May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996


To the peerless Moles, practitioners of the gloomily claustrophobic sport of freshwater spelunking, the ultimate accomplishment is finding a virgin cave
By Bucky McMahon

It's a horror hole, just a depression full of springwater with a scum of hydrilla coating its surface and muddy banks that have been stomped by wild hogs. The small, oval mouth of the spring, some 20 feet down, is spitting out gravel, and a large fallen cypress tree, its tangled gray roots clawing at the air, slants deep into the pool. For anyone with the arcane propensity to give a damn, a good guess would be that under the tannin-dark water, at the bottom of the hole, there is forest debris and possibly unseen horror things: a Medusa's head of cottonmouths, perhaps, or a hog-fed gator. And maybe there's a cave.

On this cool fall evening, with a full moon launched high in the red sky, the Moles stand around the rim of the beckoning pool, wondering whether it "goes"--that is, connects to a larger cave system.

"This is a pretty one," says Wes Skiles, who at 38 is probably the most experienced cave diver in this tribe of elite aquanauts. Hooded in expedition fleece and chomping on a Honduran cigar, he looks something like Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia. Skiles studies the surface of the pool, running his hand over it like a book of braille. After more than 22 years and 3,000 cave dives, Skiles has an intimate feel for the invisible world beneath the Florida limestone: how much water is down there, how it behaves, where it's going. "There's gotta be big water moving down there," he says in his thick, swamp-country drawl. "We'll find it."

The Moles, as they call themselves, are among the best cave divers in the world, a loose fraternity of now mostly middle-aged men who've devoted a good portion of their lives to mapping the aqueous labyrinth that braids through the porous crust of north central Florida. This intricate waterscape was formed by the Floridan Aquifer, the largest underground river system in the United States. Patiently following its leads tunnel by tunnel, sump by sump, the Moles have been responsible for piecing together many of the aquifer's bigger riddles. But there are still question marks, still a few speleological mysteries to be solved. And so for the past week this group of half a dozen friends--Lamar Hires, Woody Jasper, Mark Long, Tom Morris, Ron Simmons, and Skiles--has been poking around the backwoods of Suwannee County, about an hour's drive northwest of Gainesville, searching for the holy grail of cave diving: a virgin passage, some heretofore untouched connection to the remarkable honeycombs of karst that lie beneath the fruit stands and bayous, the used car dealerships and putt-putt courses, of Florida civilization.

Here at this pulsing hole, hidden on a patch of private property along the bluffs of the Suwannee River, Skiles thinks they may have stumbled on the portal to their next big find.

The problem, as always, will be getting in. The passageways in these spring caves seldom dead-end. Instead, they plunge into depths beyond the reach of today's technology. Or, more intriguingly, they keep narrowing into tighter and tighter cavities that for the diver can induce horrendous psychological stress. "The small stuff,'' the Moles call these claustrophobic cellars.

Should they succeed in slipping through the initial opening, they'll probably have to unclip their scuba tanks and push them out ahead, butt-first, like battering rams. The water will be a confusing swirl of leaves, wood bits, and silt. As they move on in total blackness, unseen obstacles will snag at their hoses, press on their chests and shoulders. They'll be engulfed in bubbles as they drop down into mud and water and stone. And then, if they're lucky, they'll wriggle through the last of the restrictions and break into the robin's-egg blue of the Floridan Aquifer, briskly flowing water fit for designer bottling.

Since this particular site is well marked with No Trespassing signs, the Moles decide to christen it Posted Spring. Skiles nominates Long--a soft-spoken lighting fixtures salesman from Leesburg, Florida--to take the first plunge. Long is a classic Florida backwoodsman who has logged some 1,500 hours of cave diving and has lately been making quite a reputation for himself with his solo rampages through the remotest nooks of the aquifer.

"I'll do it," Long says gamely as he pulls on a hooded wetsuit, a crash helmet with a headlamp, and a steel tank clipped to a side-mount harness. He pays out some line from his exploration reel and ties the end to a tree root. All at once, he jackknifes forward into the water and kicks for the bottom. We see his fin-tips churning the surface. Then he's down. Then his feet are back out. Then down again. Everyone is silent as the bubbles rise to the surface, roiling the weeds.

