Connection! Russell Cave, AL has a new entrance, and a new length!

 Chrissy Richards helps Jason Richards prepare for the dive in Montague Cave. Photo: Liz Hoffman

Chrissy Richards helps Jason Richards prepare for the dive in Montague Cave. Photo: Liz Hoffman

The underwater connection between Russell Cave and nearby Montague Cave has been assumed for many years, though never actually connected. A map exists that shows the two caves separated by an approximately 1600 foot gap from the assumed sump area in Montague Cave, to an area called Methane Alley in Russell Cave. In 1991, exploratory dives were made by Jim Smith in Montague Cave, with the intent to connect Montague to Russell Cave, as well as Widows Creek Spring at the ultimate downstream end of the cave system. He explored and surveyed his way to to Widows Creek Spring, but due to equipment failures, only made a short exploratory dive into the upstream spring passage from Montague Cave. On 10 October, I made the first exploratory dive in Montague Cave in more than 25 years, with the intent of looking at the passage leading to Russell Cave. As there was no flow at the time, Surprisingly, I ended up in a downstream passage, paralleling the main trunk passage that nobody knew existed. That wouldn't be the case today. Having seen the boil from the upstream passage two weeks ago, I knew where the entrance would be located. This time, I would bring all the equipment for a 1600 foot exploration dive, as massive floods clean the cave of any lines, so each time, the line must be replaced, and the odds of making two dives between flood events would be unlikely.

 KISS Sidewinder rebreather being assembled in cave. Photo: Christina Richards

KISS Sidewinder rebreather being assembled in cave. Photo: Christina Richards

Knowing that the shortest possible dive would be 1600 feet, I brought three of my largest Light Monkey Reels with a total of 2700 feet of line, as well as a Light monkey heated vest for the chilly 57 degree (F) water. Tanks would be steel 50s, small enough for my part time porters to carry to the sump, but plenty of gas for me to swim 1600 feet, should the need arise. 

 The porters wait for fantastic things. (Front to Back: Liz Hoffman, Ryan Hoffman, Brian Killingbeck, Grace Bauman, Andy Zellner. Photo: Christina Richards

The porters wait for fantastic things. (Front to Back: Liz Hoffman, Ryan Hoffman, Brian Killingbeck, Grace Bauman, Andy Zellner. Photo: Christina Richards

Once geared up at the sump, though the pool looked fairly good, I was disappointed to find the visibility in the passage would only be about 7 feet. This would make exploration difficult, as it would be hard to see side passages, or dead end loops. Fortunately, the periodic high flow in the passage creates a black cemented coating on the floor cobble which remains clear of silt. In most cases, I could follow the black cobble trail through the passage and be assured I was in the middle of the cave, with only the occasional 15 foot sand and debris dune to cross over where the passage turned. Places to tie the line were extremely rare, and silt stakes (1/2 inch PVC stakes commonly used to secure line in wide passage) would not penetrate into the cobble floor, forcing me to drop hundreds of feet of line without a tie off, hoping it would not work itself into a crevice that would be too small for me to negotiate on the way back. The low visibility meant I frequently could not see either wall, and in places, only a small amount of the floor below me- blindly following the black cobbles, hoping I was not working myself into some dead end side passage. With the depth staying around 15-20 feet, this meant I normally could not see the ceiling either, which meant frequent bounces to the ceiling to check for air bells, of which, ultimately, there were none. 

 High end equipment produces results: Light Monkey 32W LED light and heated vest cannister batteries, Light monkey 800 foot reels, KISS Sidewinder rebreather and DUI CF200 Drysuit.

High end equipment produces results: Light Monkey 32W LED light and heated vest cannister batteries, Light monkey 800 foot reels, KISS Sidewinder rebreather and DUI CF200 Drysuit.

