Monday, August 25, 2014

MOOving Along

What do cows and cave diving have in common? 

Traveling to almost any sinkhole or remote spring in the back country woods of north central Florida, farmland dominates the landscape. Pin-straight rows of corn sprout up along the side of the road along with bright green fields of peanuts and endless fields of watermelons. Where vegetables, fruits, and legumes aren't emerging from the ground, grassy pastures are cluttered with hundreds of cows of all shapes, sizes, and colors: spotted, black, white, brown, you name it. Most of the animals crowd a watering hole or one of the few remaining live oak trees in the wide open field, anticipating the arrival of the first few rays of morning summer sunshine that will trigger the onset of intense heat.

The majority of the hour and fifteen minute drive from Gainesville to Cave Country Dive Shop yesterday morning consisted of cows, river crossings, and towns that appear to have been forgotten many years in the past. Along the way, I crossed the Santa Fe, the Ichetucknee, and finally the great Suwannee River, a telltale sign that I was getting close to Cave Country. The big blue bridge that has the words "way down upon the Suwannee River" written in big letters marks the transition from Lafayette to Suwannee County, and as I drove across it and looked down at the dark, tea-colored water of the Suwannee, a rush of sturgeon-fishing memories flooded my mind and the excitement of exploring a new Suwannee spring woke me up like a stiff cup of morning coffee.

I met Dave and Harry at Cave Country where we signed in and got the key to the spring of the day. As if the cows dotting the endless fields on the way to the spring weren't enough, we all piled back into our cars and caravanned over to Cow Spring, nestled about 100 yards and just out of sight from the banks of the Suwannee River.

This photo shows our first view of Cow Spring. It's an interesting spot that lies quite far off the beaten path - and its hydrology is really cool too. There is no visible spring run aboveground, but underground, there are both upstream and downstream tunnels: the upstream tunnel sends you winding your way down to 109 feet, at times with your fin tips over your head and pulling against the flow while the (much shorter) downstream tunnel heads out to the Suwannee River. (Although there is no way to dive out through the underwater spring run and end up in the river because the tunnel becomes too small.) We dove the upstream section, and before I describe it, take a look for yourself... Harry shot this short video on our drift out of the cave:
(Disclaimer: don't watch if you're claustrophobic!)

While all caves are pitch black, this cave is perhaps the darkest I have dove thus far. The walls have famous fragile clay layers and on top of the limestone rock, there is a thin black film. Despite our lights, it felt like night time. This is also the smallest cave I've ever dove. After the tight initial entrance, the passageways open up, but there are still spots that I wouldn't necessarily want to have to squeeze through using backmount. As you saw in Harry's video, this spring can have one of the highest flows - to help us get through the cave, we used a permanently installed rope that runs next to much of the main line in the cave (called the "poor man's scooter"). The flow wasn't insane, but it was certainly strong and the line really helped us pull our way through the tunnels. We dove to thirds (until the first diver goes through 1/3 of their air, so that you technically have 2x as much gas as you need to exit the cave) then turned around and rode the flow out of the cave. It was a fun and relaxing ride as we swiftly mooooved with the flow of Cow Spring, using our fins like sails on a boat headed downwind, and adjusting them ever so slightly like a rudder to weave our way through the twisted underworld until we again saw the light.
Sunlight and shadows in the Cow cavern.
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After the dive, Dave and I walked through the woods to find where Cow Spring meets the Suwannee River - we found two breathtaking little springs, each with multiple vents. "Liquid light" is the best way to describe the brilliant blue color of the two shallow spring pools. Crystal clear water poured out of several openings in the surrounding limestone walls, tumbling its way down to the tannic Suwannee and eventually out to the sea.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday Morning Meditation

As air fades to liquid, we are cradled by the crystal clarity of spring water.

Masked ninjas fluently fly by, suspended in what appears to be thin air. Most wave a friendly hello as they effortlessly squeeze through tight limestone tunnels, following guidelines into the darkness. 

These mesmerizing tunnels extend for miles. Carved by the greatest sculptor, their intricacies are unparalleled – tirelessly weaving its way through the passageways, water ever so slightly shapes everything in its path - drop by drop, gallon by gallon, day by day.

We are suspended in the water that will soon appear at the downstream springs – before it appears at the vent, it winds through the puzzle-like underworld that forms the world’s most amazing (and perhaps most advanced) playground. It's time to play.

Pushing our way through the flow, I clutch my camera. Kick, pull, kick pull along the left side of the wall after our initial descent into the cave. I breathe slowly and steadily but can feel my heartbeat increasing as I push against the invisible force that is doing its best to expel me from its rocky home. Finally we duck out of the flow, as we arrive at the Catacombs – time to play with light.

We station the four lights like torches in the hallway of a medieval castle. But instead of illuminating eerie stone walls and suits of tarnished armor, we illuminate the aquifer. Harry helps me set up the lights in a way that brightens the walls in a magnificent pattern – his years of experience and thousands of dives have taught me so much and this dive is no exception. 

As I set up the camera and peer through the viewfinder, I feel an overwhelming sense of happiness – I can feel the excitement flowing through my veins like the water rushing through the catacombs and miles of caves that surround me. But it’s a different type of excitement – it’s a calm, collected feeling of ultimate relaxation. It's my form of meditation.

It’s practically impossible to imagine that 65 feet away, there is a rambunctious party – country music blares, monster trucks rev their engines, and the crisp sound of a freshly opened beer accompanies laughter and singing. It is the middle of a sweltering summer afternoon, yet as we switch off the lights, it is pitch black. Despite our apparent proximity to a raging party, the world is silent. Hidden below your feet, we are weightless and free at an underwater disco. Reflections of light dance to the rhythm of runaway bubbles and we swim to the sound of silence.


Recounting this story is serving as my Monday morning meditation - as I scroll through and edit my photos, I can practically feel the crisp spring water on my face. As I fell asleep last night, I could see divers floating around behind my eyelids, suspended in a dark night sky. While the caves are beautiful and exotic, they are also incredibly dangerous without the proper training - but whether you relax and reflect by the ocean, on the river, in the springs, or in a hammock by a lake, it doesn't matter... any water is wonderful for a morning meditation.

Also, this week marks exactly three years since I packed up the Prius and drove 22 hours south to Gainesville. I planned on staying until I could find a way to move closer to the ocean. If you had asked me 5 years ago what I would be doing now, I never would have said cave diving or studying freshwater, only ocean diving and marine biology. Now, I wouldn't trade my freshwater world for anything and can't imagine what life would be like without the amazing people I have met and places I have been during the past 3 years - it has been an incredible adventure, thank you!