Mucking Through Marengo

Down and Dirty Caving in Southern Indiana
By Pamela Emanoil
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Parked at the gas station about a half mile from Marengo Cave in southern Indiana, I reread the Statement of Awareness that all visitors must sign before trying the New Discovery. I want no surprises on the trip—my first caving tour through undeveloped areas—but the Awareness sheet is less than comforting."Accidents can occur and the removal of an injured person is extremely difficult. It could take many hours or even more than a day."

But those are only the risks. I am signing on to other cruel and unusual punishments that are clearly unavoidable. "I realize that in sections of the trip I will be crawling or laying in pools of water and wading an underground stream where the water is 52 degrees as is the air temperature year round."

In September 1883 Blanche Hiestand and her younger brother, Orris, discovered Marengo Cave buried beneath the hills of southern Indiana near the Blue River. The children slid down a deep sinkhole by a church cemetery. They entered a huge limestone room with waterfalls, glistening pools, splendid stalactite and stalagmite formations, and no sign that anyone had been there before them. In the dim light of their candles, they thought the sparkling rocks they saw were diamonds.

Although diamonds were never found, Marengo Cave owners found ways to turn a profit. For 100 years, they have offered tours through the drizzly Dripstone Trail into the ornate Crystal Palace. In 1984, Marengo Cave became a U.S. National Natural Landmark, and in 1992, the owners opened a never-before-seen, non-commercialized area of the cave. The New Discovery trip will take me through those undeveloped areas.

When I enter the visitor's center at Marengo Cave shortly after 9:00 a.m., trip leader and caver of 30 years Garry Coomer greets me.

"Ready to get trashed out?"

We start in the storage shack, where we put on our equipment. Four of us will make today's journey. Garry puts on coveralls. George, Ed, and I wear polypropylene long underwear underneath our jeans and sweatshirts. We slide our legs into orange kneepads that strap around our calves and knees. By the time we find sturdy helmets with working lights, winter has robbed any feeling from our hands. With stiff fingers, we clumsily load our fanny packs with candles, lighters, flashlights, batteries, drinking water, and candy bars—survival tools, just in case.

The inward journey begins in Crystal Palace. I walk nervously through the dark chamber. The formations hanging and standing beside me are usually lit up with red, green, and blue. In the natural lightlessness, they are not so much dull as dreamy. They're patient, not paralyzed. I'm more petrified.

Garry slows his pace.

"Hear that?" he asks.

I nod, listening to the drips, kerplunks, and splashes.

"This cave is juicy today. We're going to have fun." Two days ago, Garry canceled a New Discovery trip because the cave had been flooded by heavy rains.

Garry climbs off the path and up a muddy ledge. He points to a black, level tunnel—the circumference is the size of a large lamp shade—where we enter our first crawlway, the Blowing Bat Crawl. My heart races as Garry pushes his arms and shoulders into the tunnel. He wriggles his body from side to side, squirming forward. His legs and hiking boots dangle out of the hole for a moment while he adjusts his upper body. His feet disappear into the darkness.

I go next, butting up against Garry's boots. My helmet scrapes the ceiling as I claw my way forward, knocking the rim over my eyes. Lying on my stomach, I use my elbows and hips to pull my weight forward. When I glance up, my light shines on the green tags marking the soles of Garry's boots. I concentrate on never losing sight of them.

In the opening ahead, we can kneel with our helmets bumping the ceiling. Garry points his headlamp into a tiny opening—our next crawlway—to the left of where we rest. The passageway sinks down a few inches before flattening. A shallow puddle covers the floor.

"I've never seen the water that high in here."

"Is this a sign of things to come?"

Garry raises his eyebrows. Drips and a low howling breeze invite us into the large chambers beyond. I am reminded of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky caver, who died in 1925 while entrapped in a squeezeway. He made an impatient effort to do more than his body allowed—to spy more underground than perhaps he was meant to see.

"Are you thinking that we can't go through?" I ask, half hoping he'll say yes.

Garry shakes his head. "No, I'm just psyching myself up for it." If on his seventy-something time through the New Discovery he needs to psyche himself up, I'm not sure what will get me through. As soon as Garry's feet vanish, I stretch my arms into the passage. My chest settles into the cold muddy water. I ignore the shiver and drag my body onward. The passage tightens. I pull forward, twisting my head to the side. My helmet clanks between the ceiling and floor and halts. I'm stuck. I react quickly, swallowing hard and shaking my helmet loose. Recoiling, my feet shove Ed's face. With Ed behind me, and George behind Ed, I can't go back. I take a deep breath and face my only option. I turn my head to the opposite side and squeeze through the tube.

When the crawlway opens, I raise only my head and chest from the damp floor. I rest on my elbows like a cobra. The mini-columns that surround me look like toothpicks balancing layers of cake. The formations seem to hold the ceiling from the floor in a fragile architecture. The water drops are distant — almost beyond the reach of my headlamp. They play a baroque concert as they reluctantly fall from ceiling to floor. Chamber music.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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