Searching for placements and swapping out reels, after 53 minutes, I finally came to an airbell. Standing in waist deep water, I could see an orange dot of fingernail polish- a station placed by Pat Kambesis, while surveying Russell Cave's Methane Alley in 2014. The connection had been made. But the work was not complete, all of the new line had to be surveyed, and the empty reels recovered. The exit dive, while surveying, actually went faster than the exploration- 47 minutes to capture all the data. 

 Jason back from the dive, with all pencils accounted for. Photo: Christina Richards

Jason back from the dive, with all pencils accounted for. Photo: Christina Richards

Ultimately, the dive survey of the connection between Montague Cave and Russell Cave would be 2006 feet long. Three reels proved prudent, as only half of one reel remained once I reached Russell Cave. The biggest surprise of the day appeared only after the data had been input into the cave survey: The end of the dive line was only 25 feet away from the location it was supposed to be- meaning a 25 foot total error across more than 5900 feet of passage! This is truly a testament to the improvements in survey techniques and equipment, as all of the known passage was surveyed using digital instruments.

 Yellow: Pat Kambesis survey of Russell Cave, Red: Connection sump survey (Jason Richards), Dark Blue: Downstream Sump (Jason Richards), Pale Blue: Montague Dry Survey (Jason Richards, Christina Richards, Andy Zellner) Dashed Line: Surface connection survey.

Yellow: Pat Kambesis survey of Russell Cave, Red: Connection sump survey (Jason Richards), Dark Blue: Downstream Sump (Jason Richards), Pale Blue: Montague Dry Survey (Jason Richards, Christina Richards, Andy Zellner) Dashed Line: Surface connection survey.

The total length of Russell Cave, including the new Montague Entrance and associated new dive lines is 61,385 feet or 11.625 miles. Thanks to all the porters and friends who have provided their backs to carry gear to the water, the landowner of the Montague entrance, who has graciously allowed us to work from his property, and most of all, my wife and dive buddy Christina Richards, who has sat at the beach for these dives, both excited and terrified when I invariably over run my expected return time.

Jason Richards

NSS 41539


As a closing note, please do not inquire about diving or caving at Russell Cave National Monument. For the time being, the park is prevented from allowing recreational caving due to the presence of significant archaeological artifacts. Survey and exploration currently being conducted is under permit with the National Park Service, as inventory of cave assets.

Blowout Blue - not blownout

Blowout.jpg

Some other exploration from the weekend- Blowout Blue. Forrest Wilson arrived early, and dug some gravel out of the entrance. I got in a couple of hours later and started surveying- Cleaning up the 466 feet from Matt Vinzant. As I finished this and started tying off a new reel, Terry Hall arrived, so he got the reel, and I surveyed behind him another 635 feet. As he finished this reel, I took over, and laid an additional 469 feet, and surveyed back out. Total of 1748 feet with a max depth of 75 feet.

Jasper Blue Spring

 Jason Richards (in KISS Sidewinder) and Terry Hall return from a 2500 foot dive into Jasper Blue to check line integrity.

Jason Richards (in KISS Sidewinder) and Terry Hall return from a 2500 foot dive into Jasper Blue to check line integrity.

With no rain for the last few weeks, the water caves in Southern Tennessee were looking good. For the time being, anyway. Our first stop was to check the line integrity at Jasper Blue spring in Jasper, Tennessee, currently the longest underwater cave in TN. Due to rains and deployments, I have not been in the water there in the last three years, so we needed to see what sort of condition the line was in, for further exploration this fall. Chrissy and Ryan Hoffman decided to try to take video in the front, as this was Ryan's first visit to the cave. The visibility was not good enough (10-15 feet) for video, but they did get to swim 1000 feet upstream and check out the cave. Terry Hall and I continued upstream to the dome room area, and found the line to be in great shape, and only covered with sand in a couple of places! Below is a video of the dome room area in 2012 by Ben Martinez.

 Chrissy gets ready to do battle with the cave creatures!

Chrissy gets ready to do battle with the cave creatures!

 This was a great dive for the KISS Sidewinder, and the Submerge Valkyrie!

This was a great dive for the KISS Sidewinder, and the Submerge Valkyrie!