A River Runs Through It
Written for the
and the SCAG newsletter around June 2000.
During the Spring 2000 NRO, held in Cobleskill the weekend of the 13th and 14th of May, I took a trip to Knox Cave (as did about half of the people at the NRO). This was my first trip to Knox in a few years, and I went with a specific agenda. I was looking for virgin cave. I even took along a garden trowel, since I didn't expect to just walk right into previously unknown passages.
Just to recap for those who may not know, or may have forgotten, my last trip to Knox turned out to be somewhat eventful. We went all the way to the Alabaster Room, and while there, I noticed gaping blackness through some rocks. That was when I remembered having noticed the same thing on my first trip to the Alabaster room several years before then. I had made a mental note to bring some minor digging tools, such as a small pry bar the next time I returned. Unfortunately, the mental note wasn't very enduring so there I was confronted by the same gaping blackness sheltered behind the same rock as on the first trip. Not willing to be cheated easily I decided to see what I could do armed with nothing but my hands and my wits, and lay down in the crawl leading to the rocks and started pulling at them. Fortunately, the rocks were moved fairly readily, and in about 20 minutes there was an opening easily large enough to crawl through, so I crawled through it. I found myself in a low, narrow crawl a couple of yards long, which opened into a room. At the time I estimated the room to be about 20 feet wide and 60 feet long. Unfortunately the height was not nearly as impressive; along the perimeter the room was about 18 or 20 inches high, while most of it was no more than 9 or 10 inches. Being well familiar with the rumors of Negley's lost Football Room, I decided that this must be the fabled room, and that it's size had been overstated. Since I was alone, I made a quick circuit of the room, and decided that there were two places that had minor potential to yield more cave. Despite this discovery, I somehow managed to not get back to the Alabaster Room for nearly 5 years.
Apparently, in those intervening years very few people have visited the room. With the NRO happening practically down the road from Knox I decided it was high time to return to my discovery and see if there were more discoveries waiting. I looked for others to join me. I dangled the prospect of virgin cave as bait to attend the NRO. I told almost everybody who would listen that I was going to the Alabaster Room and I was going to find more cave. I was obviously tempting the cave gods, and setting myself up to devote a lot of energy and come up empty.
There were severe thunderstorms, accompanied by high winds and prodigious amounts of rain during the night, but morning produced fairly clear skies, and rested cavers in good spirits. So it was that seven of us rolled out of the NRO at 9:45 on Saturday morning on our way to Knox Cave. We didn't yet know that about 30 others had rolled out at 9:30, also on their way to Knox. We arrived at the parking area to find about 12 cars, and twice as many cavers getting dressed. We got ready and walked to the cave where we found a nice waterfall flowing into the sinkhole. Once in the cave we proceeded directly to the Gunbarrel, where we found that a group from the Northern New Jersey Grotto had just started through. Unfortunately, they were waiting until one person had made it all the way through before sending the next person. This proved convenient when one of their group decided to retreat, but it meant that we had to wait for about an hour before we could start. Once it was our turn we followed each other fairly closely, getting the whole group through in about 15 minutes.
Once on the far side we proceeded to the 30 foot climb at the Great Divide, where a few of us were able to make the squeeze and the rest were belayed up the climb. Next we worked our way 100 yards through the Crystal Crawl, finally reaching the Alabaster Room. We decide to take a rest break, and have a snack. Since one of our group was fairly new to caving and I happened to find an obviously well-traveled roll of wintergreen lifesavers in my pack we also spent a few minutes enjoying the darkness.
A group of four French Canadians had followed us into the Alabaster Room, and while I was closing up my pack one of them, Allain, started into the room I had found on the previous trip. It turns out he was one of the few people who had been there before, but had only ventured a few yards on his first trip. This meant that he was now ahead of me as I crawled into the room to find the virgin cave that I was sure lay somewhere beyond it's edges.
My recollection of the room was that it was roughly rectangular, filled with sediment, and had two spots along the northwestern edge that looked like there was some drainage. It was in those spots that I hoped to continue. In reality, the room was quite a bit different than I remembered it. While it was roughly rectangular and filled with sediment, there was a lot of broken rock along the perimeter, rather than the sediment I had hoped to move fairly easily. There was however, the low spot that appeared to be a drain route, but it ran under a good deal of rock. Further up ahead, Allain had reached a spot where the ceiling and floor were even closer together than in most of the room. Beyond him I could see what may have been the second spot I considered hopeful on my first exploration; there was an obvious low spot in the floor, with thin bedded rock that looked like it might be moved without extreme efforts. As I crawled closer, he told me to be quiet and listen. There was a very familiar sounding noise. It was the unmistakeable sound of flowing water, and it seemed to come from just beyond the low spot in the floor.