"Give him a minute," Skiles whispers. "He'll get in there."

In the murk below we can see Long's dark legs scissoring. A panicked turtle breaks for cover, leaving a puff of brown silt. Soon Long's bubbles cease percolating to the surface of the pool, which means he's made it through the first major restriction and is now on the move somewhere beneath us.

Skiles peers into the water and takes another puff on his stogie. "If the virgin system is down there," he says, "it'll be one hell of a rib-cracking squeeze."

With a high-domed forehead and a barrel chest, Skiles doesn't look like the sort of guy who could squirm through geological keyholes. And yet he's squashed that physique into places scarcely imaginable, places with names like the Basketball Restriction and Russell's Rub, places not much larger than a mailbox.

Today Skiles is hunkered over a table in the map room at Karst Environmental Services, his place of business, which is housed in a modest red-brick building on a quiet stretch of blacktop outside High Springs, Florida. He has plucked several cardboard tubes from a rack of blueprints and unfurled the survey charts of different caves throughout the Floridan Aquifer--charts that are the painstaking work of Skiles and a few of his Mole brethren. He's fitting the pieces together, part of the process he calls "doing the water budget." On one of the maps, he points out a stretch of land along the west bank of the Suwannee River, where, suspiciously, no caves have yet been discovered. This tantalizing territory is where he feels certain the next virgin cave is going to be bagged. "The missing link," he calls it.

"The first generation of explorers, people like [the late Florida explorer] Sheck Exley, hit all the big, obvious caves,'' Skiles says. "They thought the rest were scraps. But the scraps really told the true story of the Floridan Aquifer--karst plane by karst plane."

Fanning across the northern third of the state, from Wakulla Springs in the Panhandle all the way south to Orlando, the Floridan Aquifer holds 90 percent of the state's drinking water. Like water everywhere, it likes to make space for itself, chewing away at the rock, creeks becoming streams, streams becoming rivers. Wherever it finds cracks and the water pressure is sufficient, it surges to the surface as a spring. Or else it nibbles away capriciously at the surface soil until the roof comes crashing down as a sinkhole. In 1981 near Orlando, one such sinkhole swallowed a swimming pool, several houses, and a Porsche dealership.

Listening to his animated talk about the nuances of the aquifer, one quickly realizes that Wes Skiles is one of those rare, fortunate souls who's managed to carve out a living doing precisely what he loves most, deftly blurring the distinction between office and playground. Karst Environmental Services, which he owns and operates, is a sort of cave exploratory firm. Over the years, various government agencies and conservation groups have contracted Skiles's outfit to map and study spring caves in order to learn what's going on with the water supply. As part of his service, Skiles and some of his fellow Moles go down into caves and perform dye traces, measure volume and flow, take water samples, make detailed maps, and study the complex dynamics and hydrogeology at play. It's the kind of meticulous but also adventurous work that seems perfectly suited to Skiles, whose odd personality type might best be described as Fastidious Redneck. "Yep," he drawls as he pores over one of his blueprints. "I'm definitely the anal one of the bunch."

Skiles also runs a photography and filmmaking company, Karst Productions, that's in demand at underwater venues from Puerto Rico to southern Mexico to Australia. Whether as a photographer or explorer, Skiles has participated in some of the most ambitious cave-diving expeditions on the planet, including Bill Stone's 1994 push into Mexico's Huautla cave system.

Skiles made his first cave dive as a 15-year-old in 1973, right about the time that the Great Florida Cave Rush, as he calls it, was just heating up. Back then a frontier atmosphere of balls before brains prevailed. Equipment was primitive and fatalities were frequent, reaching a statewide high of 26 for the year 1974. By the late seventies, Skiles had emerged as an expert in cave-diving safety, his knowledge growing from his own close calls and from the onerous duty of recovering more than 30 bodies from flooded caves all across the Southeast and the Caribbean. In 1980, he became one of the designers of the National Speleological Society's cave-diving certification program, which has done much to halt the waste of life.

