Trip ReportTrip Date: Sep 23 2022
Fall MVOR: Blackfathom River Cave & Rimstone River Cave
A weekend of caving in Perry County, Missouri for the Fall MVOR event including trips to two of the longest caves in the state.
MVOR (Mississippi Valley Ozark Region) seems to be the “SERA-equivalent” of my new home base here in Missouri. It is my understanding that these events can sometimes be more about the party than the caving. However, this Fall MVOR was being hosted in the town of Perryville in Perry County. Located just south of St. Louis, Perry County is home to 4 of the 5 longest caves in the state. The event was looking to be filled with plenty of unique cave trips and I figured it’d be a good opportunity to network and meet some more cavers in the area, so I decided to attend. This was actually the first caving event of this type that I have ever attended.
From the get-go, it was going to be a rough start. I had a schedule conflict that would have stopped any sane person from making it to Friday’s planned caving trip. We had tickets to a concert in Lawrence, Kansas to see our all time favorite band we never miss on Thursday. In the best case scenario, I would be asleep by midnight, and out the door the next morning by 5am to make it in time.
I met my goal and was in bed just shy of midnight on Thursday. I woke up at 4:30am and somehow managed to make it out the door by 4:40am. I arrived in Perryville, MO at 9am, giving me enough time to freshen up and eat before the crew of cavers for the trip arrived to meet me and lead me over to the cave.
Blackfathom River Cave is located in Ste.Genevieve County, the adjacent county to the North. It was still less than a 20-minute drive from the event. The cave is managed by the Missouri Caves & Karst Conservancy (MCKC) and accessible by permit. The 7+ mile cave is the 7th longest in the state. Our trip leader, Chad McCain, has spent more time in this cave than perhaps anyone else and is one of two cartographers for the very nicely drawn 8-panel map. The cave has multiple entrances, but we would be entering via a 113’ pit dug open in 2012 which intersects the middle of the cave’s stream passage. Chad rigged the cave the previous day with a traverse line and two ropes to make for a quicker exit.
There were a total of 7 cavers on this trip. The landowner, Bob, arrived to greet us and show us to the cave. Parking was just inside a gate at the top of a grassy hill, but higher clearance vehicles could drive another couple hundred feet down the hill within 20’ of the entrance. We were all assembled there around 10am, and making our way in by 10:30am. Chad was assisting everyone on rope and I was the last person to drop ahead of him at 11am. I don’t think the pits get very much bigger than this in Missouri and I enjoyed a nice rappel to the bottom.
With all of us properly equipped with wetsuits, the plan was to do the downstream through-trip which exits via a swim in the Blackfathom River to the original entrance. However, the 20% of rain was enough to force us to cancel those plans as the cave can easily flood up to the ceiling. Instead, the plan was to explore a good portion of the upstream passage, then return to go downstream if time permitted.
The upstream passage began as easy walking along the cobble filled stream. The ledges and walls were all very dark colored. The constant flow of water has clean washed all of the mud which was quite a contrast to the boot-sucking mud in the rivers of Carol Cave. The water varied from ankle to waist deep and was particularly clear (which Chad was very excited to point out many times throughout the trip). The clear water helped us spot what is certainly the most unique wildlife I have ever witnessed in a cave before: catfish!
Apparently there is some type of pond upstream from the cave which is filled with catfish. I’m not sure if it’s a breeding operation, or if the catfish are just naturally thriving. But during heavy rains, the pond overflows into some type of inlet into the cave. Some time ago, a fence was constructed to prevent this from happening, but the smaller catfish have still been getting through and have been a regular feature of this cave throughout its time of human exploration. I was told that early on before this fence was built, some of the catfish that populated the cave were up to ~2-3’ long. Within just a few minutes of heading upstream, Chad pointed out a couple of small catfish. I saw around 20 fish throughout the trip. So bizarre!
The upstream passage reminded me a lot of Gourdneck Cave, with a nearly continuous display of nice formations. Long walls of flowstone and white formations standing out against the dark colored rock floors. We eventually encountered an anchored ladder which leads up to the “Catwalk”, a high bypass to a short sumped area of the stream which is very decorated. The passage was impressively sized and filled with white-colored formations at every level. We noticed some large ceiling formations which seem to have broken off fairly recently, leaving an exposed white patch on the ceiling where they once hung. We continued to spot several catfish and carp, some as big as 1.5-2’ long.
