September 15, 1990
"I just want to ask one question," Ranger Dennis says. "Does this stuff scare you?"
Mike Williams looks up from attaching a regulator to his twin tanks, and glances at the small pool where the Sequatchie River bubbles into the main trunk of Run to the Mill Cave.
"This stuff," he said, "scares me to death."
It is to be Mike's 14th dive in this latest of efforts to find the legendary Mill Cave trunk which should lie just to the north. Tennessee cavers have been trying to gain access to this passage for well over fifteen years, ridgewalking and digging on the mountain above, blasting tunnels in Run to the Mill, the Gouffre, and other caves. As each effort drags on without success, the water continues to flow easily and silently from the breakdown into the hundred foot wide main trunk in Run to the Mill. How far, cavers wonder, has that water come beneath the rocks? How far is it to airspace and the promise of open, booming passage?
At least three cave divers have tried to find out, but Mike Williams has been further than any other, over 800 feet into the sump. Past an initial squeeze under a rock in three feet of water, he reports, the passage continues as an underwater crawlway through breakdown for about 100 feet, until a 35 foot "pit" is reached. At the bottom, past another tight spot, is a twenty foot wide trunk passage. This passage eventually ascends to become air-filled, but ends quickly in massive breakdown. For a time, Mike's hopes for a continuation were dashed. Since then, he has come to believe that the air-filled passage is simply a side passage, that the main trunk continues underwater.
As on every dive trip, there are many who contribute as members of the support team. The sump is about a half mile inside the cave, down three major climbs and a 167 foot pit known as Tilted Well. Dennis Curry, Buddy Lane, Hank Moon, Bill Putnam, Lewis Puckett, Otis Farmer, Sandy Paris, Dan Twilley and I are along to carry equipment and give moral support. We have retrieved two tanks from the secret cache in the cave, and sent Dan back out to the trucks for another weight belt after the two stashed in the cave are found to be missing--either stolen or washed away by the spring floods.
"Grim," Mike says, wading out into the pool. "Real grim." The water is up, and visibility is barely three feet. The dive line laid on previous trips is floating loose, obviously torn out by spring floods. This kind of cave diving, Mike explains, is not like that done in Florida. Florida, with its unlimited visibility and wide open passage, is easy compared to this.
"Even if I find something," Mike says, "I won't stay long to check it out. If I'm not back in two hours, I'm dead."The twin dive lights on his helmet disappear beneath the surface. For a few minutes we can still see the tips of his fins on the water as he works his tanks and his body through the tight entrance to the passage. Weird gurgles from a connecting passage above tell us he is moving forward. The green glow of his lights fade. Those of us who are not already off on a tourist trip downstream to see the Formation Room huddle over carbide lamps.
Not quite thirty minutes later, just as the others are returning from downstream, Mike's head pops out of the water.
"I didn't even get a hundred feet," he says, shaking his head in disgust. "Spent the whole dive trying to find my way through the breakdown. Got trapped twice, nearly panicked."
One of his twin tanks hasn't been touched, so we stash it in the cave. The tank he's been using is still nearly full, but Buddy wants to empty it as a safety consideration for the trip out. He does this by opening the valve and chasing Dennis and Hank around as the valve shoots twenty foot plume of condensed air.
Back at the trucks, Mike looks at his wife and young daughter, who've been waiting on the surface. "Daddy got scared in there, you know that?" he says. "What's the matter? You don't believe it?"
We strip out of our wetsuits and muddy boots as Mike tries to persuade his daughter that he is not a fearless man, that only a fool could feel the tug of his equipment hanging up in an underwater squeeze and not be frightened. He swears he ought to just give up on this one, quit risking his life in such a futile search for an obscure glory. But everybody knows he won't give up. He'll go home and lie awake at night, still hearing the lonely sound of bubbles leaving his regulator, peering ahead into the darkness, imagining passages that twist and turn past the end of his safety line.
Is he a fool or is he a hero? Not even Mike Williams seems to know for sure.
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