The Twelfth Bonne Terre Mine Expedition was on March 27th, 2010.
The mine is located in Bonne Terre, Missouri, about an hour southwest of St. Louis in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. After canceling last year’s trip because of Cheryl’s imminent due date and the following delivery of a beautiful baby boy named Jonah Michael Kenth, we were eager to get back to Bonne Terre and meet up with Bear. Along with our usual team of Carrie, Chuck, Cheryl, A.J. Kenth and I, Jitka and Lubo Valuch joined us again with their rebreathers in tow.
This year we were also accompanied by Dirk Wilhelm, Dan VanDorf, Cal Kothrade, Brian Bockholt and Scott Bruss who are members of the Milwaukee Buccaneers Dive Club out of Pirates Cove Dive Shop. Though we didn’t get a chance to actually dive with them, I heard they had a great time diving the inauguration trails of the mine. The folks at the mine passed on to me that they were very impressed with their skills, dock speed, and courtesy. Hopefully they will join us again in the future.
Now as for our advanced team, on the other hand, it was a year of gear failures and problems. To start things off, after getting the expedition planned and the goals nailed down, I got a terrible cold two days before we left. My ears and sinuses were totally plugged. With little chance of equalizing at depth, I considered sending the team and staying home. But then after a bit of coaxing from Carrie, I decided to give it a shot and if worse came to worse I could at least hang out with everyone at the mine. Once we arrived and I met up with the staff at the mine again, I was glad she talked me into it, because I had missed seeing my old friends.
Next to the mine entrance there is a “Bonne Terre Mine General Store”. Souvenirs, gifts, tee shirts and other “must haves” are sold there. I joined up with the Buccaneer group at the store and signed up for Miss Donna’s, above water, walking and boat tour of the mine. I always like to recommend it because as you walk through, not only does Miss Donna give you some good history and a rough orientation of the mine, but divers get the “oohs and aahs” out of the way before they have to worry about setting up their dive gear etc. There were quite a few modifications to the store and the surrounding area since our last trip two years ago. One of the modifications was a television monitor in the store that shows a live feed from a camera positioned in the mine, showing the dock where the boat tours go out and where our divers suit up etc.
After the tour, we all headed, as usual, to the Shamrock pub and restaurant for drinks and their fantastic prime rib. At our graciously put together table for twelve, we participated in some great story telling and had a chance to go over any questions detailing the next day’s dives. After dinner we all eventually ended up in the Park & Allen Lodge (bunk house) to watch “Fools Gold” projected on the wall. Half way through the movie, our good friend Bear knocked on the door. It was great to see him and after the usual pleasantries, we spent some time ironing out more details and some difficulties that cropped up before we continued with the movie.
The next morning after a breakfast of bagels and Miss Donna’s great coffee we went over our pre-dive briefing. During the 2008 expedition, we realized that we had gone about as far as we could, diving the standard 80 cubic foot tanks without the use of scooters etc. I really wanted to continue the exploration in the city, near the steps going up to the cafeteria, but the distance was just too far. After a bit of discussion, we finally opted to make sling bottles out of some of the tanks that were already in the mine and fill them with a 32% nitrox enriched oxygen mix. We could then switch to these tanks when our other tanks were depleted and the 32% nitrox would cut down on the amount of decompression needed at the end of the dive. Cheryl and A.J., who were not trained in this type of diving, had previously decided to make a dive on air with another group and then join up with us on the subsequent shorter air dives. Jitka and Lubo would, of course, have no problems because of the extended capabilities of their rebreathers.
This is where some of our equipment problems started. During assembly, Jitka’s rebreather failed the surface pre-dive checkout. She felt it may have worked ok, but rather than take a chance, she rented and borrowed some recreational gear, thus too skipping the first extended dive, to dive with another group. She would also join us on the following shorter air dives. Soon the rest of us were ready to go. We quickly built the stages, put together our cameras etc., suited up and jumped into the 57 degree underwater lake.
We made a lengthy surface swim across the lake to conserve as much gas as possible. Once we got to the descent site, with Bear leading the way, we all dropped down. Now was my moment of truth. I immediately started trying to clear my ears… but the effort was in vain. After several attempts of trying every trick I could think of, I just couldn’t get down and signaled the group to go on. I then dejectedly started the long surface swim back to the dock. I was now officially reduced from lead videographer to simply a surface photographer...