At 11:45am, we reached the “Waterfall Junction” where a slanted flowstone trough of water drains a significant infeeder passage. The ceiling extends up 50’ here and also contains a segment of deeper water where we continued to spot more fish. Nearby, a cache of tooth fossils collected throughout the survey trips was put on display by Chad, containing both horse and camel teeth. We passed a formation constriction in the stream passage that was just tight enough that it forced us to duck under and get part of our faces wet rather than trying to flop onto the top of the sloping flowstone and risk breaking any formations.
We eventually reached an area of the cave with a Lord of the Rings naming scheme where we would spend some time exploring some of the rarely visited upper levels of the cave. Just before arriving, Chad pointed out a very cool snake fossil embedded onto a floor ledge, a highlight of the cave for me. We climbed up to “Khazad-dum” which featured a 3” diameter 6’ tall totem, some neat exposed bedding textures, and lots of draperies. Next we walked ahead to “Moria”, a tall multilevel area. A couple of us climbed up a muddy slot to see an enormous 40’ diameter flowstone column with drapery formations at the bottom. The draperies changed from a smooth texture to one suddenly littered with grape sized popcorn nodules at a spot where the water must have once pooled (but was presently entirely dry).
Prior to exploring these upper rooms, we had a bit of an incident at “Durin’s Tower”. A steep flowstone slope led up into a formation room and required belly crawling through a short constriction. Most of us found it easier to enter in on our backs, using foot and hand holds to push our way up into the room. The room was a bit crowded after all of us had made our way in. Derik Holtmann spent some time trying to photograph it, but was having some issues with his lens fogging up. After some attempts, we eventually started filing out of the room to explore the areas ahead. The sloping flowstone exit had become even more slippery as each of us passed through. I slid down feet first on my back and rested at the bottom of the slope where a ceiling ledge dropped down requiring another belly crawl through a 1’ tall opening in the floor to pop back out into the stream passage. The person behind me emerged into the slope with their headlamp pointing at me. I warned that the slope was slippery and advised going feet first. I planted my back against the ceiling ledge and stuck my feet out to prepare to be a crash pad in case it was needed, but before it could even register, their body was sliding down in full force head first. Their hands slid into the opening at the floor and their head made contact with the ceiling ledge. Their neck bent sideways, appearing to absorb the majority of the force from the fall. I was immediately concerned there might be a major neck/spine injury and helped them rotate and get laid down feet first on the slope. There was some blood on their cheek from a small cut and inside their mouth where their teeth slammed. They fortunately didn’t lose any teeth and despite being rattled, seemed to be overall able to move around OK after taking some time. It was a scary one to witness right next to me, and I went back up into the room and informed everyone.
Our injured party member seemed to be in decent spirits all things considered, and did not express concern about making a quick exit. They just sat down and took it easy while we spent some time exploring and photographing the beautiful area. After spending around an hour at this upstream segment of the cave, we turned around to head back around 2pm. On our way back, we took turns trying to catch fish with our hands and I managed to get a small catfish into a shallow area where I was able to get a hold of one. It took us about an hour to return to Blackfathom Pit. The injured member of our party and one other person decided to begin making their climb out, while Chad led the rest of us on a pack-less march downstream.
We made our way under and over rock bridges splashing in the water-filled stooping/crawling passage. In about 15 minutes, we reached “The Pillars of Hercules”, a couple of 20’-tall flowstone columns. We may have explored briefly beyond this point, but not much. When we returned to the pit entrance, the two we left behind had only just gotten on rope and began making their way out. I was getting quite chilly by the time myself and the last person got on rope for our climb out.
I checked in at MVOR, found a nice spot in the far corner of “Quiet Camp” and had just enough time to set up before the Howdy Party began. I had a drink, set a new personal record of an 8” squeezebox, then made it to bed around 9pm and slept like a baby.
