After an idyllic week in the Georgia woods the Weazel headed up to Cookeville, Tennessee to attend the National Speleological Society annual convention.
Cookeville has none of the charm of many small towns in Tennessee. It didn’t help that approximately 1500 spunkalunkers were expected to camp in the broiling sun of an open field at the public fairgrounds, and to attend talks at a distant high school. But I don’t wanna go back to school, ever!!!
There was great music and good fellowship, but relatively little of the jollity normally associated with a gathering of wild and crazy cavers, so entertainment was provided by the numerous storms that repeatedly flattened the camp. Those who weren’t drowned took refuge beneath the bleachers in spaces normally reserved for cattle. I just kept buying new tents to replace those torn to shreds by the tornadoes. The talks were causing my ears to bleed, so I took several side trips to nearby natural attractions.
There are many magical places on our beautiful green earth, but few to equal Lost creek sink, also known as Dodson cave, which features a magnificent waterfall, huge cave, and much more. It is such a beautiful place that damnable Disney used it as a backdrop for Kipling’s “Jungle Book” movie.
Mowgli was nowhere to be found, but the place was full of cavers. Kudos to the State of Tennessee for keeping this wonderful place open to the public!
It is called Lost creek because the creek disappears far upstream, then later emerges from a small cave directly above the huge sink.
Just below where I am standing in the photo above the water rushes out to fall 60′ into the bottom of the sink.
The water simply disappears into the ground because the bottom of the sink is a false floor, and a vast cavern system lies beneath!
Directly across from the waterfall the darkness beckons. This is the main entrance, but there are several others, and many miles of passages.
I have been to this wonderful cave many times, but have never been past the interior waterfall one encounters about 1000 feet inside. I have always been content just to enjoy the massive trunk passage. I was pleased that none of the properly equipped cavers questioned why an old man with no caving gear other than a light and walking stick would be wandering around alone in the darkness.
It may seem a strange to see water pour out of one cave, thunder over a waterfall, then disappear into another cave with no stream in between, but that is typical of this part of the Cumberland plateau wherever soluble limestone strata are interrupted by an impervious layer.
The most famous example is nearby Virgin falls, a spectacular place that should be on every naturalist’s “bucket” list. In 2006 I was privileged to see Virgin falls in full spate!
Imagine hiking for miles through the wilderness to find a raging 120 foot waterfall that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere!
Along the way to Virgin falls one passes several other similar waterfalls. Big laurel falls comes from a conventional stream, drops 40 feet, then runs backwards into the ground.
Sheep cave falls is difficult to approach when the water is roaring, so here is a video taken by another intrepid visitor.
Could there be other such wonders hidden in the wild gorge of the Caney fork river? I have long been fascinated by the Mill hole, an enormous sink clearly visible on a topo map that lies across the river due south of Lost creek. I imagined it to be just like Lost creek only better, I even had plans to buy the place if I could, but every time I visited the Caney fork the waters were too high for me to cross.
So this time I set out in shorts and sandals, proper attire for the crossing of rivers. There is no trail to the Mill hole, and it is halfway up the mountain, but I had no doubt that I could find it. Wrong! The Mill hole is not within the protected wilderness area, so the entire mountainside had been clearcut less than a decade ago and had become an impenetrable thicket. I was reduced to bending twigs to mark my way, and soon gave up in a brier patch with blackberries taller than my head. It was a bitter disappointment, and a perfect example of what happens whenever wild lands are not in the public domain.
Back at the bottom of the hill I was covered in sweat and blood, so I threw myself in the river. That was when I met a friendly fellow dragging a heavy kayak over the rocks. He explained that he was a disabled veteran and could not work due to “post traumatic stress disorder”, but he damned sure could fish!
I get PTSD from just thinking about work, so I had lots of sympathy for the poor fellow.
Cookeville is located atop the Cumberland plateau, so many of the streams originating there plunge off spectacular waterfalls along the eastern highland rim. Nearby Burgess falls is one of the best.
I first visited this beautiful waterfall many years ago in search of geodes. I found them embedded in the horizontal shale layer clearly visible in the photo, and many more in the talus slope below. I consider the presence of geodes in sedimentary rock to be utterly inexplicable, proof that a malicious deity put them there to test the limits of scientific rationality. I will not bore my readers with a lengthy explanation of this phenomenon, but if you can explain it please do!
The ladders and walkway to the bottom has been closed for safety reasons, but above the main falls there are safer places for people to play.
Notice the mixed race group. Here, as throughout the South, there is a great deal of racial amity, the reality of which runs contrary to our national narrative of strife. In cities, universities, and especially in the media, people bemoan past injustices, both real and imagined, but at Burgess falls people just want to have fun!
While walking to the falls I encountered a group of people who gawked in horror at an enormous fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.) resting on a bridge post. As I approached to take this photo they screamed”Don’t get so close or it will jump on your face!”
That was how I bonded with a chubby teenager who was braver than the rest, and actually curious about the beast. He complained that his family was walking too slowly, and asked if he could walk with me. No prob, but soon he was panting and falling behind. He said he had never walked so fast in his entire life! I gently chastised him. How was it possible that a 71 year old fat cripple could outwalk a 14 year old athlete? I think he took the criticism to heart, if so it was my good deed for the day!
After Burgess falls I had hoped to visit nearby Fancher falls, so I stopped at the nearby Big Puckett’s general store and campground to ask for directions. It was love at first sight! A nice lady looked up from her stove to say, “I’m busy cooking, so just grab a beer and go out back where the boys are doing some picking and grinning”. It was true, the back porch was full of locals with instruments passing the jug! Big Puckett was a jolly giant who had spent 18 years in the oil fields of Angola, then came home to live in paradise. Lucky him!
Fancher falls was inaccessible, so the following day I headed with friends to Window cliffs, which is adjacent to Burgess falls State Park. The park was closed due to recent flood damage, so we hid the car in a nearby farmer’s field then snuck in through the woods. (It always brings me joy to trespass on both public and private lands!)
The trail is considered to be difficult and dangerous due to the many river crossings, so cables have been strung to aid the foolhardy.
The first two crossings were easy, but high water forced us to turn back thereafter. It was approximately 100 degrees in the shade, so we sat in water up to our necks, passed the flask, smoked the unholy sacrament, and told jokes for the rest of the day. Now that’s the way to do it!
Thus far it had been all boring talks and fun walks, but that was about to change.
Stay tuned for Brokeback mountain Part 3: Beelzebub’s bodacious bunghole!