The Mud Sink Cave Expeditions

Back in my youth I lived in St. Louis Missouri. Missouri was a great place as a kid. The Ozark Mountains provides an endless source of adventures. We were an outdoors family spending all our spare time caving, canoeing, camping, rappelling and hiking well up into the mountains.

One of my favorite adventures was the annual trip to Bear Cave in Meramec State Park. We were members of the MMV, the Middle Mississippi Valley grotto, a Chapter of the National Speleological Society (NSS).

The Middle Mississippi Valley Grotto is dedicated to the exploration, research and survey of caves. We explored and mapped caves. Discovering unexplored caves and maintained existing caves. My mother was the editor of the club's monthly news letter/magazine. We printed them up right in our basement on the old mimeograph machine. I loved smelling the fresh ink on the pages.

The group had sole rights to Barome Moore cave that the club discovered in 1958. I loved that cave and the main camp located well into the cave. It serves as the hub for multi day mapping expeditions back into the unknown. I'll do a write up of those adventures another time.

Bear Cave was nick named Mud-Sink among the caving crowd. It was out in the woods a ways off the road up above the Meramec River. If you didn't know where it was you would never find it. Of course that was 45 years ago. There might be a ticket booth there now for all I know...

Mud-Sink was a huge cave once you climbed down through the small entrance. You could've put several semis side by side and drove them through the main cavern but for the mud. Just as the name implies it was a muddy cave. So muddy that special precautions had to be taken to safely traverse the alien like passage ways.

I was 12 years old my first trip. I was an experience caver and was typically point man do to my tall thin build and youthful energy. But I was in for a day like no other. Off from the main cavern is a small passageway leading to the lake. We would get on all fours and crawl into the darkness. Over the years a set of groves had worn into the clay of the floor from the single file train of elbows and knees. The track let you sled along like a slot car once the grooves got wet. As soon as you got comfortable you would hit a sharp piece of chert.

Chert is a sharp stone used in prehistoric times to make stone tools and arrow heads. It would hurt like hell and make you slow down, for a bit till the pain goes away and you get cranking along eventually getting bit again.

This passageway opens into a separate cave system dropping you into the medium size passage from high up by the 12 foot high ceiling. It was at this point that shit got real. A river meanders around like a snake crisscrossing the cave in it's own passageway as it makes it way back to the underground lake.

That Lake was the goal of the expedition. In order to get a certificate you had to make it to the lake and back. No easy feat. This is where the thick clay filled mud gets real bad. We would wade single file through the quick sand like muck for the rest of the day. It was exhausting

The knee deep mud would take you from one mud pool after another. The mud would be waist deep or more. You had to keep moving or sink. If someone got stuck others would grab them as they passed and drag them until they were moving again. You couldn't stop to help or you would sink too.

The river would cross the main passage, creating a whole new dilemma. The water is crystal clear. You've never seen clearer water, not even out of your kitchen sink. It would pass from one side to the other in it's own tunnel. If you lost your footing the current could take you away never to be heard of again. One of these crossing has a drop off under the water. a deep enough drop off that a mud encased man would sink to the bottom and be swept under the rock wall with the river.

We would all gather at the river bank and study the crossing memorizing where the drop off was. We had to walk right along the edge to the other side a couple of hundred feet away. Once the first guy started across the mud and silt would kick up and everyone else was crossing it blind one step at a time. It turned into a subterranean congo line trying to not wander off the path till you made it to the safety of the mud on the far bank.

Now for people that have never been. This isn't like commercial caves or the movies. The only light is the small carbide lights hooked to our hard hats. Basically a candle flame with a reflector. I'm sure now cavers have LED lights brighter than day. Carbide lights are miner lamps that are fueled by carbide rocks that have a steady drip of water wetting them. When wet the rocks produce acetylene gas powering the small flame.

Not a bright light but a reliable light. a dozen men walking around underground with these light sources made for a Sci-fi effect reminiscent of an old cheesy B&W Mars movie.

Once reaching the lake we all would take off our gloves and wash up in the lake before breaking out lunch. We would relaxed our weary bones and joked around while being miles from that small entrance where we last saw sunlight far above our heads.

The annual tradition upon reaching the main cavern on the way out was to split up in teams and have a mud ball fight. Those things hurt! The trick was to set your light on a mound of bat guano and step aside 15 feet to throw from. In the darkness all you could see were the other side's lamps on their helmets, so that's what you aimed for.

On our last run in 1972 my dad and I took my sister along. She was 12 at the time and was determined to conquer the mud challenge. About halfway back to the lake she ran out of steam and could go no further. My dad made the decision to turn back and get her out. We agreed to meet in the park later. The rest of the team and I pushed forward.

We completed the mission and eventually emerged to the surface. At this point everyone looks like the classic comic book version of Iron Man caked in heavy thick mud cracking as it dries in the hot sunshine.

This is where we rode in pickup beds and bumpers (there were bumpers back then) down to the park's public swimming area of the river. As we waded in fully clothed the water would turn to muddy brown. Mothers would run into the water to pull their kids out in shear panic. I kept looking for my dad and sister but they hadn't shown yet. they were hours ahead of us we thought. We finally realized they never made it out.

Missouri has a dedicated cave rescue team for just this emergency. Luckily most of the team members were in our party that day. They suited back up and headed up the mountain. I was put on look out at our previously agreed meet up point in case dad and Tracy showed up.

When dad was leading tracy out of the cave he walked right past the small connecting passage to the main cavern. As I said the connector joined way up by the cave's ceiling and he didn't see it.

They were now far back in the cave where no one ventures, disoriented and cold. They had been out of a light source for hours and hypothermia was setting in making it hard to think as their bodies were shutting down.

They huddled in a small ball wet and shivering in the absolute darkness as he tearfully resigned to the realization they were going to die lost in an unexplored hole miles from the surface. As he was slipping in and out of consciousness after 6 hours of hell he heard a faint sound of someone calling his name. With his last rally of strength he called back till they heard him.

The team had rescue supplies and blankets allowing the two to regain their body temps and eat before the long hike out. They were right at deaths door and lived to tell the tail.

Almost 50 years later and I still cherish these old tattered Certificates of Completion. Chest deep mud and all.