CASSVILLE, Mo. — Roaring River State Park Superintendent Joel Topham recently told a group of visitors, “We’re living history right now.”
Then he added: “We’ve already made history.”
He was speaking at a “Meet the Divers” event about ongoing efforts to explore and map the spring in the park.
Asked by those in the audience how deep the spring is, head diver Mike Young answered, “We don’t know.”
With the water flow at 7 cubic feet per second over a recent September weekend — the lowest it has been since the team began diving in May — the divers had an easier time with both visibility and navigation. They were able to reach a depth of 344 feet on their latest exploratory dive, with more to go.
“There’s still no bottom in sight in Roaring River Cave,” Young told the group.
It puts Roaring River Spring in competition for perhaps the deepest or at least one of the deepest springs in Missouri. Blue Spring, along the Current River, with a known depth of more than 310 feet, has been ranked as one of the deepest springs in the nation by the National Park Service. Loring Bullard, author of “Living Water, the Springs of Missouri,” notes in his 2020 book, “Divers have gone down to about 380 feet in Cannonball Spring, as deep as any cave divers in Missouri have gone.”
It also makes Roaring River a possible candidate for one of the the deepest known springs in the country. In 2013, divers at Phantom Springs Cave in West Texas reached a depth of 462 feet, and it was ranked at the time by “Caving News” as the “deepest underwater cave system known in the United States.”
Roaring River is one of the state’s most popular parks — in fact, it was the most visited Missouri park in 2020, according to state officials — and the heart of the park is the spring pumping out 20 million gallons of water daily at the base of a steep bluff. The spring, the 20th largest in Missouri, is the source of the Roaring River, which is stocked with trout daily for anglers, and also provides water for the raceways where trout are raised.
The dive team from KISS Rebreathers of Fort Smith, Arkansas, is only the third group to venture into Roaring River Spring in nearly 50 years. Two previous authorized dives have been made into the spring, the first commissioned by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 1979. During that exploration, divers Roger Millar and Frank Fogarty reached a depth of 225 feet and created an artist’s rendering of the subsurface cavern that stands beside the path to the spring today. A second team dove into the spring in the 1990s.
The goal of this diving effort was to penetrate a known stricture 225 feet below the surface, which they did this summer.
When asked how deep he would be able to go, Young said, “If we haven’t reached another restriction before then, I’ll probably stop at 400 feet and let more experienced cave divers take over.”
By the next day, Young had already changed his story.
“Well, you know how it is,” he said, with a laugh, “as long as there’s something more to find, I’ll keep going.”
Cave diving is one of the most dangerous types of diving in the world.
“The first rule in cave diving,” diver Jon Lillestolen previously said, “is to always have a line in place going back to the exit.”
The team also has been assisted by a “scooter,” which is torpedo-shaped with handlebars and a propeller and capable of pulling a diver while providing a break from swimming.
They also have found some artifacts that had been dropped in the spring over the years, including a remnant of pottery, old intact glass bottles, the skull of a bird, a few coins, and a long-handled, well-worn metal leaf rake.
Finding the bottom of Roaring River Spring is not the only goal. Randall Purdy, from Kearney, Nebraska, acts as the team’s chief underwater photographer, and explained that a 20-story building could easily fit into the huge cavern below the recently breached restriction at a depth of 225 feet in the cave. It’s that large cavern that Young and cartographer Lillestolen attempted to find the limits of on their dive last month.
Young said a handheld sonar device, designed to signal when an obstacle is within 100 feet, read “out-of-range” in the lowest cavern, indicating that walls, the ceiling and a floor were somewhere beyond the point where they tested.
According to Lillestolen, a lateral swim below the restriction yielded the discovery of a canyon which, after about 100 feet of line in addition to the 200 feet already laid, became too complicated to navigate.
“There may or may not be a passage (in that canyon),” he said, “but with that much water, there’s a large passage somewhere.”
Lillestolen then descended to a depth (below the surface) of 300 feet, before running out of time for further exploration.
He and the other divers tasked with cartography use basic compasses and safety lines knotted at 10-foot intervals to establish directions and measurements. These “stick map” measurements, as they call them, are then recorded in small waterproof notebooks, from which details can later be entered into a computer.
“The goal,” Lillestolen said, “is to end up with a 3-D representation of the cave, as well as a publishable map for the park’s use. Maybe, too, a new visual surface map for visitors to the spring.”
Under the direction of Tim Bass, of NWA Adventure Dive, a video for use in the park’s nature center, as well as a feature-length documentary, are being created. Aside from the divers’ cave explorations, Bass has plans to include plenty of local history and culture in the documentary, to add to its appeal for the non-divers among us.
The KISS Rebreathers are scheduled for another Roaring River dive Oct. 22-24.
With renewed permits from the DNR at the end of the year, the team hopes to continue monthly explorations indefinitely.
“There are many of us on the edge of our seats waiting to see what they will discover next,” Topham said.