Missouri is home to over 7,300 caves and more are discovered every month. Saturday, I found myself at the Silo Entrance to Carroll Cave located in nearby Camdenton.
I’d heard a lot about Carroll Cave and was anxious to get inside and see it for myself so I signed up for one of the regularly scheduled data survey collection teams.
Our seven-person co-ed survey team consisted of two gals and five guys and met at the silo at 9:00 that morning. No sooner had I suited up when I found myself rappelling 120’ straight down into the cave through a vertical bore hole as I straddled the ladder I would climb out on. The large silo was opened in 2002 by the Carroll Cave Conservancy (CCC) http://carrollcave.org/ and lands you almost Center Mass into the amazing Carroll Cave complex.
Depending who you talk to and what survey data you are comparing, Carroll Cave is the second or third largest cave in Missouri with over 20 miles of cave surveyed with our longest cave currently in the books at over 30 miles.
As my feet finally touched ground I found myself deep underground in a large chamber at the intersection of 3 cave passages where Carroll Cave’s trunk connects to Thunder River tributary. One mission of interest was to install a new data logger just below Thunder River Falls with the hypothesis being floods in the Thunder River tube do not occur from high water flowing downstream, but rather originate from downstream water backing up into the upper part of the river. By putting a data logger below Thunder Falls, we can validate the hypothesis. If this hypothesis is correct, then the data logger below Thunder Falls should show a rise in stream level before the upstream data loggers.
We also downloaded data from prepositioned river data loggers which were time synchronized to measure barometric pressure from which water flow and level could be interpreted. Two data loggers are needed as the loggers do not record water depth, they record pressure that is affected by the barometric air pressure. One logger is hung in the air and the other in the water. To calculate water depth, the difference between the two pressures is found and then multiplied by the density of water.
Throughout the roughly 5 miles of cave I traversed I saw huge canyons above my head most of the way which often had amazing white flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites and column formations high up on the benches. Our path ran through, under, up and over the huge ‘breakdown’ from the ceiling and consisted of all different types of terrain to include cliff walking, sloppy mud, waist deep water and gravel bars.
I saw several pure white albino fish with no eyes about the size of a decent gold fish. The team leader stated he’d never seen bats in this portion of the cave and as luck would have it I spotted a nice sized lone bat on the wall at the entrance chamber. With over 14 species of bats in Missouri, I was unsure of what species I was looking at. I was able to get a good look at his nose to check for white-nose syndrome which was not present and I left it alone. White-nose syndrome (WNS) is under research and classified as a possible fungal pathogen which by 2012 is attributed to the deaths of 5-7 million North American bats.
Our final team task was to install the data logger and PVC (pipe) logger platform mentioned above in the stream below Thunder Falls. Thunder River falls is an impressive waterfall roughly 6’-7’ tall which pours into a large pool. You can access the pool over the falls and get soaking wet or you can follow the mud bank ‘goat trail’ as I did to the left of the falls that hugs the walls high above a slick vertical mud bank dropping directly into the pool.
It was apparent to me someone had spent a lot of time and hard work carving out the mud trail along the base of the cliff. I was told of a fellow caver who not too long ago lost his footing with a full pack and shot off of this precipice directly into the pool below. After a splash landing in the deep pool he was ok and continued on his journey. At the back of the cliff we descended a 20’ vertical ladder to the base of Thunder Falls pool.
Just before we ascended the entrance chamber dome back up to our rappelling gear two stromatolite fossils were pointed out along the trail. These stromatolite fossils were concave and circular in nature with an 18” diameter and are scientifically defined as layered, bio-chemical accretionary structures that formed in shallow prehistoric seas over 3.7 billion years ago here in Missouri. Stromatolites played an early and key role as part of earths great oxygen infusion which ultimately led to the explosion of life in our oceans. As I pondered these fossils under 120’ of solid rock I was in total awe of what I had seen and was seeing. I was told the age of the Carroll Cave rock we traversed was roughly 408 million years old.
