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The announcement by the National Speleological Society that a vast cave system lies under Flint Ridge in central Kentucky was directed at a limited number of specialists among the hundreds of scientists gathered this week in Atlanta, Ga. But throughout this country and abroad, to millions who have never been in a cave, the news came as an unexpected sequel to an old story that began 39 years ago. It was in 1917 on this Flint Ridge beside the winding Green River that 30-year-old William Floyd Collins, a farmhand, trapper, and—by the fate of things—cave explorer, squirmed into a small hole looking for a lost coon trap. Collins found instead a large cave. Such a find in that part of Kentucky in that year got little notice. The Indians and the first white Kentuckians found caves in that area more than 150 years ago. But when light was thrust into darkness, Collins' cave proved an exceptionally vast and beautiful example of the slow work of subterranean water through almost infinite time.
The entrance to Crystal Cave, as it became known, was later enlarged, so where Collins once squirmed in, guides can now lead a herd of sightseers without scuffing a shoe. One mile down the main corridor, behind a two-ton boulder, the guide bids each gawping tourist notice a small, ragged hole called Scotchman's Trap. Down this trap Collins crawled on to see more wonders, and beyond it for the past two years the country's best cavers have been pushing 32 miles through a seemingly endless tangle of cave.
LEGEND OF A LOST PASSAGE
As anyone who read the headlines remembers, in 1925 Collins was trapped while crawling through treacherous sandstone seeking an alternate entrance to his cave. For more than a week mawkishly curious crowds and hucksters crowded around the rescue operations. A young aviator, Charles Lindbergh, was hired to fly out the photographic coverage. A young reporter, Burke Miller, crawled into the cave with food, won the Pulitzer Prize with his stories and equally deserved a medal for his vain attempt to help Collins.
In the years since, the sad song, the plots of fiction and other legends swirling up around the tragedy of Collins have obscured the fact that he was a good caver, if not always a prudent one. With cans of beans stuffed in his pockets, by the light of a lantern, he went in alone. Beyond the Trap he found a labyrinth. He told his family that in one wide passage a man could walk erect for a mile, and this lost passage became part of the Collins legend. In the early '30s a Spanish explorer named Navarro went in. He did not find the lost passage, but he told of a river too wide to cross and of great white columns beyond. The Spaniard may have been a big talker, but no one will call him a liar. Such things are found deep in caves. Collins' word was surely reliable, in any case, and the Lost Passage stood for years as a goal, an ultima Thule, which must be down there somewhere.
Sixteen years after Collins' death, two miles down in the cave two explorers suddenly came upon Lost Passage. Two years ago the National Speleological Society began an organized assault on Crystal Cave. In February 1954 two dozen cavers of the society lived for a week in the Lost Passage, supported by 40 cavers based above ground two miles away. In one week this big force doubled the known network of cave. In the past 22 months fast-moving teams of explorers have doubled the net again, until the Lost Passage, which once was a goal, is now merely a historical landmark passed early on the long, tough route—a place to stop and open a can of beans on the silt floor beside the rusted shards of bean cans Collins left 30 years ago.
There are now only six cavers who know the extended routes well enough to lead exploration farther. One of these is the present leader of the assault on Crystal Cave, a 26-year-old advertising account executive named Roger Brucker, whose zeal for caves is something like that of a Moslem for Mecca. The caver best acquainted with the labyrinth is a 28-year-old civil engineer, William Austin, who literally was born in the mouth of a cave. Though Austin has spent over 2,000 hours in the lower reaches of Crystal Cave, there are still many unexplored passages along the ever-lengthening way. Some of these, the cavers know from experience, narrow into impassable slits or end in a jumble of breakdown, but for each that does, another branches out again and again, compounding the maze.
As soon as he wriggles down the narrow, twisting 30 feet of Scotchman's Trap, the caver must make his first choice in the maze. The passage goes left and right. Along each way there are random blue chalk arrows on the limestone. These are the old marks of the Spaniard. In the present assault the cavers have concentrated to the right of the Trap. In this direction for 50 feet the passage is comfortably wide, but it is only three feet high. Thirty feet farther along it is high enough for a man on stilts, but averages 14 inches wide. The passage ceiling lowers again in the first 200 yards, and for a quarter of a mile there is only room to crawl or to half-crawl in a low, lizardlike waddle. This leads into the S-curve, where the 15-inch-wide passage makes two 180� bends in 20 feet, and the caver must lie on his side, inching forward by alternately pressing his elbows on one wall and heels on the other. After the S-curve the passage narrows again into the Keyhole, 10 inches high and 14 inches wide, where a man can only squirm, dragging his supply bag on his foot or pushing it ahead of him.
Just this far in the cave any latent claustrophobia in a man shows up, and this is fortunate, for farther along, in the third mile, he will come to the Fishhook Crawl, a 60-foot-long, flat tunnel, 10 inches high, lined with aggravating nubs of cave onyx. In the Fishhook he must squirm an inch, then twist his head to reset his helmet and carbide lamp that have been knocked askew, grunt as the onyx nubs prod his underside, and if his light is knocked out, blindly inch on, following the grunts and scuffling of the caver ahead. Past a great pit where water thunders out in darkness 80 feet above into darkness 70 feet below, in the fourth mile lies the muddy Storm Sewer, and this leads in the fifth mile to a river. For six hundred feet the cavers must crawl upstream, the water up to their chins and their heads pressed against the ceiling of a 30-inch tube. Some learned ass—and he was probably leaning back in a chair contemplating a high ceiling at the time—has concluded that cavers are impelled by a subconscious urge to crawl back into the womb. The Crystal Cavers wriggling through the Fishhook have a very cheap opinion of such pedantry.
Compared to the way water works above ground, this underground system makes no sense. The acid traces in the water percolating down through soluble limestone for millions of years have created an awesome but seemingly aimless hodgepodge of tunnels, rat holes, cracks and canyons—passages that twist, branch out, double back and often rejoin. Silt abrasion combines with the work of solution. Evaporation further changes the cave, adorning it with small spiral helictites, blisters and blooms of gypsum, stalactites, stalagmites and draperies of flowstone. While it may all make sense geologically, to a caver, dirty and sleepless on his eighth and ninth mile of the cave, it seems the water has cut passages of every shape except what decently fits a walking man.