We turned toward Hugh, who was on his stomach next to the hole, shining the big light down. Creeping up carefully, Lena and I peered into the round, straight-sided limestone shaft, about ten feet across.
“How deep?” asked Lena.
“Thirty feet,” said Hugh. “Guesstimate.” The sparse cave stream poured over the edge next to him, plummeting noisily down the shaft and into a hole in the floor way below.
“That drain,” Hugh shone his big light at the hole, “must head toward the Green, Green River, which is only about two hundred feet that way” – he pointed toward the far wall – “north.” He got up and we backed away from the hole, stepping carefully in the slick mud.
“We shouldn’t be so close without a safety rope,” Lena said, but Hugh was shining the superlight around, and had found the hole in the wall of the big cave room.
“That has always been full of water,” he said, striding over and bending to look inside.
"Let’s go,” he called, disappearing into the hole.
“Wait,” said Lena as we leaned inside the small opening, lights showing a narrow muddy passageway that sloped steeply downward. “What are you planning to do?”
“We’re here, we have the time, let’s see if this goes,” Hugh called back, his voice muffled by the tight space.
Lena turned to me. “Can you manage this?” she asked.
“Only one way to find out,” I said, and began climbing down the steep corkscrewing passage, feet first.
“Go Mom,” she said, scrambling in behind me. The tight walls supported my shoulders as I scooted down, feet seeking the way, Lena close above, both of us accumulating a mud coating. I soon heard Hugh’s voice. His light was shining on my feet.
He called, “Just lie down and scoot out on your butt and back,” and I slid out a two-foot hole onto the floor of the shaft. I got up, followed by Lena, and stepped through the pattering waterfall. Hugh was shining the superlight at the drain in the floor.
“It goes!” he cried excitedly, and sat down on the edge of the hole, looking around for us to follow.
“Can you just wait a minute,” I said. Lena shone her headlamp at the sides of the shaft, the waterfall, the small side hole we had emerged from, and upward to the rim of the shaft, now thirty feet above us.
“What’s the plan, Stan?” she called to Hugh over the racket of the waterfall, loud in the confined space of the shaft. Removing a chocolate bar from a pocket, she broke off a chunk and handed it to me.
“Water break,” she said, deliberately slowing the pace. Hugh got up and joined us. We had a long cool drink from our canteens and relished our candy bars.
“It’s only another two hundred feet to the river,” repeated Hugh, wolfing down his snack. “Based on what we already know, this drain here should drop ten feet and then go right under the river.” He adjusted his pack, put the superlight away, and turned toward the drain hole.
“You are saying that this little hole here goes underneath the Green, Green River?” I asked. This situation was beyond my comfort zone. “Is this safe?”
“I think,” said Hugh, visibly impatient, “And Steve Roberts thinks, along with our entire science team - ”
Lena raised her eyebrows to interject, “A whole five people,” as he continued.
“The Pleistocene re-set of the river’s north shore re-opened a passage that went under the river during that ancient era. Water pressure here, in this drain, pushed open a plug. We can now get under the Green, Green River and into the Pleistocene via this drain. It’s the path the cat used.”
He said, “We have been in here only an hour. Let’s give it one more hour. OK?” We nodded.
“C’mon,” he said, scrambling into the small drain. I followed, Lena behind, climbing down, leaning away from the water. The drain was smaller than the last climb-down and I slid down the slick rock face. We scrambled downward on ledges, back and forth across the vertical drain. We climbed down one side of the widening canyon once our legs were unable to bridge the gap. Hugh’s light shone up from below and he shouted something I could not hear above the noise of the waterfall.
“What’d he say, did you hear?” I called up to Lena.
She puffed, “This is longer than he said it would be. Damn it.”
I heard Hugh again, and reported to Lena, “He said ‘hand-line.’ ”
“Oh shit,” she said, “Wait a minute, ok?” I held onto the wall as she opened her pack, removed a rope, and tied it off on a projecting rock. The line dangled down toward Hugh’s light, fifteen feet below.
“OK,” she instructed, “Hold onto the line the rest of the way down. You may have to drop.” I edged carefully down, one hand and arm wrapped around the slender line. Next step, my left foot met empty space.
Hugh called, “It’s only a three-foot drop. Use the line to brace yourself – straighten out –” he was right there, holding on as I dropped, plummeted and landed. I let go of the line as Lena landed lightly behind me. We were in a small bowl-shaped room. To go back, we would have to climb up into the wide drain hole in the room’s low ceiling. Water from the drain flowed across the flat floor into a side passage. Something shiny on the floor –
“Is this cool or what,” said Hugh, walking over to an inflated dinghy. He spoke loudly over the racket of the water. “This was sucked all the way down here when the lake emptied.” He lifted and dropped it. “You saw there was only one up there, at the landing, right?”
“Why did it stop here?” asked Lena. She shone her light at the small passageway ahead.
“Maybe the suction dropped, at this point,” said Hugh, “Like, you know, the giant toilet bowl flush was complete.” I envisioned the rubber raft being yanked from its rope, circling the shaft and plummeting as the lake room emptied, then being sucked into the canyon we had just scrambled down. I’m mentally tough – have to be – but with the distance piling up between us and the blue sky above, I was feeling a little bit uneasy.
“Not much use here, is it?” I said, masking my discomfort with a kick at the poor lonely thing, stranded down here. Lena, who knows me well, shot me a look.
Hugh laughed and said, “We’re about ten feet below the bed of the Green, Green River – and that passage will take us underneath it to the Pleistocene.” He said, “I hope you understand how important this is,” and led the way. The three of us hunched over to fit into the narrow five-foot passage and headed north, splashing in the stream.
Excerpt from Ten Thousand Secrets National Park (c) 2015 Hilary A.B. Lambert