The Other Side

Goliath’s Cave, the Iconoclast Section

Saturday, November 26, 2005


The last thing John Ackerman wants to do is dive another cave sump. But he and John Preston have worked throughout the last month preparing for this moment, reviewing the entire trip more times than he can count. They have carefully compiled just the right mixture of scuba gear, surveying equipment, and survival provisions. And here he is, suiting up with Preston to scuba dive a tight, difficult crossing into the newly discovered cave—now named the Iconoclast Section.


Ackerman has spent hours—and, most recently, sleepless nights—contemplating every detail of this dive. He has worried over every inch of Preston’s pencil-drawn sketch. The angled rocky descent of almost twenty feet that stops at a rock wall. The right turn into a harrowing tunnel with a flat, sandy bottom. The few more feet of straight passage that turns into a vertical chute, rising twelve feet and surfacing under a thundering waterfall.


He can trace that passage on a paper napkin. What he wonders now is why he ever agreed to come.


Once again, they gear up in the narrow passage twenty feet back from the lip of the entry point, so the water will remain clear. Clay Kraus, Dave Gerboth, and Charlie Graling, who have helped carry loads for this trip, listen to the two discuss, try to help. But the divers are in some other zone, a region permeated with fear, driven by adrenaline, riddled with a rising pitch of excitement that is palpable in the dark underworld passage.


Preston can feel Ackerman’s anxiety. It is completely understandable, even warranted. They have already spent so much time planning and talking about this excursion, this misadventure, this great exploration and survey, there is no other reason for rehashing the trip except to blow off steam. 


“We just follow the cave line,” Preston says. He hopes the line is still well anchored and taut. The thin nylon cord has been stretched almost forty-five feet through the underwater passage for nearly a month. “And then there’s the silt,” Preston adds. “I wish the current were stronger. As soon as we enter the water, this place will turn dark as a coal digger’s backside.” Preston doesn’t smile when saying that.


Although the dive is dangerous, maybe even foolhardy, perhaps downright crazy, Ackerman must see with his own eyes what lies on the other side. His desire to explore pristine cave exceeds his fear. But only by the thinnest margin.


Getting to the sump has already felt like a day’s work. This time, they hauled enough gear for two divers as well as everything required to explore and survey a large, pristine cave of unknown length. And this time, they are allowing themselves plenty of time for the exploration, approximately eight hours.


Walking on the surface, in a straight line, the 850-foot trek would be easy—just shy of a football field. But down here it is completely dark, and they are twisting and turning through a catacomb with wild walls and jagged edges and a rock-strewn, watery floor. 


The seventy-five feet of passage from the bottom of David’s Entrance to the Side Tributary is the easy part. Kraus, Gerboth, Graling, and the two Johns ferry the equipment to the entry point. After a brief pause, they start into the longer length of water-filled side channel. They wade through knee-deep water, sometimes squatting to move through its sharp-edged length. In the twists and turns, there are places where they have to wedge through sideways, arms extended and burdened with dive tanks, back plates, and related gear. Their deltoids strain with the effort. It is back-breaking labor.

But now it’s done.


When they gathered their gear on top, it was 10:00 am and 18 degrees. By the time they haul their gear down the cavern length, holding at its steady 47 degrees, and suit up at the entryway, it is 11:40 am, and they are warmed by the exertion.


But right now Ackerman isn’t thinking about being overheated. He is not thinking about their return from the other side. Right now he is only thinking about making it from this side to the next.


Digital camera, ten aaa batteries, emergency blanket, candle and waterproof matches, mini-tripod, four glow sticks, eye drops, Band-Aids, and Advil, all stuffed into one watertight canister for dry transport to the other side.

Camera flash, second emergency blanket, backup headlamp, multipurpose knife/tool, line markers, cleaning cloth, and extra ziplock bags, in another canister.


Preston carries a wet notes board for taking notes in inclement environs, with a clip, two mini backup lights, a main headlamp, more batteries, two bottles of water, four Power Bars, and a small spool.


This is the lightest portion of their equipment. Ackerman wears a stainless-steel back plate with a side harness for holding a forty-cubic-foot air tank on the left. He wears a fifteen-pound weight belt—and, of course, he carefully secures a line-cutting tool in his waistband. He has a scout light with a small pack on his right side and another light attached with a lanyard to his wrist.


Preston has been wearing his fourteen-pound weight belt since he descended the ladder from up top. Now he affixes his harness and attaches the forty-cubic-foot tank to it, tucked under his left arm, at his side. He, too, slips a standard line-cutting tool into his belt. Then he attaches one of their supply canisters to his right side and the second canister to his left, tucked up beside his tank. He has his Halcyon bellows pocket attached to his left side. The bellows pocket holds his wet notes, two bottles of water, a fifty-foot tape measure, and his headlamp. On a right-side waist ring he has hooked a second safety spool. And on his left-side ring he has attached a compass. He sticks his cave gloves and some related gear into the back of his wet suit and wears his dive timer and a scout light on his left hand.


“Okay,” he says to Ackerman. “Let’s roll.”


Ackerman checks his regulator, and the airflow is good. He checks his mask and clears it one last time.


“If we aren’t back by 8:00 pm, you know what to do,” he calls back to Gerboth, Kraus, and Graling.


“We know,” they say almost in unison.


They hope they never have to act on the plan. If the divers don’t return, another cave diver on standby can reach the site within an hour and will try to follow them in. Ackerman has also brought along a small radio transmitter. If they become hurt or for some other reason cannot exit the cave and return, he’ll set up the transmitter in the best location he can find. A drilling rig is also on call. Drilling would take time, but if they knew where to dig, they’d make it down.


Ackerman crosses the twenty feet of stream length toward the sump. He is careful to move so his steps won’t rile the water and start clouding the narrow pool. He glances over the edge and peers into the lucid waters.


