It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Eagle's Nest, Upstream

Me, and a lot of gear
I made reference in an earlier report to a dive Rob wanted to do with two stages and a scooter.  That dive was Eagle's Nest.  Actually the dive involved a lot more than two stages, but since you drop all of the deco bottles pretty much right away, I thought of it more as a two-bottle dive.  But actually it was a five bottle dive.  Anyhoo, I wasn't totally sold on diving Eagle's Nest.  It is one of those dive sites that I've heard a lot about over the years, before I even thought about taking up cave diving.  And I will confess that I once told Rob, before our Cave 1 class, that doing that sort of deep dive in a cave was something I would never want to do.  This was after doing quite a few even deeper dives in open water.  (Rob claims there are all sorts of dive-related things I've said I would "never" do and now do regularly, but most of those claims are false; he just has a really sketchy memory.  The only other claim like that that I admit I've made and broken was diving Monastery in doubles.)  A couple weeks before the trip, I asked a friend, who knows us well, for some suggestions of places to dive that are different from the usual spots we always dive.  He sent me a list with several places, one of them Eagle's Nest.  I scoffed, but Rob's ears perked up.  Then when we were talking to Antonio about diving together the second weekend of our trip, he sent me a very mysterious email about a great dive that he had in mind, which was later unveiled as Eagle's Nest.  Then Rob talked to him on the phone, which is never a good idea, because between the two of them, they come up with crazy ideas.  Rob reported "the plan" back to me, and I scoffed at it.  Not at the idea of diving Eagle's Nest, but their plan, which entailed two bottom stages, three deco bottles, and scooters.  It seemed like a bit much gear to me.  But I said I'd let it sink in and think about it.

After letting it sink in, and looking at some maps, and watching some Youtube videos, and doing some visualization (because that's how I roll), and having John draw a map of the entrance for me for like the twentieth time, and realizing that this was more like a two-bottle dive than a five-bottle dive, I agreed to it.  And I came up with a plan for preparing for the dive, though I think about 95% of the preparation was mental, not actual.  Then for some logistical reasons, Antonio wasn't going to be able to make the dive, so Rob wanted to do the dive earlier in the week.  I felt like this was a bit of a bait and switch.  After going to the Mill Pond fell through, we decided to shoot for Wednesday for Eagle's Nest.  Rob wanted to go on Wednesday, so that if we totally loved it, we could go back (and maybe do downstream?) on Friday (our weekend diving was already spoken for).  I scoffed at this -- how awesome could it be?  Things didn't really get off on the right foot.  First, we ended up at EE sorting out gas fills pretty late.  Rob wanted to get an early start in the morning, and I really don't like doing a big dive without enough sleep (though realistically, I almost always do, due to the early morning boat thing).  So after a bit of compromising, we ended up leaving around 7:45.  Then somewhere just a bit past Archer, Rob realized that he didn't pack the Argon straps for our tanks (which we hadn't used yet this week).  I thought we could hit a hardware store on the way and make it work with some bungee and line and stuff, but he was hemming and hawing about it and finally we just turned around and went back for them.  Groan.  So then we ended up leaving High Springs at about 9, again.

Getting to Eagle's Nest is half the adventure.  We followed the directions here.  Step 1 was finding the turnoff from the highway.  This was, surprisingly, the least well-explained part of the directions!  But there is a sign on the highway for Chassahowitzka (how on earth do you pronounce that?) Wildlife Area.  It was a bit earlier than I was expecting, so we poked our heads down the path and it looked like the first picture on the directions, so we headed that way.  The directions are quite good, though many of the signs shown in the pictures look different now.  We did make two wrong turns.  The first one, we came to what seemed like a T and we turned left and the road almost immediately ended at a locked gate, so we knew that was the wrong way.  I think it really wasn't a T, it was just a turnoff that we weren't meant to take (hence not described in the directions), and we were being dumb.  There was one place where we definitely came to a T, and it was not described in the instructions.  Since the next waypoint in the instructions said to turn left, we turned left.  Then I started to really doubt that this was what the instructions had been describing.  So we stopped, found that we actually had 3G out in the woods, and looked at the aerial map on google maps, and found where we were, where Eagle's Nest supposedly is, and figured out how to go from there.  You can actually see the dirt roads on the aerial map!  So we went back the way we came, and it turns out we were only like a mile from Eagle's Nest at that point.  Overall the path was not nearly as difficult to negotiate as we expected (from a quality of the road perspective, not from a not getting lost perspective!).  But I now have my own notes about where all of the turns are, plus I took mileage readings on the way out, so next time, we are not getting lost!