It was also during the early eighties that Skiles began to meet other cave divers of like-minded intensity--people such as Morris and Jasper--and the exploits of the Moles began in earnest.

Tom Morris started cave diving when he was 13, easing into the darkness with a flashlight in a plastic bag. Now 49, he serves as Skiles's key grip and business partner and is a freelance biologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of subterranean flora and fauna. He's a bearish man with curly gray hair and the perpetually cheerful outlook of the country boy who loved chasing animals and is still chasing them.

Woody Jasper, also 49, got into cave diving after a series of motocross mishaps wrecked his knees and forced him to use a wheelchair and crutches for the better part of a year. An industrial engineer who designs water purification systems, he's always been a tinkerer--"your basic junkyard engineer," Skiles calls him--with a talent for improvising that often comes in handy during the Moles' hastily arranged nocturnal expeditions.

Later, Skiles hooked up with Ron Simmons, a technical wizard who now is a state-of-the-art machinist at the University of Virginia, and Lamar Hires, a dive instructor who worked for a spell at the chemical company that makes the little dots of "Retsyn" that go into Certs. Today, Hires is a vice-president of a diving equipment company called Dive-Rite.

As the Moles started diving together, they quickly found they shared the same curious amalgam of personalities--part techie, part explorer, part contortionist. But above all, they were romantics, for whom virgin sites meant everything. And they were more than willing to construct their entire lives around their sport. Most of the Moles' wives and girlfriends became certified cave divers, if not full-fledged explorers, a shrewd accommodation to their mates' passion. "Dive with us," as Skiles puts it, "or don't see us."

Since he founded his business in 1983, Skiles and his buddies have managed to acquire the political know-how and connections needed to gain access to caves long sequestered on private land, and their explorations have gradually shaded from sport to science. They've sometimes played the role of biologists, documenting the odd species that swim in the stygian gloom of the aquifer. "There are some seriously strange creatures living in our drinking water," Morris says, such as the blind, white isopods and amphipods that feed off the natural chemicals in sunless water. Procambarus morrisi is the name the Smithsonian Institution gave a new species of crayfish that Morris discovered in Florida's Devil's Sink. In other caves, there is a delicate, spidery creature, known as Troglocambarus maclani, that is held together by water pressure and disintegrates when you try to bring it to the surface.

Karst Environmental has provided the Moles with some interesting work and has even paid a few bills, but in the end what has fueled their nearly lifelong obsession with Florida's spring caves is the simple thrill of figuring out where the great maze leads, discerning its master design. "The Floridan Aquifer is like a giant, mega-3-D puzzle in the earth," Skiles says, as he scrolls up the last of the maps and stashes them in the archives. "It's the most dynamic of all the underground river systems in the world. We're not into breaking records here. We're just a bunch of old friends trying to follow down this outrageous maze."

It's easy to underestimate the dangers of venturing into a water-filled cavity of the earth. A single misplaced fin-kick can stir up a cloud of silt that almost immediately reduces visibility to nil. A couple of detours down tempting tunnels, and the whole physical world has a way of rotating, like a trick bookcase in a haunted house, so you'd swear that in is out. And always the clock is ticking, the gauges running down. In 1976, a veteran Florida cave diver named Bill Hurst, realizing he'd made a fatal wrong turn that consumed the air he needed for his exit swim, took out his slate and used his last minutes to compose a farewell letter to his family.

Thirty-five minutes have now elapsed at Posted Spring, and Mark Long is still down there. The Moles know he's tapped into something significant by now. Either that or he's trapped and dying and drafting his own sayonara on a slate.

But just when the Moles are starting to get a little antsy, a pallid light winks at the murky bottom and a form comes hissing up from the depths like some mutant submarine.

It's Long, whipping off his mask, spitting, gasping. "Phawh! Graagh!" He looks up at his fellow Moles and beams, "Wow--that's a kick-ass flow! Forty feet straight down to a sand restriction, and flowing like a son-of-a-gun!"

"Any line in there?" Skiles asks, meaning, was the cave virgin after all?

"There is now," Long laughs.

