A much anticipated return trip was set for Saturday March 15th as ten ISS cavers assembled at Frederick’s Café for the pre-trip breakfast. Dave Everton led a 5-person team up the South Branch River, while Rand took another five team party up through Fantastic Avenue and down the crawl to the pit.
The plan was to try to complete the survey of a loop-if one indeed existed. Both teams carried air horns to attempt sound connection first. Dave’s team ran into issues as they couldn’t find what they thought was the correct way on up the river. At one point, some of their party thought they heard an air horn, but if so, it was faint and the direction couldn’t be ascertained.
Meanwhile Rand’s team descended the pit and while one team surveyed from the dome to the junction with the river. Two other members of the team, Tim Pride and Shane Myles leapfrogged ahead and started surveying downstream to the right hoping to meet up with Dave’s team coming upstream. They did sound their horn, but heard nothing in reply. They surveyed about 250 feet of passage downstream and then explored ahead when the passage character changed to a twisting joint-controlled pattern necessitating short shots.
Simultaneously Rand’s party finished their survey to the river and Laura Demarest pushed upstream to the left towards the sound of a rumbling waterfall. Unfortunately she was alone and stopped by a low bathtub with only 3-4 inches of airspace. She could see ahead through a slot in some breakdown, but it looked tight so she turned back. She reported that the waterfall had to be close, probably just beyond the constriction and visibility.
Rand’s group then climbed the second waterfall back at the dome and shot a few shots upstream. They quickly reached a junction. Air was coming out of the passage to the right and their steam was being pulled into the passage to the left. Rand explored both a short distance and reported further splits and going cave in both sides. The left hand lead appeared particularly promising.
By this time, Dave’s team had given up. They hadn’t seen any muddy water coming downstream towards them and didn’t know where to proceed. They turned around and headed out, exiting after about an 11½ hour trip.
The other team, having not met up with Dave’s team or heard their horn, decided it was time to exit. Having a longer route out and the pit to ascend on the way, they exited about 1am Sunday morning after a 13 ½ hour trip.
When the survey notes were plotted, it showed that the downstream river Rand’s team had surveyed was within 245 feet straight line distance of connecting with the South Branch. Tim and Shane had probably explored ahead enough that they were within 100-150 feet of the end of the upstream survey of the South Branch when they turned around. Had Dave’s team made it to that point and , if the timing had been right, they would almost certainly heard each other.
The most exciting thing from the trip was the knowledge that there was definitely much more cave to be surveyed at the top of the second waterfall. It was heading east towards high ground that lies about a half mile further east. There is plenty of rock overhead so the air movement may indicate lots of upper cave in that direction.
However they still aren’t sure, if their two-waterfall dome is the one Aaron Atz discovered in 2001. Some things say “yes”; others indicate it might not be. Could the waterfall Laura almost reached possibly be Atz’s dome? Only time and more survey trips will tell. One thing for sure – the cave just keeps getting bigger. Surveyed length is now 38.64 miles and there are several new leads to explore.
The loop is not quite completed, but while one end is almost in sight- there are more mysteries to be explored. Stayed tuned for the next episode in the Binkley exploration blog.