Chaper 7 Sample: The Morgue

“Many of the cavers, after seeing all the guano and dead bats in the stream, resolved never again to drink cave water.” Don Myrick, 1972

Sometimes enormous cave entrances take a while to notice. That was the case with the Morgue, which despite the ghoulish name has a breathtakingly beautiful, and rather enormous, entrance. But because of the way it follows the slope of the mountain, it’s actually quite hard to see even when you’re very close to the giant hole in the ground. Practically every time I visit the Morgue I end up thrashing through the woods, looking for the elusive sinkhole; I never walk right to it.

In late May of 1968, a few cavers working at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville got lost looking for Kennamer Cave, a beautiful cave not terribly far from Fern. They hiked up the wrong creek bed and while wandering around in the woods stumbled upon a giant sinkhole. The hole they found poking into the side of Nat Mountain was 100 feet in diameter, ringed by sheer walls 60 feet deep. The cavers crawled down a small notch in the side of the sink to discover a large, sloping floor coated in dead leaves and a smattering of greenery. On one side of the sink, a dark hole punched into the wide limestone wall; a multilevel canyon led off into the side of the mountain. The passage disappeared straight down, too, indicating some sort of vertical pit.

On the other side of the sink, another dark hole beckoned. This hole was larger and darker. When the cavers approached this hole, they could see that it was a wide, deep canyon continuing into the darkness. They threw in a bunch of rocks and counted how long it took for the rocks to reach the bottom, an important way to guess the depth of a cave. When the cavers got back to town, they told a member of the Huntsville Grotto that it took seven seconds for rocks to hit the bottom. After discussing the location of this deep sink, everyone decided it was very close to Fern. Seven years earlier, Jim Johnston had reported that rocks took almost six seconds to hit the floor in Surprise Pit. If this pit really was a seven second pit, it was comparable to Surprise—or maybe even deeper.

Needless to say, Huntsville cavers promptly headed out to find the new cave on June 8 to check it out. They took an 850-foot rope along; they were obviously hugely optimistic, despite everyone being a bit skeptical about the report of a seven second pit. Nothing that deep had ever been discovered. But the location was pretty good so the story was at least plausible. Plus, the people who reported the cave were at least a bit familiar with caving so they probably had some idea of how to count rocks falling into a pit. But like so many caving tall tales, it turned out that these cavers were likely just overexcited about their discovery and momentarily forgot how to count while tossing rocks into the dark hole.

The cavers who trekked up the mountain to locate the seven-second pit included Don Myrick, Bob Clark, John Cole, Jim Johnston, Arch and Lynne Swank, and Jim Wilson.

When the group found the sinkhole, they were all impressed. John climbed down the crack in the side of the sink and went over to one of the holes. He tossed in a rock. It only took a measly two seconds for the rock to hit bottom. Thump. He then walked across the sink to the other pit and threw another rock in. It only took about two and a half seconds for that one, although the reverberation was much more impressive; a muffled echo rose up to greet them. He tried several more rocks with the same result. The group was mystified. Were they at the right cave? This sinkhole was so huge it was unlikely there were several on this ridge. They decided to check out the pits.

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In many ways, the Morgue sink is even more beautiful than the Fern Cave entrance. When you arrive at the entrance, the jumbled mass of limestone rocks littering the side of the mountain melt away. Jagged limestone lines the high side of the sink, plunging about 90 feet to the floor. Peering down into the depths, all you can see are layers of gray tinted limestone, covered in mossy green, the rocks stacked together like a layer cake. Ferns and other greenery line the stair-stepped rocks leading ever farther down into the ground. The sinkhole is so deep that you can’t see the bottom from the top or side of the sink. In the summer, it’s like an oasis, a green refuge from the sun and the heat.

Back in the days when the cave was open, when I visited this part of the cave in the summer, I liked to creep off the rope and sit in the early daylight, listening to the chorus of frogs, crickets, and other forest creatures singing their summer songs. Tree frogs often clung to the wooden sign in the sink that warned visitors to stay out during bat hibernation season. Often, a neat little line of frogs graced the wooden sign and would look at me with their huge, unblinking eyes. Looking up, I would see the summer greenery lining the opening of the sink. The air was cooler down here, creating a soft mist that clung to the floor, creeping up around our bodies, and creating rainbows when beams of light penetrated the forest canopy to illuminate the sides and floor of the sink.

 

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