I’ve squeezed my way through limestone caverns and swum in creeks and rivers all over the Lone Star State, but until recently I’d never done both at the same time.
Last weekend, speleologist Bill Steele led me through a watery section of Honey Creek Cave, the longest known cave in Texas. I’m working on a story about Steele for a magazine, but can’t shake the feeling of what it was like to swim through an underground river.
I wore a full 3-millimeter wetsuit, fins, and a caving helmet with lights for the adventure. We hiked down into a shallow canyon, where a rocky opening in the cliff wall led to the watery highway.
The water was cold and about 20-feet deep, and once we stepped off a ledge and into the river, we couldn’t stand up. I balanced a dry bag containing my camera on a kickboard and pushed it in front of me as I picked my way through the dark passage, trying to avoid the stalactites that clung to the ceiling.
That was tricky – thousands of them dripped down, forming curtains of mud-colored straws and carrots. Now and then a few tree roots dangled into the water.
The whole experience felt vaguely like a scene from “Les Misérables,” only without the stench. This was beautiful – a fresh river formed by rainwater filtered through layers of limestone.
At one point where the ceiling came to within a few inches of the water’s surface, we removed our helmets, passed them ahead, tipped our heads back and floated delicately beneath the rocks.
Spooky, yes, but beautiful, too. The formations hanging from the ceiling reflected in the water when I pointed my light downstream.
We swam for about two hours, pausing at one end when we reached a small waterfall.
That was just enough. My fingers were getting numb, and I needed to get out and dry off. But when I did, I took with me some surreal memories that I’ll never forget.
And out there in the bright sun, it didn’t feel at all spooky.