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Eagles Nest – 4/6/10

I awaken groggily to the sound of the alarm, and roll out of bed soundlessly.  Quickly grabbing a handful of clothes, I check on my daughter, then pad out to the kitchen and blearily brew some coffee. A few minutes later I head outside to the shed, grab some last minute items and soon Allen’s truck pulls onto the property.  We throw some extra water bottles and O2 in the Tacoma and head out to the road. What a gorgeous morning, the sun’s traversing slowly over a clear blue sky and we’re heading south down to Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge for Allen’s first trip to the “Everest” of cave diving, that deep, dark labyrinth known as Eagles Nest.

After a couple of hours of serious hydration and a few rest stops we finally pull into the hunting camp, throw our cash in the iron ranger and begin the half hour drive down some winding dirt roads. Lots of deep ruts and potholes, but it hasn’t rained lately so at least everything’s dry. The scenery changes from scrub dirt and scattered trees to lush ferns forming a canopy over the road, looking remarkably like Costa Rica or Mexico and after a wild drive we pull into the parking lot. Cool, it looks like we have the place to ourselves, even though the sign in sheet says there was a fellow cave diver here much earlier in the day.
Eagles Nest offers the opportunity for some extremely deep cave diving with depths up to 310 feet. There is an excellent description of the site along with maps and other data on my friend Walter’s site and I encourage you to check it out for some great info on this world class cave system.

We’ve decided to dive the Lockwood tunnel today since it’s relatively shallow (225’) compared to the rest of the system. We start gearing up, taking deco bottles and stages to the waters edge and I can tell my buddy’s excited! Looking out at the surface pond we try to get an idea of what the vis will be, but as usual there’s no telling what it’s like after dropping through the solution tube.  Sooner rather than later, we’ve got all our bottles on and after some safety checks and drills we drop down into the bowels of the earth. I hang my O2 bottle around 25 ft, watch as Allen does the same and then we start dropping down the tube. My first thought is oh crap, this is terrible vis, but we’re committed now, so I drop down to the 70ft loops where we hang our 50% and spiral down into the all consuming void beneath us. The huge debris mound and sign come into view finally and seriously, this has to be the worst visibility I’ve seen here in years.  Oh well, I head downstream, staying close to the gold braid as I can only see five feet  and keeping a close eye on Allen’s light behind me. It’s a nice, steady beam and I flash him a quick okay to make sure all is good and he returns it. We drop our stages and continue on and it’s such an eerie feeling knowing how big this cave is and how confining the visibility is, trust me this is not the place you want to do a lost line drill! I’m watching the depth drop and finally we hit the jump and bear left into the Lockwood tunnel. I feel bad, ‘cause we can’t see a thing but we’re not at our turn time yet and gas is just fine so on we go, the cave feeling really oppressive. As the line starts to rise, my heart pumps up a beat, is that clear water ahead?

Sure enough a minute later about 400 ft in, we run into sparkling blue water and the visibility goes from 5-10 ft to as far as our lights will shine! I flip around, give Allen the “hell yeah’ sign and he’s hooting and hollering through his reg. Wow, finally we can see how big and cool this cave really is! The difference is amazing and we can get off the line and start poking around. Our HID’s play cool blue light off the massive boulders beneath us  and the immense rock walls to either side, this is what cave diving is all about, to have moments like these that just defy description. I’m on sensory overload, luckily our back gas is good, we have enough deco gas for a small extension of our planned bottom time, so we spend an extra few minutes enjoying the clear water, knowing we’ll have to pay for it on deco. Finally, discipline kicks in and reluctantly we turn and start our exit.

Once again, we’re back in the nothing vis and it still amazes me how benign this cave seems when you have good visibility and how dangerous it seems when you don’t. It’s always a relief to get back to the stages and the mind starts to relax a little bit, even though we have well over an hour of deco ahead of us. Usually exiting the Ballroom is a pleasure but we can’t even see a glow from the surface at 100’. I concentrate on the bottom timer and settle in for a long hang. Our gas switches go smoothly and finally we’re in the surface pool doing the longer stops.

After what seems like the usual eternity, we’re out of the water and blathering on about how cool that was. Allen’s stoked and we make plans to return here, but hopefully not until the visibility improves some! We’re driving home and decide to stop by Birds, unfortunately he’s out of town, but Marty’s there, so we chat and I introduce him to Allen. Of course I pick up one of Bird’s famous UDIE shirts and a little something for Kaley and eventually we’re on the long drive back home. Allen’s driving, we’re both acting a little goofy and I start chuckling inside and thinking, what a crazy bunch we are, spending a couple of hours in the water for maybe 10 minutes of being able to see something special! But then again if it’s what you love to do, maybe it’s not that crazy after all……:-)

If you’d like to see what Eagles Nest looks like when there’s good visibility, my friends Becky and Dave took some great video of the system (including the drive there!) and were kind enough to let me post it here. Please be sure to stop by their website at liquidproductions.com to see some more great cave diving videos.

Cave Diving Eagles Nest Sink Upstream & Downstream HD from Liquid Productions, LLC on Vimeo.

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