From where I lay, the crawl didn't look too bad, and I asked Allain if he wanted to go have a look. He began to empty his pockets of various things, and then pushed forward, toward the noise. At this time two more of the French Canadians were crawling up toward me, and after turning to talk with them briefly, I turned back to see Allain's head sticking up from the low spot. "I'm standing up" he said.
By this time I had crawled forward to the beginning of the low spot leading to the hole in the floor, and I started toward him. The height of this part of the room was even lower than it had looked from a few yards away, and I found it very tight. I took the garden trowel from my pack and began scraping sideways to lower the floor a little bit. As it turns out, besides the sediment on the floor, there is also some of the same flat rock that makes up the ceiling, so I was only able to gain 1/2 to 1 inch of extra height. Still, it was enough that I could squeeze ahead, and in a matter of 5 minutes or so I progressed the 15 feet to the hole. I literally tumbled into it, and then slid feet first down a muddy slope, stopping at a large peice of breakdown. I was in a room about 20 to 25 feet wide, perhaps 100 feet long, and 12 to 15 feet high in the middle. The ceiling was mostly flat with some ledges, and on each side the floor sloped toward the center of the room. Down the center flowed a small, but noisy stream.
To the left, at the upstream end, was a sump about 10 or 15 feet beyond the end of the room. To the right the stream exited the room through a low spot amongst some breakdown. We could see what looked like it might be another sump about 15 feet ahead. Allain headed in and I followed behind a moment later. We continued on our hands and knees, and sometimes our bellies for about 100 feet, before reaching a sump. A small muddy passage continued higher along the right side, and Allain followed it for about another 15 feet before stopping in continuing passage. I had left my pack at the start of the low crawl leaving the first room, and my carbide lamp was not behaving very well. Allain, I now discovered, had left his pack at the beginning of the gunbarrel. We were very poorly equipped to be exploring virgin cave, so we both returned to the stream room where we found the second French Canadian ready to crawl in and join us. My sense of direction said the stream was flowing north, but my knowledge of the area said that the stream should be flowing south. Since Allain's group had a compass we called for it to be sent in to us. The first compass reading confirmed my geographical instincts, and indicated that the stream was in fact flowing south. Knowing that reversing compass headings isn't unheard of, and being unable to reconcile a south flowing stream with the route we had followed to get there, I asked for a second opinion. That confirmed that south was indeed the direction of both the stream and the passage it followed (or vice versa).
We estimated that at out furthest point we were about 15 feet lower than the floor of the Alabaster Room, which is still about 15 or 20 feet higher than the beginning of the Gunbarrel. Where the passage goes and what it will eventually yield remain to be seen. The passage may continue right under the rest of the cave; the stream does not seem to be found elsewhere in the cave, unless perhaps it is the source of the Fish Pool just before the Gunbarrel.
Addendum: While Allain was the first one into the new room, most people are giving me the credit for the discovery. As such, there was some hesitation for other people to push the stream crawl, since many thought it was my right to be the first. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get back to the cave in the next several weeks, and insisted that I had no preferential rights and that the people who wanted to explore it should do so, especially since they were planning on doing the survey. Chuck Porter instigated a trip to check on the new discoveries for a report in the Northeastern Caver, accompanied by his son, Eric, as well as Art and Peg Palmer. Art returned soon after to begin survey work, accompanied by Peg, Chuck, and Rob Svensson. The initial survey tallied 367 feet for the two rooms and the part of the stream passage explored by Allain and me. Further survey trips included Nancy Aulenbach, Peter Haberland, and Claire Anderson. The final survey showed a total length of 940 feet of new passage, with the stream passage accounting for about 600 feet. The passage remains low and unpleasant for its entire length, and features two low near sumps before finally terminating at a real sump. The terminal sump is located a bit below and east of the north (inner) end of the Gunbarrel. These discoveries pushed the cave to a new depth of 138 feet, which is 4 feet deeper than previously known passage, and also pushed the length well over a kilometer, reaching almost 1300 meters.
The December 2000 issue of the Northeastern Caver contains an article by Art Palmer that has a detailed update on work at Knox since the early 70's. The article covers the survey in thorough detail, and also describes some of the new speleological insights that have resulted.