Also a lot of gear
Phew, so once we made it there, we were pretty pleased with the facilities (which you can see for yourself here, though it was much less soggy when we were there).  There is a nice deck to walk to the water, then right by the water, there are benches on each side, and then a set of wide, low slope steps, with sturdy hand rails.  On the hand rails, there are lines tied to the posts, and the lines have little loops in them, so you can clip all of your bottles and other stuff there while you are getting in/out.  It's totally optimized for diving with a zillion bottles!  And the walk to the water is quite short.  There are also two picnic tables in the parking area.  I was also pretty shocked to find that I had phone and 3G signal out there (which is more than I can say for in front of my house half the time!)  We hadn't setup our stage bottles yet, since they weren't all full until late the evening before, so we pulled out our bottles and laid them on one of the tables while we put regs on them.  At this point we realized that we hadn't labeled our bottles with our names (just with MODs), and since I am very finicky about the mouthpieces on my regs, this could cause confusion in the water.  So we had to deal with that at the last minute.  Once we had all the regs on, and I did a quick check that all of my bottles had the mouthpieces I like (and none of Rob's had pink regs :P), we started carrying bottles to the water.  We also had to deal with putting our argon straps onto our tanks, which was sort of annoying since we'd already completely setup our rigs.  Ugh.  Then we got into our drysuits and actually put the bottles in the water.  Then we finally got into our rigs, did our gear checks, and headed into the water.

Since I was being a big baby about carrying 5 bottles, we decided to first go in with just our O2 bottles (and our 120 bottles, since that would be our "travel gas") and find the entrance, scope it out, and drop our O2 bottles.  The viz was not great but not terrible in the basin.  We came back and got the rest of our gear.  Since I was going to be dropping my 70 and 120 bottles pretty quickly, I just put one bottle (my 70 bottle I think) on my leash, and I clipped the last bottle someplace magical where one is not meant to clip bottles.  And then we were off.  We got to the chute, and I thought it was a bit terrifying to descend into it.  There's no way I would have gone in first; good thing Rob was leading :)  As I descended, I was not looking forward to deco'ing in the chute.  I felt like I was sort of smushed inside of it.  I popped out of the bottom, and found the entrance room to be very creepy.  It was just so dark (this is where Rob says that all caves are dark).  But considering the giant skylight in the top of the room, which we were actually right under, it seemed really dark when I first popped into the room.  And since you can't see the bottom, it seems like you are over the abyss.  Not that you really are... the bottom is like 120 feet deep.  I shined my light around just a little to look at the entry room, which was pretty cool.  The walls have a very white smooth look to them.  Then I dropped my 70 bottle on the line.  That bottle is a beast in freshwater; Rob actually reminded me of that with a hand signal right before I moved it, and I didn't quite get what he meant, and then I instantly got it once I did!  There are a series of knots in the line right around 70 to 80 feet, so you can just clip your bottle onto the line, right above one of the knots.  I left my bottle on the leash, because, well, I had to do something with the leash.  Then we got down to the bottom, where the line Ts out, with upstream going one way and downstream going the other.  There are little signs on the line saying which is up and which is down :)  I switched off of my 120 bottle, dropped it on the line, then did a little bottle juggling before going onto my stage.  Once we had both taken care of that (though Rob much faster than me), we headed upstream.