That's enough of a briefing to set the rest of the Moles in motion. Soon Skiles and Jasper have strapped on their multicolored drysuits and lamps and side-mount tanks, looking as if they're heading out for some formal function in the fifth dimension. Before long, they're dropping down into the hole, one after the other, softly lighting up the black water like a candlelight procession.

A half-hour or so later they reemerge, hot-wired with adrenaline, gesturing wildly. "We ran out of line, big-time," Skiles says, showing his empty reel. "I was pushing through this gnarly passage, all branches and leaves, when I saw what I thought was somebody swimming down toward me--no light, no tank, just this black wetsuit. Bam! It smacks into my lamp. Then I realize, it's not a human, it's a six-foot gator! I think he was as scared as I was."

Everybody is raving about the flow, the flow! "I was brought to a standstill," Morris says after returning from his dive. "I was pulling for all I was worth and wasn't moving. I figured I had something snagged."

"That's about as pretty a virgin cave as you'll ever see," Skiles says.

"Just think," Jasper muses. "It was right under our noses all these years!"

The Moles have seen enough for tonight, so they hop into their boats and head back to camp, not far away on the bluff of the Suwannee River by a well-known spot called Sandbag Spring. It's a perfect bivouac site, the spring radiating a tender grandeur as it burbles out of the earth between two enormous tan boulders. Above us, a century-old live oak, its elephantine roots clutching limestone, holds out its hoary, moss-draped arms in benediction.

Fifty yards from our tents, a group of locals is holding a heavy-metal hoedown around a crackling bonfire, strains of Bon Jovi and Metallica invading the dark woods. "We'll drown 'em out,'' Skiles vows, and even before they light the campfire, the Moles stake their claim with the classic licks of the Allman Brothers. First things first.

Skiles has brought along a big Ziploc bag of gourmet barbecue, and there's a bottomless cooler of Coronas. It's been a few months since the Moles have had an outing together, and they have a lot of catching up to do.

A week ago, Morris and Skiles were in the Yucat¤n, laying line in Nohoch Nah Chich, the world's largest underwater cave. Hires has just returned from a cave-diving trip in Japan, while Jasper and Long have been pushing leads in their own secret caves closer to home, somewhere in the Floridan Aquifer. They really don't want to say too much about it--not even among the tribe.

Living as they do over the world's premier cave-diving pits, the Moles are constantly hosting out-of-town explorers, and expedition meetings tend to turn into parties where the talk always winds back to the old Suwannee County days and twice-told tales, like the one about the Telford Ghost.

"There were two old friends,'' Skiles begins, "who became lost while diving in a place not far from here called the Telford Sink. They got separated in the cave, and one of them found the exit and called for help.''

The sheriff's department organized a search, which went on for days. As one of the principal explorers of the Telford cave system, Skiles was the best hope for recovering the drowned friend.

"He must've made a hell of a swim in the wrong direction, because we never found a trace of him,'' Skiles says. "Meanwhile, the police discovered that the drowned diver had been on probation, and they started to suspect that the two friends had planned the whole thing, and that maybe the missing guy was on his way to Canada.

"Four years later, I'm sitting in a local restaurant eating breakfast, and Roger Warner, an old cave-diving buddy of mine, bursts in: 'Wes, Wes, I found him!' And I'm going, 'Who, Roger? Who did you find?' 'The guy in Telford!' 'What guy in Telford?' It turns out, Roger was way back in some little side tunnel laying exploration line, and looked up and saw this skeletonized hand reaching down toward him.''

Skiles makes an Edvard Munch face and imitates a gargled underwater scream.
"With Roger's next breath, the exhaust bubbles broke up the skeleton, and the bones came pouring out of the wetsuit, pelting down on him. A few days later, a couple of divers went back there and removed the guy's body. They kept his tank, and tried everything to get the stench out. In the end, they just had to throw it away.''

The woods are eerily silent now. The Moles have partied down the metalheads. "Sounds like they've run out of steam over there,'' Hires says, with evident pride.

We stare for a long while into the glowing embers of the fire and start to feel spooked. Twenty years ago, the Moles recall, there was a beautiful colonial-style mansion overlooking the Suwannee River here at Sandbag Spring. It fell into disrepair, then ruin.