Our total data collection trip length covered roughly 4-5 miles of cave and had some incredible scenery. We had installed a new data logger and pulled data from logger devices in all three primary cave arms to include 100 yards up one of the many smaller tributary cave passages which can extend for several miles.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have two awesome caves on my property in Pulaski County. Both are gated and locked and managed by KCAG. Mill Creek Cave according to local neighbor folklore and legend states Jesse James was chased into the right arm found 150 yards into the cave by Pinkertons and this arm was dynamited in an attempt to seal him in. There are signs of a major collapse just inside the right arm now named the Jesse James branch, but settling over the years makes the right arm accessible and according to my young grandsons there does not appear to be any possible means to escape past this entrance as the cave becomes too tight to traverse after a couple hundred feet of discovery. A great story regardless.
Allie Spring Cave entrance is at the base of a 15’ escarpment 100 yards SW of Mill Creek Cave. This cave is misleading with its small 16” diameter and often leaf filled borehole. Allie Spring Cave has been under survey by the Kansas City Area Grotto (KCAG) www.kcgrotto.org for the past three years and surveys continue on a quarterly basis with over two miles of cave mapped with much more to follow.
After squeezing through the borehole, your journey starts with a 70-yard belly crawl to Fang Hall where you can sit for the first time. Fang Hall ceiling is filled with dozens of chubby stalactites that look like fangs. Here marks the start of the ‘wet-suit mandatory’ 200-yard water crawl in 59F water often up to your neck with a couple ear dunks along the way until you emerge into the main tube. You exit the water crawl into a large chamber junction between two connecting cave passages and after over 285 yards of belly crawling and swimming you can finally stand upright.
A mile into one of Allie Springs main tubes you find a well-stocked ‘Base-Camp’ which has an extensive emergency cache of first aid and survival gear. Base camp has served host to several overnight camping trips and is found just before the ‘Salt Cellar’ named after the incredible pure white lime flowstone and formations. Only a couple hundred yards past the Salt Cellar and you enter a large tube yet to be explored and I’m told large enough to drive a bus through.
Throughout both caves are probable signs of potential prehistoric animals to include the giant short face cave bear and giant ground sloths as evidenced by large deep bedding impressions found on many of the cave benches and huge claw marks found randomly in the muddy walls of both caves. Short face cave bears were the largest bears to ever walk the face of the earth and co-existed with other extinct mega fauna defined as wooly mammoths, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, saber tooth tigers and the like. All which it is interesting to note went extinct soon after ‘Beringia Man’ first crossed the Bering Strait into North America from Alaska roughly 12-14,000 years ago.
During the recent 2015 National Speleological Society (NSS) https://caves.org/ Convention held in Waynesville an exploratory team pushed deep into Allie Spring Cave and afterward presented me with a large fang they had found in a bear bed filled with bone fragments. Last weekend I checked off a ‘Bucket List Trip’ while visiting the ‘La Brea Tar Pits’ in downtown Los Angeles. My grandson presented this fang to one of the tar pit excavators/researchers who stated it looked like a ‘Dire Wolf’ fang which we confirmed by comparing against the hundreds of dire wolf skulls on one of their exhibit walls. It was a perfect match. My grandsons and I will always cherish this possibility but I suspect this large fang is from a more recent big cat or black bear.
Caving is definitely for the intrepid, not the feint hearted and If you’d like to see another world seldom seen by others you’ll not find a better place for your own adventure than here in Missouri. I recommend starting by visiting one of the many ‘Show Caves’ in the state before you take it to the next level which is easy to do in the Cave State. Start with a simple Google search of Cave Clubs or Grottos near your hometown. I’ve mentioned the Kansas City Grotto and near my residence in Waynesville, Missouri the Roubidoux Grotto https://www.facebook.com/RoubidouxGrotto/ can be your gateway to the underworld and is just a click away.
To the Cave!
Bruce Archambault lives in Waynesville, MO and became an avid spelunker 15 years ago after his first visit to Mill Creek Cave. Carroll Cave Photos courtesy of Rick Hines and the CCC.