We started out heading down a slope that takes you down to a little over 200 feet, which takes you to the first room, which according to maps is called "Randy's Room", and is a big tall room.  After that, the ceiling comes down, and you go under what I would call an underpass, which forces you to a little deeper than 250 feet, and then you pop out into a HUGE room, called the Super Room, for obvious reasons.  The room is huge, but it's quite dark (yes, Rob, all caves are dark), so you really can't (or can only just barely) see to the right side of the room, since the line runs closer to the left (but still not at all the way on the left side).  So we would basically stop in each new room, sometimes several times in each room, to look around.  This frequently consisted of Rob telling me to stay on the line while he went to check out the areas further from the line.  But I was being a wimp, so I didn't stray quite as far when it was my turn to look around.  In many sections, you could see very well defined layers in the walls, which I thought was one of the coolest things about this cave (oh and the fact that the room was HUGE).  At one point during the dive, I thought to myself... if I lost the line in here, how would I ever find it?  I doubt that my safety spool is long enough to run around the room.  So, the dive pretty much proceeded like that, we would scooter for a minute or two, then when we came into a new area, we'd stop and look around.  The main line has huge arrows every 50 feet, with the feet very clearly printed on them.  I'm pretty sure these huge arrows are designed for divers on air :)  Even though it does not especially look this way on the maps, I felt like even beyond the Super Room, there were distinct "rooms" in the cave.  The ceiling would come down at points and it would seem like an underpass, and then it would go up again and it would feel like you were in a new room.  But it was big, wide open passage the whole way; some rooms were just REALLY big and wide open.

I ended up turning the dive on time (and almost gas) right around the 1600' marker, which was smack dab in the middle of a big room.  Since we were lollygagging on the way in, we weren't in a huge hurry going out, so we did stop to look around a little more, but of course still made much better time coming out.  When we got to the "deep" part after (before) the Super Room, Rob meandered down to check out the bottom.  He's such a bad boy.  Before you know it, we were back at the slope, so we just sort of drifted and kicked our way up that, to start our deep stops.  The viz was noticeably worse there.  It had been the same on the way in, but after spending so much time in the much better viz (the viz opened up in Randy's Room), coming back into the worse viz just seemed so much worse!  We got back to the T and picked up our first deco bottles, at which point I realized it was sort of silly to leave my leash at the 70' stop.  Doh.  Oh well.  So I had to just settle for hip-clipping one of my stages, sans leash, and figured I'd deal with it when I got back to my leash.  The stops on our 120 bottle were kind of funny.  It really reminded me of diving at Kawika's Garden.  It was green, and we weren't that far from the bottom, but we could only just make out the bottom.  And the three minute stops probably added to the effect.  But of course it was much warmer :)  We got back to our 70 bottles (which, in hindsight, would have been more convenient to clip on one of the lower knots, closer to, say, 80', so we could doink with our bottles before actually getting to 70').  I moved the bottle from the leash to the downline (can you call it that in a cave?) and after moving some stuff around, I picked the bottle up, and we were onto the bottles in no time.

Then we started talking about deco.  We had turned the dive on time, so there really wasn't much to talk about... our bottom time was maybe 5 minutes shorter than planned, if you consider the bottom time ended when the deep stops began, and a bit shallower (we had planned for 250', but it was at most 230' on average), but not so much that it was worth shaving the deco (it's 70 degree water, come on).  I was really not looking forward to deco'ing in the chute.  Before the dive, we had discussed reorganizing the deco a little if we (I) didn't like the looks of deco'ing in the chute.  So we agreed to do that, which gave us 10 minutes to kill at 70'.  It's actually pretty neat right there, because you are right at the top of the room, and you can see a lot of the walls around you, as they bell out.  At some point during our 70 stop, I told Rob that 5 bottles were really no big deal, and next time we'd have to do 6 :P  So then he tried to pass me one of his bottles.  No, thank you!  As our 70 stop came to an end, Rob asked if I wanted to be on top or bottom in the chute.  Definitely on top.  It wasn't even negotiable.  I thought that being on the bottom, without being able to see my buddy, staring into that dark abyss would be creepy.  Anyhoo, I inched up the chute and stopped a little above 60.  I actually really liked deco'ing in the chute.  It's quite comfy!  I guess on the way down, it seemed cramped, because I'd never been in it before, but it's sort of the perfect size for deco.  I could rest a fin or a hand on the wall, if I wanted to.  The wall is actually a neat smooth stone, so I kind of liked fondling it.  And it was also no problem to communicate with Rob.  I stayed to one side of the chute, and he stayed to the other, so I could tap his arm and he just had to turn his head to see me.  I took advantage of my position on top, and started massaging his head, just to annoy him.  I was also lamenting that I don't know how to do shadow puppets, as I pointed my light into a little nook just in front of his face.  When we got to 50 feet, we found that we didn't need to be single file.  Once I realized it, I tapped Rob on the arm and told him to keep on coming up, and we wedged nicely into the chute side-by-side.  So in the end, reorganizing the deco was pretty silly.  As we finished our 40 foot stop, another diver passed us, on the way in.  Then when we got to 30 feet, we found our O2 bottles had had babies.  There were now 5 O2 bottles clipped to the log.  I was having a bit of difficulty doing the math on that one, since only two of the bottles were ours, and there was only one other diver that went in.  Hmmm.

