and the slop, until finally we plunged into the BG/BH junction room an hour later. We were greeted by the melodic sound of water trickling over the rimstone dam that arced across the room. We cleaned off our mud coating until the main pool was a familiar opaque brown and carefully approached the pristine upper pool. We filled our Nalgenes from the rivulets streaming over the rimstone. Reinvigorated, we pressed on to the Saturn 5 Dome. Jean’s team had gone, so we flew on. The hours
ticked by, through the Boneyard, into the main passage, and while I was avoiding looking at my watch, I knew we were creeping toward midnight. The pools grew deeper and soon we were swimming again. In the larger rooms I broke into song, and considering the relationship between my willingness and ability to sing, I imagine Greg was grateful when the passage returned to a less acoustic size. Fortunately for him we were in the final stretch. A chill fell over us, our breath steamed, and we heard the roar of rimstone dams. Finally we were ushered in by the welcome site of the well casing and rounded the corner to the entrance shaft. Greg and I threw on our harnesses and clipped into the line. I radioed up, and Naomi went to wake the tractor operator while the frigid air reminded us that we were soaked to the bone. On the ride up we pondered how deeply testicles could recede for shelter. Expletives were muttered through chattering teeth as we lifted out, and at 11:25PM, 13 hours after we embarked, we returned to the surface. The topside was freezing; the temperature had dipped into the 30s while we were under. Naomi was waiting with hot cocoa in hand and once Joel and Marco emerged, we all hobbled to our vehicles to peel off icy layers. It was, in all, an excellent trip for the Red Dragons. A return for Greg and myself; a maiden voyage for Joel and Marco. We look forward to returning.