*Cover photo taken by Derik Holtman
Saturday 9/24/22: Rimstone River Cave
The following day, I was planning on attending another trip with Chad to Crevice Cave, the longest cave in the state (31+ miles). However, Chad insisted that I instead go on the Rimstone River Cave trip. Chad himself was hoping to go on this trip as well after no one else had signed up for his trip, but a group of college kids signed up last minute so he was obliged to take them. Trips into Crevice Cave are still happening regularly, but apparently trips into Rimstone River are far less common.
Rimstone River Cave is the 5th longest cave in the state at 14+ miles. The owner of one of the major entrances to the cave, Chris “Cowboy” Goodson, would be leading the trip. He has spent countless days exploring the cave solo and even had a primitive sketch-map of the cave drawn onto his helmet. A larger group of 10 would be attending the trip and after we were finally all corralled together, we headed out to the short 10-minute drive to the cave.
We parked in a field and dodged large farming vehicles as we walked down the road to the cave. The entrance is located in a ~40’ diameter sink at the bottom of a winding wet-weather streambed canyon. There was a significant amount of debris around the swallet entrance but fortunately no digging was required to enter. We were all in the cave by around 10:30am
The cave begins with a 20-30 minute hands and knees crawl. With some effort, I was able to keep my torso dry on the way in. The crawl eventually pops into a larger stream canyon. Heading downstream, the passage opens up and quickly reaches “Promise Falls”, the most striking feature of the cave we visited. Promise Falls is a perched rimstone dam pool that flows over into a steep waterfall climbdown/pit. It very much reminded me of one of Justin Huffman’s project caves I got to visit which also had a high level perched rimstone dam pool leading to a waterfall pit. There is a nice rock bridge at the top that Chris used to build an anchor for his cable ladder. One could fairly easily climb down the flowstone 90% of the way without the use of the cable ladder. However, at the lowest climbable level just beyond another rimstone dam pool was an ~8’ pit down into the lower passage which would be impossible to get back up without aid.
I made it down around 11:30am, and stood on a little raised rock island near the landing area and admired the view looking back up promise falls taking plenty of pictures. There was some fairly deep water at the bottom but we were all prepared with wetsuits. After everyone made it down, we started heading downstream in the nice walking passage. We arrived at the “keyhole” and quickly realized it would be filtering half of the group. The keyhole was apparently the only route to make it down to the major “Nile River” passage, and Chris mentioned it was just a quick 5 minute trip to go see it, so I decided to lead whoever wanted to join through the keyhole while Chris took the others to tour some of the upstream passage.
Despite being manually enlarged at some point, the keyhole was a fairly snug crawl against the left wall against encroaching flowstone. On the other side, one reaches a 7’ pit which was rigged with 4 or 5 different ropes and handlines. There was a bunch of debris knotting them all together so I had to spend some time untangling it before carefully climbing down into more deep water and a slippery muddy slope. There were more people than I expected who came behind me through the keyhole and it was already proving to be much more than a quick 5-minute detour. The passage ahead featured some very nice floor-to-ceiling flowstone decorations. I followed Chris’s instructions and cut to the left and followed a slope down to the water where a passage would lead to the River. All I found was a large pool of deep water. I lowered my head down to make sure, but it was completely sumped. So we would not be able to get a peak at the main river passage.
We all made our way back through the keyhole and found Chris waiting for us at the bottom of Promise Falls. The others had made their way up and explored some of the upper level passages while we were away. Climbing the cable ladder was a bit of a struggle but we all made our way back up and then marched through the endless clean washed upstream canyon while the rest of the group began the exit crawl. We explored upstream through the monotonous canyon for about 20 minutes until we all got our fill, then made our way back to the exit. I made no effort to keep my torso dry at that point as I lugged my pack along with the cable ladder from my ankle. We exited the cave around 4 hours after entering.
That evening I scarfed up a delicious meal of beef and potatoes as part of the banquet, watched the large bonfire start to spread onto the grass and the fire department struggle to get their hose to operate to stop it, witnessed an epic tie-breaking race for a 7” squeezebox, and wound up winning the squeeze box challenge for my weight division. There was also plenty of great live entertainment. I enjoyed some late night conversations and probably found my way to bed around midnight.