Rob made a bee-line for his O2 bottle, which sort of defied logic, because really, who wants to have to hold onto an extra bottle for longer than necessary?  But I guess it's good he went straight for it, because for some reason, it took him like 5 minutes to sort things out after he picked the bottle up.  I can't say I wasn't amused.  About two minutes before our stop was over, I swooped in for my bottle, and had things sorted out right away.  Very bizarre.  We moved up to 20 feet, and after giving Rob the hero cam to get some footage of me, I stripped off all of my gear except my O2 bottle (and my doubles of course), and clipped them to the log.  Ahhh.  I was graceful like gazelle in my one bottle.  Rob for some reason didn't strip off any of his bottles.  He is such a masochist.  Then we started to serve our time.  It was a 50 minute O2 stop.  It really wasn't as bad as I imagined; the backgas breaks really break things up nicely.  Usually when I get to the O2 stop, I start to write some notes on the dive in my wetnotes.  It's a nice way to pass the time, plus I theoretically might one day refer back to the notes.  But I decided to wait until after the first break, since I didn't want to use up that source of entertainment and get too bored.  So we chatted and played with the hero cam for the first segment.  Then I wrote my notes.  Then for the last segment, I did some deco sudoku. The good thing about deco sudoku is that I am really horrible at it (when underwater anyway).  So one easy puzzle can entertain me for a good long while.  At some point during that stop, the diver who we had passed on the way in appeared, and worked his way up the log, and was just a bit above us when we finally finished up our stop.  We inched our way back up the slope, and since Rob was navigating, we came out right at the stairs.

When we surfaced, there were three people there, just enjoying the scenery out there, who we chatted with a bit while we were de-bottling.  Rob asked them if they knew a good place to get some seafood before we headed out of town, and they gave us a recommendation.  After relaxing on the surface for a bit, we finally got out of the water, and got out of our gear.  As we were pulling our bottles out of the water, the other diver surfaced, and we chatted with him for a while.  Then while we were getting out of our drysuits, another van pulled up, and a rather strange couple got out.  They were friendly enough, though sort of in a serial-killers-on-the-hunt kind of way.  The woman asked us if we signed in, and showed us that there was a place where you were supposed to sign in when you got in the water.  Oops.  We didn't see it on the way in, but there is a little wooden box to the left of the deck, and if you open it up, there is a pad of paper.  So I figured if they were going to ax murder us there and scatter our bits for the alligators to eat, they probably wouldn't have encouraged us to sign in and out there, leaving a trace.  After we finally got all of the bottles packed up, we headed out.  It was easier to find our way out than in, though the fact that we were following that other diver may have helped.
Rob enjoying some mullet dip

On the way back to High Springs, we stopped in Homosassa at the seafood place that those people recommended -- "the freezer", which is basically a bar with some food that is located at the Cedar Key Fish Company.  They have cheap beer and seafood.  It was crazy crowded.  The bartender recommended we try the "mullet dip" though we had no idea what it was.  I think it's like the southern version of whitefish salad :)  It was tasty enough.  Anyhoo, it was a good place to go for large quantities of cheap seafood and beer.  And we really needed large quantities of food after such an epic dive :)

Update: Rob told me that after reading this post, it was not at all clear whether I liked the dive, or thought it was worth the effort, etc.  While I think it will become more obvious in future posts, let me say it here: Yes, I liked the dive.  It's a really cool cave.  I like the huge rooms.  And the whole experience was an adventure!

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