Local legend tells that a man was electrocuted as he tried to pirate the copper wire in the house. For as long as the mansion stood derelict, cave divers kept spotting the man's ghost--the Sandbag Ghost, as he came to be known.

But over the years, campers cannibalized the house for firewood. Overzealous party animals finally burned the hulk to its foundations, and now not a trace remains, an illustration of the river's essential lesson: Erosion never rests.

The landowner is not pleased. her arms are sternly folded across the ample bosom of her floral-printed dress, and she's staring down at several of the Moles, who're in full wetsuits and preparing to plunge into a certain sinkhole, not far from Posted Spring, that's squarely on her property: Caught in the act.

Skiles sheepishly approaches the woman and brandishes an official-looking waiver, presigned by the Moles.

"I know you won't sue me," counters the landowner, whose name, we learn, is Mrs. Clara L. "You'll be dead. But what about that wife of yours?"

It doesn't take long for the Moles to "Yes, Ma'am" and "No, Ma'am" her into butter-soft compliance.

"Oh, all right, I suppose," Mrs. L says. "Only don't stay down there more than an hour, hear?"

Now the Moles are free to follow the Posted Spring clues wherever they may lead. Over the past two days, the Moles have succeeded in extending the cave in all directions, laying several thousand feet of line. The Moles shake Mrs. L's hand, and then turn their attention back to the sinkhole, a little foxhole of green slime that the Moles feel certain will connect with Posted Spring.

This time, I'm going in too.

I follow Skiles as he kicks for the bottom, unreeling line as he goes. Swimming behind him and holding on to the line as it descends into the spring, I remember the childhood hand-game that involves dropping a marble into an opaque maze, listening as it rolls and natters down through invisible gaps into the many mysterious levels of the contraption.
Once inside the cave, the visibility opens up, and Skiles gestures graciously for me to precede him. I find myself winding down a beautiful chimney of ancient stone. The ceiling is dark, with pendulous knobs that look like coffee-stained dentures. The passage dips down to 50 feet, where we come to the first serious restriction. The space is only about a foot and a half high, but Skiles has taught me how to stretch out and assume the Mole posture.

Still, for a few long moments it feels like I'm wedged in. I look behind me--a big mistake, much like looking down when you're climbing a sheer cliff. All I can see is the dim glow of my own light. I've stirred up a thick cloud of sediment. I feel like a bug crushed between two colossal slabs of peanut brittle, and I want out.

So this is "the small stuff," I think, trying not to panic. I can hear my own galloping heartbeat and the constant cascade of bubbles. I remember a story that Woody Jasper once told me about being trapped deep in a cave much like this one. For inspiration, he recalled the words of Harry Houdini: "There's always slack somewhere.'' I'm wallowing in slack and just don't know it.

Sure enough, after the silt settles, I do find the slack and somehow shimmy through. Now Skiles and I cruise over steep ski slopes of sand, through galleries of clear blue water and gleaming limestone. We shine our lights into enticing side tunnels and fractures in the roof. Not only does this cave connect up to Posted Spring; it goes on and on and on. The Moles don't know how far yet, but it's getting more spacious as it drops ever deeper, tapping into the full flood of the Floridan Aquifer.

It's everything Skiles had been hoping for, the Missing Link he was dreaming about back in his map room.

When we sail out of the exurgence and pop out into daylight with Mrs. L peering down at us, arms akimbo, I feel the momentary euphoria one feels after narrowly avoiding a lethal car crash.

"How'd you like that?" Skiles asks.

I liked it, I say, meaning it.

"Yeah," Skiles says, with a laugh. "Restrictions are a hell of a lot of fun."

Yet even as he says this, his attention is focused elsewhere, his eyes darting across Mrs. L's field toward a limpid pool of springwater shimmering through the trees, his mind already limning the edges of the next intriguing horror hole.

Bucky McMahon is a frequent contributor to Outside. His "Goatsucker Sighted, Details to Follow" appeared in the September issue.

Photographs by Wes Skiles

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