– Valentine’s Day, 1991. Indian Ford Cave, just outside Vienna, Mo. I had an important late-afternoon date with my five-year-old kindergartner. The party at Belle Elementary School was going to start at 1:30. There was plenty of time to do some morning spelunking in Indian Ford Cave, a wonderful cavern near the top of an east-facing bluff on the Gasconade River near Vienna, Mo. The mouth of the cave showed signs of vandalism, which was all the more incredible because of how difficult it was to reach the cave: either by a steep ascent from the muddy river bank or by rappelling down from above, which was supposed to require permission from the landowner. I had a copy of the permission letter in my pocket, so it was with confidence that I unsnapped the log chain that kept vehicles from reaching the top of the bluff.
It was starting to rain when my friend, Mark, drove his pickup over the trickling low-water crossing and up the hill. We rappelled (more like shimmied) down to the cave mouth, armed with headlamps, lanterns, flashlights, waterproof matches, a pick-axe and a folding camp shovel. Mark had done some research at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Rolla and I had found an out-of-print book about Missouri caves that made a strong case for an unexplored passageway inside Indian Ford that led to a massive, undiscovered cavern that would rival any in the state. The pick-axe and shovel were simply going to be prodding instruments. We had no intention to dig holes or deface Indian Ford.
The first 30 feet or so of the cave was easily accessible. The ceiling was more than 10 feet high; the room was at least 20 feet wide. Beyond the reach of light, however, a wall of rock appeared, reducing the cave ceiling to about three feet. You could only forge ahead by use of artificial light. And crawling. Where a trickle of water ran across rounded pebbles. We were careful not to kneel or crawl in the fragile streambed. After about 20 feet of crawling, the passage opened to standing height, eventually leading to an enormous, nearly round room with a 30-foot-high ceiling, where a deep sponge of guano — bat droppings — covering the floor.
We didn’t find the hidden passageway to the undiscovered cavern, but there was a recessed area where silt and rock had collected. We immediately declared the spot as the entrance to the mythical cavern. As we studied the situation and wondered what sort of equipment we’d need to open the blockage, the cave floor grew even more wet.
I’m not sure which one of us noticed that the stream in the crawl space had spread from wall to wall, but it was Mark who said, “This cave floods. We gotta go.” He quickly shined a light on the water marks that circled the big room. “We gotta go,” he repeated, more urgently. By the time we retreated through the crawl space, the trickling stream was about a foot deep. I felt the water on my chin as I reached the end and pulled myself up into the cave mouth. I realized then that the cave charted a significant drop from the mouth.
Even the most experienced spelunkers talk about how easily disoriented one can become inside the darkness of a cave. Mark and I weren’t “the most experienced,” but we weren’t exactly novices, either. Later, after getting home well past the kindergarten Valentine party; after managing to climb back up to the area where the truck was parked — in a driving rainstorm; after walking across the low-water crossing in nearly waist-deep, cascading water, anchored to Mark’s truck by a log rope tied around me (his truck wasn’t going to make it across); after walking to a nearby home to make a phone call to the school … I read another cave book that warned: “Indian Ford Cave’s innermost passages and cavern are prone to flooding.”