When I finally reached the dock, I was tired and a bit bummed. I had decided though, I would only allow myself to feel sorry for myself until I got my gear put away. After that I would just enjoy the rest of the day and try again on Sunday, the next morning. Soon the advanced team returned and plans for the next dive started. They had gone through the city and back to extend the area near the stairs to the cafeteria. Soon we were all packed up and ready to climb out of the mine for a, roughly one hour, surface interval. As I was bent over, stowing my un-used video camera and housing under a bench, Carrie sneaked up behind me and commenced with a bawdy gesture much to Chuck’s amusement. Almost immediately, another divemaster came up and laughingly reminded her of the new dock camera and monitor in the general store. Carrie turned bright red and we teased her the rest of the weekend about Miss Donna calling down to the mine and telling her to “Stop It, there are kids in the store”…
After the interval we joined up with Cheryl, A.J. and Jitka. I offered my gear to Jitka for the rest of the day and at least my gear made some dives. I waved goodbye at the dock when the team left and spent the time while they were gone taking pictures of the miners handiwork in sculpting the pillars left to hold up the roof.
After roughly 50 minutes, the first one to surface was Carrie, but there was a problem. Both her and Chuck had forgotten to switch their wrist computers back to air after making the first dive at 32% nitrox. The computers calculated less decompression then they really needed thinking they were still on the 32% tanks. Both divers had realized the mistake while on the dive and burned all the air they had left doing extra long decompression stops before surfacing. When Carrie surfaced she was confident that her and Chuck would be OK, but the longer it took A.J. and Cheryl to finish “their” deco, the more nervous she got. Even reasoning that the young divers made their first dive on air, naturally causing a longer decompression, didn’t necessarily ease her mind. After only several more seemingly long minutes the others came up and before we even finished the climb back out of the mine for our planned hour long surface interval, the discussion about the next dive started.
I was obviously out, at least until Sunday morning. Carrie said, to be on the safe side, she was out. Jitka declared that she was beat tired and also opted out. Cheryl, A.J. and Lubo were in. Chuck did some mental calculations and figured he should be OK for one more dive, so he was in. After an hour, the dive team headed back down to the mine while the rest of us changed to go out to dinner.
Before we were even finished showering, both Chuck and Lubo were back up in the evening air looking very frustrated. Lubo’s rebreather failed the pre-dive check. It displayed a moisture error that we suspect came from the dampness of being down in the dripping mine all day. Chuck’s issue was quite different. He had partially suited up and while switching out some tanks, hooked his drysuit neck seal on some gear, tearing it from top to bottom. This made his drysuit useless and now, he too, was out.
Cheryl and A.J. went with Bear and Katie on a dive to the time keepers shack and the locomotive while the rest of us “technical” divers slumped out to dinner and waited for the youngest members of our group to join us.
Trying a different restaurant called “The Crossroads” we all toasted our bad luck. After we finished eating, we all hung out until Cheryl and A.J. rejoined us, ordered, and ate. In no time we were back at the bunk house snoozing through an episode of “Sea Hunt” before going to bed and looking forward to another dive the next day.
On Sunday morning we were rested and ready to make one more productive dive before loading up and heading home. Even though Chuck and Lubo couldn’t make the dive they were cheerful and supportive while helping us get ready. My cold seemed about the same, but also being optimistic, I diligently, set up my camera and carried it down to the mine. This morning we were going to try to dive in a back cavern area, then swim past the elevator structure and through the red wood forest area on the way back. Because this would mean we would have to make an even longer surface swim, than yesterday, before submerging, I decided to try to see if my sinuses would clear by doing a quick dive right below the dock. My thinking was, if I could comfortably get to the decompression bar at 20 feet, I’d be good to go. I quickly suited up and dropped in. With minor difficulty I made it to the bar. Though my ears were still a bit plugged, they cleared enough, in my opinion, to make the dive to that back cavern. I surfaced, signaled that I was O.K., grabbed my camera off of the dock and follow the rest of the divers on the seven minute surface swim to the submersion point. Once there we went over some last minute directions and we all dropped below the surface.
It was at this point I realized the diving gods were downright mean. They weren’t going to let me get out of that long surface swim, both there "and back", with just a little test dive at the dock. They let me think my ears would clear until I got there and tried to dive. Again, I tried everything I could to get my partially plugged sinuses to allow me to descend, but eventually I gave up, signaled the other divers and made that long surface swim back to join Chuck and Lubo at the dock. I had my gear packed up and was in deep conversation about next year’s dives, by the time Bear and my other friends finished their last dives, forty-five minutes later. We all helped break down and pack up the remaining equipment. Bear and Katie were both staying down in the mine, so after hugs all around, we shouldered the gear and started the last exhausting climb up and out.
Back in the open air we met up with the Buccaneer divers for a group picture and discussed the pros and cons of moving next year’s expedition a little further into the spring. We also agreed that even though we had some major difficulties, we proved that the stage idea would work and laid some solid plans for the next trip. Before leaving, even though she was busy as usual, Miss Donna broke away from her chores for one final hug goodbye before escorting yet another group into the mine for an above water tour. We all then got into our cars, waved one last time and headed home.
Now all that was left was to sort out the stills and these field notes.