He can see the white dive line Preston laid down on his earlier dive disappearing into the long, rocky corridor. And now Ackerman is going to enter the Side Tributary sump while the water is clear. And he will stay just ahead of the silt-out.

Preston will follow him blind.



Ackerman enters the shallow end of the sump and begins to lower himself into the clear water. He has carefully positioned his gear so he will avoid another line entanglement like the one that almost took his life. The water is cold, and he tries to concentrate on the tactile sense of it. Mentally, emotionally, he is wound up tight as a choked dive reel, and he knows he has to stop thinking about it. He tries to take one long breath and blow out his anxiety with his exhale. But it isn’t working.


The edges of the sump behind him are already starting to cloud. He tries to lower himself deeper into the clear end of the pool, but he feels too buoyant. The extra pound he has given himself on his weight belt isn’t enough. He tries to bob and turn and get down under the surface. The water starts to cloud behind and around him, and he knows if he wants to get through this passage he is going to have to get down before the water is completely riled and silted in. He will not enter that passage blind, and so he turns and grabs hold of the jagged-edged side and pulls himself down. The effort riles more water behind and around him, but when he peers down, he can still see the clear, boulder-strewn corridor length angling down away from the sump’s entrance, disappearing into darkness. He turns and kicks, and suddenly he is under the surface.


His light shines along the white dive line as he dives deeper. But when he looks up ahead, just another four or five feet down the angled slope, what he sees shocks him. The line disappears beneath four or five large limestone slabs.

Ackerman stops. He shines his light along the corridor’s roof, but even in the shadows it looks solid and clean. It must be breakdown from Preston’s last fractious exit. Carefully, his heart pumping in his ears, remembering to breathe, the sound of his exhaling bubbles rising into the sump behind him, he moves along the line. He ventures to the point where it disappears beneath the limestone slabs, and he spends a few precious seconds pulling the rocks off of the line. He watches them tumble down the corridor slope, trailing smoke behind them. Now the white dive line is free, but the water is clouding in. Unless he moves quickly, he will have to resurface and call off the dive.


He pushes down the length and gets beyond the clouded water, and his clarity returns. He comes to the blank wall Preston described to him earlier and sketched in crude pencil, and he instinctively turns right. And suddenly he is in a long, low, flat, sandy passage, and for just one instant it appears inviting, and he pushes farther into the passage along the clear bottom.


But what he feels next threatens to undo him. He feels the safety line drag along over his hoses, along his harness, down his right leg. He feels himself becoming entangled. He has a fleeting moment of panic. He wants to scurry ahead, leap toward the surface he imagines must be close. Or turn around. But behind him the silty water is following like a reaching dark cloud. If he moves suddenly ahead, he is likely to become more entangled.


He inches forward slowly. He remembers the dragon. The one inside his head that threatened his life just four years ago. The one he has to face down. He cannot panic. He was able to survive his first cave dive by remaining calm.

But his heart feels trapped in its narrow bone cage, and his head is screaming run, swim, surface, and it is all Ackerman can do to inch slowly forward and struggle to remain calm.


Ackerman’s progress has been slow. Behind him, Preston waited a full two minutes before entering the sump. By the time he lowered himself into the water, it was almost entirely clouded over. He looked down, gathered the line in his right hand, made sure he could feel it and sense its angled trajectory into the boulder-strewn corridor, and dropped headfirst into the abyss.


For all his experience underwater in tight situations, Preston doesn’t like the silted-out, sharp-edged quarters typical of diving Minnesota’s karst region. He carefully descends into the corridor. He can see the water riled in front of him. Near the bottom he levels out and senses the moment when he is about to hit the wall.


His hand feels the structure, and he gropes in the darkness to be certain it is the wall. And then he turns right, moving along what he knows is the sandy bottom. He is still holding the line, still moving along its almost invisible length.

And then suddenly there is a foot in front of him. He can see it only inches away, with the white dive line wrapped around it. Even through the murky darkness, he can almost feel the foot’s tension.


Preston reaches forward and gives the line a simple, freeing twist, and the rope drops away. The foot flashes as it disappears in the murk. Preston waits.


Ackerman can still see in front of him. He has not felt Preston’s hand move down the line and slip it from his foot. But he senses some kind of release, and, unencumbered, he kicks forward.


He hears something. He looks up, and his light shines through ten feet of clear, narrow passage. What he sees sends an electric jolt through his entire frame. He rises to the sound of pounding water, to the image of clear water falling on the surface of a pool in a cave he has never seen.


When he rises into the narrow sump with the five-foot waterfall drumming its surface, he sees exactly what Preston told him. The walls rise in a pockmarked, vertical climb at least five feet before he can exit and get out of his gear. Ackerman chimneys up the narrow space quickly and efficiently, stepping off to the side and shedding almost all of his gear before Preston’s head breaks the cloudy surface.


Preston is bigger than Ackerman and not as adept at climbing out of tight quarters. He struggles with his burden. Ackerman reaches down and gives him a hand with his gear, and then a hand up.


In the close confines of this chamber, the waterfall thunders and the men can barely hear each other’s whoops. They recognize each other’s smiles. Preston motions to the place where he stowed his gear the only other time anyone has been here. Ackerman picks up his equipment and starts walking down the narrow cave.


He is impressed with this entrance, much larger than what he expected. And the dry, spacious sit-down room is the perfect place to stow their gear and get their bearings. Ackerman’s heart is still singing a few octaves higher than its normal pitch. The second he broke the surface of the pool, he felt he had again cheated death. His adrenaline has not yet ebbed. The realization that eventually he will have to climb back into that underwater maze, and this time more than likely without visibility, is so far in the back of his mind it is barely a thought.



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